This weekend is, of course, Easter. Which seems like as good a time as any to talk about religion, faith and legislation. In particular, the topic has come up recently in relation to faith and equalities. A question often asked is whether people with deeply held beliefs can and should put those aside to participate in a secular society?
The relationship between faith and equality is often portrayed as being fraught. The Archbishop of York today said that due to “political correctness and overly prescriptive ideas of what ‘equality’ is” the current situation is that “one person’s rights trump another person’s”. Yet he also said that “God’s love is indiscriminate” and that equality is “about reflecting each person’s unique worth, value and importance to God”.
I agree wholeheartedly that for many people of faith, equality means equal before God. There is no greater equality than the equal fundamental value of all human lives. I come to a belief in equality through faith; my faith asks me to consider that all human life is, at a fundamental level, equally valuable. Others approach the issue through philosophy or science (or through a combination of all three), but the belief is the same. However, I disagree that there are overly prescriptive views of equality. I think the Equalities Act does a reasonable job of asking that everyone treat everyone else more or less the same, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, creed etc etc…
I struggle to see why some others of faith sometimes have difficulties in accepting lives different to their own. I suspect that the issue is not faith per se, but organised religion. I’d like to divide this issues into several key headings. Firstly, how does conflict arise? Secondly, what is a deeply held belief? Thirdly, can beliefs be kept out of politics?
The first question is how conflicting views arise. It’s clear that sometimes people have deeply held beliefs which conflict with the choices of others. To take Christianity (only because I know more about Christianity) as an example, there are a number of people who have a strong belief (originating in religion) that homosexuality is wrong. And on the other side there are many people (including religious people) who say that sexuality is a matter for consenting adults and that anti-homosexual prejudices are outdated and unjust.
I’d take a simple rule: if someone has made an informed choice which does not constrain the choices or limit the freedom of others, then it is not up to me or anyone else to say that this is wrong. But not everyone agrees with me on this, and there are many who believe that some things are absolutely wrong and other things absolutely right.
The second question is what we mean by “deeply held beliefs”, which touches on the distinction between faith and religion. Faith is a personal journey, based on experiences, teachings and interaction with others. Religion is established, a community. Some times religion can be dogmatic, stifling the individual’s relationship with their God. At other times religion can facilitate an understanding, exploratory faith. A “deeply held belief” based only on dogma is not deeply held as all, because it has not been considered, explored, questioned. Abraham’s faith, deeply held, was about questioning, asking, probing. Scriptures are a tool for becoming closer to the divine, and they cannot replace the individual transcendental experience. To accept a prejudice as “right” is to ignore the personal relationship with God. To unthinkingly accept dogma has little to do with individual faith, and much to do with organised religion.
My last important question is whether faith can be kept out of politics. I don’t believe it can. For many people faith informs their everyday lives and is an important part of their existence, and cannot be separated from their views and opinions. This is true of liberals such as Jonathan Sacks as much as it is of any socially conservative religious group. But I’m not in the slightest bit concerned with faith in politics; the problem is religion in politics.
The challenge is how to acknowledge personal faith, while preventing dogma from influencing legislation.