Apparently some Christian doctors  are fed up with the nonsense about health workers not being allowed to pray or offer spiritual care of patients. Or are we supposed to call them ‘clients’ now? Stories have emerged in the last few years of nurses getting into trouble for offering to pray with sick patients.

Well, according to the BBC website:

Doctors are demanding that NHS staff be given a right to discuss spiritual issues with patients as well as being allowed to offer to pray for them. Medics will tell the British Medical Association conference this week that staff should not be disciplined as long as they handle the issue sensitively. The doctors said recent cases where health workers had got into trouble were making people fearful.

The problem is, according to the doctors:

The General Medical Council code suggests that discussing religion can be part of care provided to patients – as long as the individual’s wishes are respected. But at the start of this year the Department of Health issued guidance warning about proselytising. It said that discussing religion could be interpreted as an attempt to convert which could be construed as a form of harassment.

The debate goes a bit further before (inevitably) the tiny National Secular Society gets invited to put its oar in:

We have to be very careful about how we tread on this issue. If we say it is ok for doctors and nurses to provide spiritual care and pray for patients it can all too quickly get out of hand and we will have staff preaching on the wards. The risk is that it makes patients feel uncomfortable. They may feel compelled to say ‘yes’ thinking their care will suffer. Really, it is an infringement of their privacy. I think we should be very clear that patients should have to ask for this, not offered it.

But Joyce Robins, co-director of Patient Concern said:

Most complaints from patients are about being on a conveyor belt of care. They don’t rate with staff as real people. Offering to say a prayer is a warm and kind thought. Most patients will accept it as such. It is no more offensive than being offered a sleeping pill. You can say thanks but that sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea. But if Christian doctors see this as an opportunity to promote their faith to people at a time when they are particularly vulnerable, that is totally unacceptable.

Two things spring to mind here. First, proselytism in such circumstances has never ever been advocated by any Christian with a shred of sensitivity or good theology. But for doctors or nurses to hold back from taking seriously the spiritual needs of patients is a nonsense of the first order. That is like treating a patient as ‘the cancer in bed one’ or the ‘broken leg in Ward C’ instead of a fully human being whose spirituality influences their mental and physical wellbeing.

Secondly, the NSS just doesn’t get the blindingly obvious fact that negation of a religious worldview does not leave some neutral territory occupied by atheists or secularists. This nonsense really needs to be knocked on the head. Take away a religious/Christian perspective and you are left with a particular perspective on life, death, illness, being human and so on that is positively shaped by particular assumptions  – that are no more valid or invalid than Christian /theistic assumptions.

Of course doctors and nurses should be free to pray for patients where such is requested or where the appropriateness is evidenced by the case history and what is known about the patient. Of course no one should be forced to accept prayer inappropriately. Of course the patient should be protected from mad people – be they religious or atheist. And of course Terry Anderson and the NSS should realise how out of touch they are – speaking only with the authority of a few thousand people on their register.

I would love to see a National Secular Society response to the article by Paul Vallely in June 2009’s Third Way (which doesn’t seem to be available online just now) entitled Being Reasonable. In it he questions why bodies like the NSS ‘spend almost all their energy on rubbishing religion rather than telling us what distinctive insights humanism has to offer contemporary society.’ He decries the ‘false polarity between an intolerant rationalism and an oppressive religiosity.’ He concludes with an appeal for ‘an articulation from the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society of the distinct contribution that humanism can make to modern moral dilemmas.’ He goes on:

The challenge to them is to set out that vision in entirely positive terms which can be comprehended in common by those of all faiths and none. They must do it without constantly resorting to negatives, statements of what they are against or contrasts of the things their vision is free from.

Any offers?

lbrethertonI spent most of today at Lambeth Palace for a meeting of bishops involved in inter-faith matters. At the end of the afternoon I managed to squeeze in a meeting about Zimbabwe before returning for the superb 2009 Lambeth Inter-Faith Lecture. This year the lecturer was Dr Luke Bretherton, Senior Lecturer in Theology and Politics at King’s College, London, and his theme was A Post-secular Politics? Inter-faith Relations as a Civic Practice.

His wide-ranging lecture addressed some of the most pressing and pertinent themes of today’s British society and he tackled his task with intellectual rigour, generous articulacy and a penetrating analysis of the role of faith communities in contemporary Britain.

Beginning with a cogent description of the emerging shape of church-state relations (referring to the dawning realisation by government that ‘good governance is not the sole responsibility of the State’), Bretherton observed that there is an urgent need for greater religious literacy on the part of government. Government needs to understand how religion works and that there is no flat ground on which ‘religion’ might be said to occupy a small area; rather, society is multi-layered and religion cannot simply be co-opted or commodified in order to (a) keep society free of social tension or (b) deliver services as a client of the State on terms set by the State.

Bretherton went on to propose inter-faith relations as ‘hospitable politics’ – a way of creating the space in which the stranger can be encountered and in which the concept of ‘neutral ground’ is rejected as a fantasy. Inter-faith relations are integral to the common good because they create the space in which people within communities can relate and find the common ground on which they re-negotiate what counts as ‘home’. He went on to propose ‘three civic practices central to a politics of the common good: (a) cultivating practices of listening; (b) fostering a commitment to place; and (c) building strong institutions.

The thrust of this was to suggest that the totalising tendencies of the State and the Market need to be tempered or inhibited and this is only possible when communities of ‘local’ people take responsibility for themselves and the promotion of their community’s interests. Such action demonstrates to the State that politics and the market need limits – that ‘politics and economics do not have to bear the full weight of human meaning’.

The lecture (to which my summary cannot do justice – but his forthcoming book will amplify these themes) was followed by discussion which then took my mind off in new directions.

II me Congrs inter-religieux AstanaInter-faith events or conversations are often characterised by a burning desire to pretend that all religions are the same or that all religions are basically peaceful. Bretherton would have none of this. He responded to a statement from a Muslim member of the audience by referring to the fact that every religion had its ‘mad aunt in the cupboard‘ who should not be let out. There are extremists in all faiths and this fact should not be ducked in an effort to impose some sort of superficial or escapist niceness. It is only this degree of honesty that allows for genuine relationships to develop.

However, my own mind went off at this point into a bit of speculation. Remarking that the Dawkins/Hitchens phenomenon should really be seen as evidence that there is no neutral space and that the New Atheists are admitting by their frenetic activity that they do not command the space  – that their views are merely one among many – and that we now live in a moment of ferment at every level, Bretherton led my mind back to a conversation about church schools.

Church schools and so-called ‘faith schools’ are often derided in the British media. Any defence of them is seen as partisan approval of indoctrination and social divisiveness. But, last week a friend of mine asked me why we don’t encourage the New Atheists to set up their own schools. We would be interested to know on what basis they would be set up. What value system would underpin the school ethos and from where would this system of values be derived? Or would they merely be assumed? Other questions follow naturally on…

Christians need to be more confident about the ground on which we stand and the space which we create in a society that is feeling rather fragile right now. Rather than counter the arguments of the secularists, perhaps we ought to encourage them to set up their own schools and see how things develop. What ‘space’ would they create and how would they differ from state schools or ‘faith schools’?

I might return to this anon, but for tonight I need to think further about Bretherton’s stimulating presentation and the questions he has raised in my mind about the nature of government in Britain and the role of religion/faith communities in the contemporary polity.

Girly music in church? We’ve set a hare running here…

One of the things the Charismatic Movement did in the 1970s and ’80s was give expression to worship that engaged the emotions. This probably had more to do with style of music than mere lyrical content. But it opened some parts of the church up to more emotional songs and that was surely no bad thing. There must be a limit to how many times you can robustly tell God who he is in any one service – which is what a lot of traditional hymns involved us in doing. (I suspect we are telling God what he already knows anyway; so for whose benefit are we doing it? To prove our orthodoxy or otherwise? Discuss…)

As music has developed, however, it has been interesting to see what has longevity and what passes by quickly. Unfortunately, some nonsense has as great a shelf life as some good stuff. I am still not sure how Jesus is supposed to respond to our invitation to ‘fill your sheep’ – as one famous worship song has it: what with – sage and onion?

It is also surely too easy to see a vicious circle between the drift of worship music and what people are increasingly referring to as ‘the feminisation of the church’. Although there may be elements of connection and truth here, I suspect this is too easy a correlation. English blokes are not always the best at being fully rounded emotional beings; so, shaping a spirituality around their sometimes stunted emotional articulacy might not be the wisest of moves. To go back to what I said in my last post on this matter, we need in public worship a diet that feeds not only the whole individual, but the individual of different temperaments at different times of life – that takes the individual as part of a community on a journey that will not always feel the right one at that time.

In other words, ‘worship’ (which, we must remember, is primarily directed to and about God) should provide a vocabulary (for body, mind and spirit) that enables a massive variety of people in a particular community at a particular time in a particular social context to express the truth of their experience and their soul to God and each other.

John-BellThis is where I found the music of John Bell and the Iona Community‘s Wild Goose Worship (now ‘Resource’) Group revolutionary. Taking traditional (and, therefore, already known and loved) tunes, they put new words to them and opened up new expressions of worship. This meant starting where people really are and not pretending that worship starts where life is left behind. Rather than collude in the fantasy that has a worship leader announcing: ‘Let’s leave behind all the stuff of the week just gone – all the preoccupations, etc. – and focus our minds on God’, it encourages people precisely to bring to God their individual and communal experiences and NOT to forget or ignore them. That is why the singing of songs from the World Church (in their own languages) is so important: it helps us briefly enter into the experience of others who are not like us and learn to pray for them.

But two further points remain from comments on my last post. The first has to do with the ‘sacred/secular’ divide. The banality of some Christian worship music (both lyrically and musically), when set against the raw honesty and lyrical intelligence of some ‘secular’ music, is embarrassing.

leonard-cohenI contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary in November 2008 which was celebrating the 25th anniversary of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah – before it was desecrated by Simon Cowell’s pets – and trying to work out why the song had been covered by so many people. What was the appeal of the song? One of the questions put to me was: ‘Hasn’t Cohen simply stolen the language of religion and applied it to sex and physical experience?’ My response? ‘No, Cohen has understood what many Christians have failed to grasp: that God is interested in the whole of life and not just the ‘spiritual’ bits. When Cohen, reaching deep into the contradictions of sex and love and loss, recalls fallen biblical characters (who are also, and despite this, seen as heroes in the Bible) sings of the ‘broken hallelujah’, he is accepting that we all come to God as messed up people.

But this leads me to the question put to me in an interview with Ludovic Hunter-Tilney of the Financial Times (4/5 April 2009) about the concern of many rock musicians with spirituality. Ludo questioned whether the rock gig now replaces the ‘church’ experience of corporate worship. I think my response can be summarised as: the rock gig might engage with spirituality (seen as the ‘existential reality and experience/questioning’) of the audience, but it is not ‘worship’ insofar as it is not directed towards an object of ultimate value. But it is an experience of corporate questioning, valuing, affirming and questioning – however contradictory.

rock gigMaybe the rock gig has become the closest some people get to ‘common worship’ because the churches have failed to provide the space in which genuine (and often inadequate or contradictory) expression of life, emotion, affirmation and questioning can take place without the leader putting you right before the end of verse 4 of the final song/hymn.

Wesley said that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. Put a good tune to rubbish and it will become popular – and it will soon have us believing rubbish as well as singing it. The ancient/modern debate in relation to worship is now redundant. The question that is pressing has more to do with whether we have clergy and other ‘worship leaders’ who understand what is going on in ‘services’ and are able to create the space in which people can find that the whole of life matters to God – and that, in expressing our individual and common experience, we find that we have been found by the God who is not surprised by what he sees and hears?

The Guardian has now closed responses to Theo Hobson’s Face to Faith article. He started a very interesting debate and I, for one, am grateful. Most responses were intelligent and respectful. I do not think that Theo’s responses do him justice, but he will have to tackle that himself. (I have posted earlier on this.)

However, one respondent (called bannercross) made three very good observations and I am pasting them below. (I hope that is acceptable – not sure of etiquette in these things.)

First, what do we mean by ‘liberal’? Simply going along with the world’s current consensus? Sure, that saves us embarrassment and conflict, but is hardly what Christians are called to. To take a recent example, one reason the bankers got away with so much for so long is that the whole of society was on a credit binge. As long as we felt better off, no-one wanted to question ‘greed is good’ – certainly not the average politician! If Christians had had more balls we’d have been translating our unease into prophetic warnings.

Secondly, didn’t most of the splintered denominations in Christianity start off trying to get away from the corrupt institution they thought the Church had become? And didnt most end up just as institutionalised, whether individual churches labelled ‘Free Evangelical where the atmosphere is anything but free, or whole groups like the Quakers who have a stronger sense of denominational identity and ‘what we do and dont do around here than the Anglicans! Do your ‘free liberal’ thing long enough and make it attractive enough and start your own denomination?

Thirdly, the church I just about hang in with has a huge mission to the marginalised – kids’ clubs in rough parts of the city, soup runs, work with kids dropping out of education, advice on debt, a fellowship that gets the homeless back off the streets and learning skills – I could go on. The point is not to say ‘what a marvellous institution we are’. The point is that working with the vulnerable cant be done on a Generation X ‘turn up when you feel like it basis. These folks have been let down repeatedly; they need to know that people will be there each week for them. This requires organisation, time, money – and a wider community into which they can be welcomed. I may not like many aspects of ‘church but Im struggling to find a better model for organising followers of Jesus to manage this. And as far as I can see from Jesus’ own track record, if were not there for the poor and oppressed we may as well all go home!

It is his/her third point that is most powerful. Take away the ‘institutional’ elements of the Church and you lose a lot more than you gain. For example, the ability to organise effectively for being present and engaged in places and communities that would otherwise be abandoned. Self-selecting ‘alternative churches’ run the risk of meeting the needs of those who belong, but ignoring the needs of those who are challenging. Narcissism is not a Christian virtue.

There are some really interesting comments following Theo Hobson’s Face to Faith article in the Guardian. My response to his response to me can be seen here.

There is a serious problem here in relation to ‘church schools’ which are not the same as ‘faith schools’. Put briefly, a church school offers a Christian context in which children and staff can learn together, but it does not intend to ‘indoctrinate’. Based on a concept of service, it is part of the Church of England’s commitment to the common good in society, rooted in the ethos of the parish system. It is often forgotten that education in this country was often promoted by the Church of England in some of our poorest communities for very good reason.

I might do another post on the ethos and values of a church school another time. But it would help in the meantime if antagonists read some history and tried not to misrepresent phenomena they find ideologically inconvenient.

theohobsonpicture-full3binit_Theo Hobson has an interesting piece in today’s Guardian newspaper. I have met Theo only once – doing a joint interview with the Today programme at the beginning of the Lambeth Conference in July 2008 – and I liked him. I have read some of his writing, but wondered at him being profiled as a ‘theologian’. He comments on religious (particularly Christian) culture, but the theological critique does not seem always to be consistent. Given his claim to liberalism, I am sure he won’t mind me questioning a series of statements he makes in today’s Face to Faith piece.

Right at the beginning, and without any supporting evidence or illustration, he makes this unequivocal statement: ‘…churches seem to gravitate to authoritarianism, and they seem unable to grasp that secular liberalism is a good thing.’ Does ‘authoritarianism’ mean ‘the wrongful imposition of authority/power in order to control’ – or does it really mean ‘churches believe things that are not always fluid and won’t change them to suit me’? Secondly, what is it about ‘secular liberalism’ (undefined) that is unarguably ‘good’ and that churches cannot grasp? Thirdly, does he not see the illiberal irony of categorising all churches as monolithic, centralised and monocultural? And we are still only on the third sentence of the first paragraph. So, let’s press on…

‘We dislike the fact that Christianity is assumed to take institutional form. If you are a Christian, the assumption is, then you will be in favour of policies that defend the interests of these institutions, the churches, which run Christian culture. This ties Christianity to illiberalism in a way we can’t accept.’ Theo, please explain the logic behind these assumptions. It seems to me it is you (not ‘the churches’ as institutions) who is setting up the churches in a way I don’t recognise as being universally true. Just take the Church of England (as just one of, and uniquely different from, thousands of other manifestations of Christian ‘institution’): aren’t the current debates in the Church happening precisely because your statement is false and your assumptions awry? If you were right, the ‘institutional church’ would have slapped down its internal ‘heretics’ and prevented other denominations or ‘churches’ from setting themselves up in the first place. (In South London new churches – mainly, but not exclusively, black majority or ethnically defined – are being established almost every week.)

And please explain how a ‘Christian church’ can define itself in a way it pleases, even if it departs from the nature of the one whose name it bears. The call for a ‘church made in my own image’ is like asking for Marxism without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the common ownership of the means of production or an uncritical acceptance of the Hegelian dialectic.

The then goes on to cite ‘faith schools’ to support his complaint. But he can only do so by caricaturing ‘faith schools’, ignoring the rationale behind them, avoiding any cognisance of how (for example) Church of England schools behave and actually understand their role. Has he ever been into one? (Come to Croydon and I’ll arrange meetings with headteachers…) Or is this just the simplistic reflex we have become used to in the schools debate where the basis of ‘church’ schools is either misunderstood or ignored because it is inconvenient?  ‘But some of us Christians are deeply uneasy about the way in which churches use education to bolster their power, and encourage phoney church attendance among pushy parents. This is horribly at odds with the sort of Christian culture we want to see.’ Not a shred of evidence: just propagation of a tired but unassailable myth.

‘The loudest voices, almost the only voices, seem to belong to atheists on one hand, and conservative church leaders on the other… People now face a starker choice of identity between “secular liberal” and “institutional Christian”. Really? So, why all the complaints from elsewhere that church spokespeople are too liberal or wishy-washy? It is clearly nonsense to say that only particular voices are heard in the public discourse – perhaps this is just the common complaint most bishops face: ‘If you didn’t write it in headlines in the newspaper I read, then you are not saying anything at all.’

Theo goes on to ‘demand’ (!) a new and alternative sort of ‘church’ capable of engaging with liberal culture. He maintains that the established (and other) churches cannot do this. Claiming (without evidence or support) that ‘all churches itch for social control’, he states that ‘a new sort of Christian culture must be attempted, away from the churches’ before admitting that he has no idea what this might look like. He also seems ignorant of the huge numbers of Christian communities now meeting outside of church buildings and opening up contexts in which Christians of all sorts of complexions engage openly with ‘liberal’ (and every other sort of) culture.

And so to Theo’s conclusion – a rallying cry to those who share his muddled ignorance and personal fed-up-ness.  ‘What do we want? We demand a new way of proclaiming Jesus Christ, one that feels authentic, contemporary. We hope that, by accepting the truth of secular freedom, Christianity can enter a new phase, in which communication with liberal people is possible, and new cultural forms emerge. Maybe, with such a new direction, this religion can recapture the imagination of the culture.’ I am speechless. Get out more and see what churches are already doing.

I hope that this article might lead to a greater debate – not about ‘institutional’ churches (what other sort can there be?), but about why the Theo Hobsons of this world are so illiberal and irrational in the assumptions they make and claims they state.

If I as a bishop made such claims – even in a newspaper article of limited length and space – without evidence or further reference – I would be castigated as arrogant, unthinking and arbitrary. So, what is it that allows others to write such unsubstantiated stuff without hearing that same charge?

Forgive me for being amused, but it does seem quite funny that people who get so worked up about God in general, religion in particular and Christianity in particular particularity can’t stop talking about it all. They have done a remarkable job in reviving and keeping alive the discourse about God when their deepest desire is to eradicate God and all talk of him.

wilsonLast week’s New Statesman focused on religion (prior to Easter) and brought a number of people into the conversation. The most interesting by far was the interview with AN Wilson who, a couple of decades after having declared himself an atheist, is now back in the theistic and Christian fold. He is not stupid, illiterate, ill-educated or morally weak and in need of some intellectual or emotional crutch with which to limp through life. He is honest and open and has clearly irritated those who can’t comprehend that anyone with half a brain could possibly be a Christian. Instead of arguing, they sneer.

AN Wilson has followed this up with a fuller explanation of his journey back to faith in an intriguing and sharp article in the Mail written last Saturday. In it he points to the embarrassment of being a known to be a Christian – on the grounds that it isn’t ‘sexy’ or cool. I know exactly what he means: try sitting on a train in a clerical collar and watch the eyes…

But Christians can take heart and be confident. Unlike some of the evangelists for atheism, people like AN Wilson are simply telling their story and not imposing it on anyone who doesn’t want to hear it. He does not come over as being evangelistic about his re-found faith, but simply open about it in all its simplicity and complexity.

Perhaps the New Atheists should just relax a bit more. In the meantime, we should thank them that their aggressive evangelism keeps the language of God alive in the street, in offices, in pubs and just about everywhere else. I think they call it the ‘law of unintended consequences’.

I have just been pointed towards the latest statement by the National Secular Society about what they call ‘de-baptism’. Oh dear. You would think that they would pay just a smidgeon more attention to accuracy on the grounds that it is always wise to (a) know your subject and (b) get your facts right. Otherwise you risk looking a bit stupid. It begins as follows:

‘Despite a letter from Lambeth Palace telling the NSS that it would not sanction any form of official ‘debaptism’, one diocese is bucking the trend. The Diocese of Croydon…’ It later goes on to state: ‘So now John Hunt is the first person in Britain to be officially debaptised by the Church of England. But the “in this particular case” rider in the Church message seems to suggest that he might also be the last.’

Firstly, there is no Diocese of Croydon. Croydon is an Episcopal Area in the Diocese of Southwark.

Secondly, John Hunt cannot be the last to be ‘officially’ debaptised because he isn’t the first either. ‘Debaptism’ is not possible. From the point of view of Christians, baptism is something that happened and there is no way of ‘un-doing’ it. From the point of view of atheists, nothing happened at baptism anyway and therefore there is nothing to ‘de-do’. Sticking John Hunt’s note in the register is not ‘de-anything’; it is simply a note in a register that has no effect whatsoever other than to make him feel better that he has been heard.

Is this really so hard to understand? We truly need to put the reason back into rationalism.

The media have been running a range of variations on a single theme during the last couple of weeks. It is time it was realised that it is a non-story aimed at getting lots of publicity for a marginalised minority. Some people want to be ‘de-baptised’ and the media are lapping it up. Well, by ‘lapping it up’, what I really mean is that they have re-hashed a story put out by the BBC for which I did a half-hour interview resulting in a seven-second broadcast and there is even a marked similarity in the wording in several of the printed or online versions I have read. In other words, a single non-story is turned into a story by one media agent milking another – and so it goes on. Exactly what Nick Davies is questioning in his Flat Earth News.

baby-cryingThe campaign, being promoted mischievously by the National Secular Society, is to put pressure on the Church of England to allow people to be ‘de-baptised’. You can read the details elsewhere, but there are several matters arising from this debate that need a more cogent airing. So, here goes.

1. If an atheist believes baptism is just a load of voodoo and that nothing happens, what is there to ‘de-do’ (if you see what I mean)?

2. One of the criticisms of the Church is that babies or children who are baptised without their consent are somehow being indoctrinated into something sinister and that this infringes their human rights. Apart from the obvious retort that we do lots of things to young children without their consent (like feeding them, dressing them, cutting their hair, making them go to school, telling them off, not letting them play on the motorway, etc), this betrays a pile of dodgy assumptions. For example, it assumes that life is neutral and children are born as blank sheets. Apparently, if you bring up a child in a family shaped by a ‘religious’ world view, you are damaging them psychologically; but if you bring them up in a ‘non-religious’ context, they will grow up free and able to make their own mind up about the meaning and purpose of their life.

What utter nonsense. The atheist assumes a worldview and brings up the child in a non-neutral context in which certain views of the world, meaning and morality are being represented – and into which the child is being indoctrinated. That is to say, the atheist’s world view is not neutral and, therefore, not inherently preferable to that of a theist. Both assume and construct world views and bring up their children within them; but neither is neutral.

So, the atheist does not simply protect the child from something ‘extra’ that is dangerous to an otherwise neutral way of seeing and being, but is shaping that child’s world view according to other assumptions about the way the world is and why it is that way. I fail to understand why people who claim to be ‘rationalists’ become so irrational that they cannot grasp this obvious fact.

3. I am hearing allegations that the EU is protecting the ‘evangelical noises getting louder and louder’ by its legislation and that this is a bad thing. Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know (because I was marginally involved in it) that there was a long and protracted attempt by elements in the EU (France in particular) to remove from the putative European Constitution any reference to the Christian history of Europe. How stupidly irrational and illiberal is that?

martin-luther1As I have observed elsewhere, it is impossible to understand the history (and, therefore, the present – to say nothing of the future) of Europe without understanding its Christian history – for both good and ill. Germany – including Hitler, etc. – cannot be understood for one second without an appreciation of the Reformation. I could go on, but I begin to lose the will to type at this point…

So, we need to challenge the so-called ‘myth of neutrality’ – not on privileged religious grounds, but on grounds of intellectual and rational consistency. And theists need to be more confident in seeing off the arrogant assumptions of the campaigning atheists who betray a little more blind faith in their own assumptions than is healthy for their own internal consistency.

I have just recorded an interview with the BBC about elements of the National Secular Society‘s campaigns against religion in general and the Church of England in particular. Then I was sent a copy of the press notice issued by the NSS yesterday in response to the announcement made by Southampton University Hospitals Trust that people will be asked whether they have “any faith needs that can be supported during their stay”.

secularismThe NSS responded thus: “This sounds like the chaplains touting for business. It is a gross misuse of scarce National Health Service resources and an intrusion into the privacy of individuals who are coming to hospital for medical treatment… How on earth have we reached the stage that you can’t even go to hospital for treatment without having religion foisted on you like this?”

Oh dear. Here we go again. I would love to be able to have a rational discussion in rational language with rational people, but this sort of stuff should make any decent secularist despair.

1. The description about ‘chaplains touting for business’ is just cheap and silly as well as ignorant.

2. Who decides what counts as ‘gross misuse’ of resources: the majority of the country’s people who claim some sort of religious belief or the little huddle of the NSS who try to speak for everyone?

3. Since when has asking a question been tantamount to ‘intrusion into privacy’? No one is required to answer and the question itself does not suggest it must be answered affirmatively. It appears from this that the hospital trust is mature enought to allow adults the freedom and dignity to make their own mind up whereas the NSS thinks people are inherently stupid and vulnerable and need to be protected from a question. How liberal/rational is that?

4. Asking this question is, apparently, having ‘religion foisted on you’. Is not having the question asked tantamount to having secularist assumptions foisted on you? Do they really have such little regard for the integrity and intelligence of ordinary people?

5. There is an assumption that human beings are simply a body/mind duality – very platonic, but not how most people see themselves. Is it really the intention of the NSS to deny people the right to be treated as ‘whole’ beings – spirituality included – presumably on the grounds that the NSS knows better than the people concerned what is good for them? Isn’t that what we call ‘patronising’?

I draw attention to this simply because some of us are well up for a good rational debate about all sorts of things: the constitutional place of the C of E, the secular myth of neutrality, the role of bishops in the legislature, etc. But this will require a more rational language from the secularists of the NSS. I know they are a campaigning body, but issuing silly and patronising press notices does nothing to encourage a proper debate.

andrew-marrAndrew Marr, presenter of the BBC’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has raised some of these questions very well in relation to Darwin. His basic point is that some secularists are behaving very religiously/evangelistically in relation to their atheism – and shouldn’t they see what they look like? (See also the interview with Tony Blair on the same subject.)