One of the questions constantly raised about the term “freedom of religion or belief” is that “belief” is assumed to be synonymous with “blind assumption”, “mere opinion” or “wishful thinking”. Having just finished with the IPPFORB in Berlin – read Angela Merkel's speech from yesterday in the Reichstag here but only in German – the matter is current.

One way of illustrating what really constitutes “belief” is to look at Mark's Gospel – the shortest of the four in the New Testament. The key to understanding Mark's narrative is found in verses 14-15 of the first chapter:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Right at the outset of his public ministry Jesus sets out his stall – against which he will be held accountable. So, what does he mean by these four phrases?

The people have been longing and praying for the time when the Roman occupying forces will be expelled and the people (of God) will get their land, their worship and their freedom back. Jesus boldly states that the time has come – that the presence of God is now among them again. But, the evidence of their eyes tells them that he can't be – because the Romans are still there. And the holy God cannot be contaminated by being present among the blasphemous heathen.

So, Jesus tells them to repent: not to grovel in humility at the recognition of their sinfulness, but, literally, to “change their mind” ('metanoia' in the Greek). Here repentance means changing the way they think about God, the world and us. So, the logic of the fourfold statement is this: change the way you (a) look at God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (b) see God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (c) think about God, the world and us, in order then to commit yourself to what you now see and think about differently. Here, “believe in the good news…” means to commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see differently … in this case the possibility that God might dare to confound our expectations and expose himself to the world as it is, contaminating it with love and mercy and grace.

I think this is a simple illustration of what is involved in believing. It isn't merely giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and the world; rather, it means committing oneself to a world now seen differently.

It is this element that our culture too easily ignores. It is now possible simultaneously to believe several mutually contradictory things about life and human meaning without being embarrassed, because we have lost the link between belief and commitment (with all its consequences for good or I'll) to the subject/object of that belief.

And it is this inconvenient commitment that is causing too many people to be persecuted and oppressed in the twenty first century. You generally don't get crucified for hosting a weird private idea that makes no difference to the real world.

 

A quick link to the speech by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at this morning's opening session of the IPPFoRB conference at the Reichstag in Berlin. More will follow.

 

Following my post last night on the corrosive nature of promises (as opposed to conjectures or wish lists) that can't be made, by people who have no right or authority to make them and who are unaccountable for what happens when they remain unfulfilled, here is another link to the context in which I write.

The conference of the International Panel of Parliamentariians for Freedom of Religion and Belief (snappily known by its friends as IPPFoRB) ended last night in Berlin. Today we meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a one-day conference at the Bundestag.

Among the important themes that emerged among the sixty or so national parliaments represented here in sessions yesterday was the discrepancy in many countries between what is written in law and how that law is either implemented/applied or ignored. In many places it is a triumph just to get freedom of religion (among other freedoms – this isn't hierarchical) enshrined in writing. However, what matters is what then is done about it.

One eminent speaker made it dead simple: (a) make good laws; (b) repeal bad laws; (c) hold governments to account on what the law says and demands. Given that everyone here is a parliamentarian, this is clear, applicable and achievable. It doesn't guarantee success, but it clarifies the task.

What emerged from several parts of the world is the pressure under which freedom of religion and religious expression is coming. Attempts to exclude God/religious world views from the public square are not unique to the secular West, but the spurious assumptions behind them seem to have one thing in common: that secular humanism (for want of a better term) is neutral and occupies the neutral place in the public discourse. It is self-evidently true and is purely 'scientific' – that is to say, needs not to make its case for credibility because that case is obvious. The outcome – put briefly – is that liberalising societies demand the right for 'tolerance' unless asked to tolerate views that are inconvenient to its assumptions of what is tolerable. One delegate explained how attempts are being made in his country to shout down any expression of traditional family values or articulation of a conservative view of ethics that derives from religious commitment.

That is not – as the speaker emphasised – to argue the case for the rightness of his views, but, rather, to insist that these views must be allowable if his society is to be truly tolerant (an awful, lowest common denominator word).

So, enshrining rights in law is not enough. Making promises on the back of that law is not enough. It is the implementation of that law that counts, and it is the discourse surrounding debate about that implementation that demands intellectual as well as moral integrity.

 

I am writing this in Berlin while attending an international inter-parliamentary conference on freedom of religion and belief. Parliamentarians have come from all over the world and from every continent bar Australia. And the question put to me by almost everyone I meet? Brexit. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't think the UK has been either mad or stupid.

My own position is that of the realist: the decision has been made (in a non-binding referendum that now puts a wider question over the nature of parliamentary democracy), the boat has sailed (with some enormous holes in it), and, even if we wanted to go back on the referendum result, our position is now seen as having moved in the eyes of our interlocutors in Europe and beyond. So, we now have to get on with it and shape the future, whatever this might bring.

In a session this morning Ján Figel (Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, and chair of the Christian Democratic Movement in Slovakia) remarked that there are three types of people: commentators, lamentators or doers. How pertinent. We can comment, lament or act. It is a choice.

So, what I go on to write now does not ignore the Brexit vote, but it does pay attention to some of the phenomena arising from it that need to be taken seriously because of the impact they have on our culture and the nature of our discourse. I'll put the point in the form of a question.

Is a promise still a promise even when the person doing the promising has no authority to make the promise, no responsibility for fulfilling the promise made, or bears no accountability for the consequences of the promise not being kept?

Well, we know that £350 million is not going to go into the NHS, despite what was written on the side of a bus and vigorously defended in the media by its authors. Actually, it was never going to happen. The only question is why so many people ever believed it. It was not costed, it had already been promised three times over, and none of those who promised it had any authority to do so. Yet, to question it was deemed disloyal or unimaginative.

Yesterday the Sun called the EU spiteful for suggesting that Brits might need to pay for a visa to visit countries such as Germany of France. Well, what did they think would happen? The EU isn't a benevolent society for people who have slagged them off for decades as corrupt, lazy and incompetent. Maybe we will learn what our £350 million actually bought us – like free movement and easy/cheap travel.

How would you answer those international MPs who ask what preparations were done in order to enable Brexit to happen? Given that the answer is 'none', and that no one in Whitehall or Downing Street seems able to answer simple questions about what Brexit will (or, even, might) actually look like, saying limply that “we have taken back control” sounds a bit feeble and empty of content.

So, we still hear politicians telling us that we “will” get great deals, that we can forge our way in the world with other countries simply giving us the best on offer – their best interests miraculously coinciding with ours. Not “might” or “hopefully will”, but “will”. A promise. A promise made by people who cannot deliver on it. A promise with no content. And still people seem to believe the promises.

I am beginning to wonder if we might have needed (and should have heeded) experts, after all.

 

Here are video interviews with Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson during the first Diocese of Leeds clergy conference in Liverpool earlier this week.

https://youtu.be/9-eG-xDPXS8 and https://youtu.be/gaK3lyiNKtc

 

It is purely coincidental that our clergy conference discussion between Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson took place just before the announcement of more funding for parishes to engage in scientific exploration. Brian and David both told me they didn't hesitate to come to the conference to present and discuss 'Science, the cosmos and human meaning' (although the request from Eric Idle that Brian should get a photo of him amongst 400 clergy and post it on Twitter as 'The Life of Brian' got an obvious 'yes' from me) as this is precisely the sort of conversation and engagement we need to see more often.

Anyway, the Church of England is taking this seriously, as is the University of Durham and the Templeton Foundation. You can read about the “Take Your Vicar to the Lab” and “Scientists in Congregations” initiatives here.

I'd like to put up more – and do a resume of the dialogue between Brian and David, but, as is the way of things, I am in a school this morning and in meetings all afternoon and evening. There will be interviews with both Brian and David on our website soon.

 

I have just got back from the first ever clergy conference in the Diocese of Leeds. We met at Liverpool Hope University – a place to which I used to deliver the newspapers when I was a kid. I grew up half a mile away.

It went remarkably well. The last few years have not been easy as we dissolved three dioceses at Easter 2014 and worked to keep everything going while creating something new. This conference was a turning point and felt like a celebration.

However, it wasn't just the atmosphere that did it. The speakers excelled. The particular highlight for most of us was yesterday's presentations and conversations by Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson on 'Science, the cosmos and human meaning'. Their presentations were superb, clear, stretching and totally engaging. The enthusiasm for science was palpable, but also held in a rooted sense of curiosity and wonder. I am not sure we all understood all the equations, but we were able to span the enormity of the universe (and multiverses) whilst earthing the whole thing in questions of meaning, existence, faith and the possibilities of God.

What was great was the mutual respect and serious engagement between Brian Cox and David Wilkinson as I moderated a conversation between them following their presentations. After lunch (and a million requests for selfies and autographs – not mine, obviously) we had an hour of questions, observations and conversation that ranged widely and really intelligently. The standing ovation for our guests was richly deserved.

This offered a model for how serious engagement can take place where difference is respected. Our public discourse – especially our political and media discourse – in the UK is not great at the moment. See the whole Brexit business, if you don't believe me. There is clearly a need for more attention to be paid to modelling good conversation on contentious issues… and, especially, where prejudices about the conflict between science and religion too often polarise positions before arguments have even been articulated, let alone listened to or heard.

Brian Cox is doing a tour. Book now.