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Baroness Warsi’s Speech to the Pope — Secularism, Contradiction and Misapprehension

Baroness Warsi’s Speech to the Pope — Secularism, Contradiction and Misapprehension published on 2 Comments on Baroness Warsi’s Speech to the Pope — Secularism, Contradiction and Misapprehension

‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’  — The first amendment to the US Constitution

‘Call on God, but row away from the rocks’ — Hunter S. Thompson

The Baroness was, as they put it in the Daily Mash, let out of her box to write in the papers and to make a groveling diplomatic expedition to the Vatican earlier this week.

Her speech rested, rather than on a ‘yes, we know; clearly’ argument, but on one which included some contradiction and which required a little counter-intuition; while this makes things more interesting (not all fine arguments are intuitive and without contradiction); professors are often absent-minded, but being absent minded does not mean that one has a PhD.

She proposes, as far as I comprehend (it is obscure) that by having an established religion, we can achieve plurality, and through strong and confident faith we can achieve peaceful coexistence. This is, indeed, a contradiction — she has set herself a challenge; I doff my hat. Looking at the thick wad of papers which is her speech, sitting on my desk beside me, I would forward an argument in almost perfect opposition to hers; that it is not  because we have an established church that we have a generous level of plurality in this country, but that the level of plurality originates from the extent to which the church is disestablished.

The source of the very favourable level of religious multiplicity in this country are the pieces of civil legislation, such as the fact that marriage is the domain of the state, meaning that people who aren’t of the state religion can get married without the need for a Christian service. The secular changes which have been instituted mean, also, that the non-religious are free from the excesses of religions in these areas, but that, a prime point, religions can impose their own rules with their own domain if they wish and within reason.

As religious traditions are rarely keen to admit, secularism is religion’s best friend — a tenacious and patient one. Dear reader, try to imagine a cult from today which, given the opportunity, would refuse to establish its self as the state faith (or even as the state); out of those which would, how many would make it so that the other beliefs are not disfavoured? I can think of faiths who would shrug the offer, but their modesty is rare. Secularism means that no faith will be favoured, and that no faith will be disfavoured (the second clause is one which faiths often neglect). As a result, a secular society is a society of many free religions, rather than one of a single free religion and many subordinated ones. Secular states also avoid the pain of the transition from one official religion to another.

In as much as there is a tendency towards dictatorship in all nations — due to the nature of the human individual to crave subordination or to covet power, people avoid this tendency with the enthusiastic dissemination of their opinions and the exertion of their freedoms; the same checks are necessary for religion as is necessary for states.

Does Warsi honestly think that Britain has an established church? The church, like most other things in Britain, is quaint and partial, a part of Britain’s heady and antagonistic heritage. Britain is a constitutional monarchy, in the same way one could say that it is also, constitutionally Christian — the people have imposed constraints on the Church as well as the Crown. If Warsi wants a country with a real established religion, she can look to Russia and Malta.

The difference between a truly established religion and the state we have now, is that it does not have to effect us if the Archbishop of York makes a fatuous comment about same sex marriage, nor do we have to take note if the Church has atavistic opinions about the ability of women to be bishops.

This argument will feature a contradiction, whoever is right — if Warsi is right, we will have the contradiction that having an established religion is good for giving faiths equal representation; if I am right, we will have the contradiction that being separated from law is actually an asset to religion.

The second part of Warsi’s argument is that through faiths being ‘confident’ we can achieve a greater level of cordiality. This is so non-specific so as, nearly, to be meaningless; how confident? She expressed that it is people who lack confidence in their faith who commit the most grievous wrongs; I challenge this as a point of fact, the religious wrongs originate from souls who lack self-respect and combine this deficiency with a horrifying confidence in their faith. Centrally, the religions must only be confident in their creed up to the point where this confidence would cause them to break the law. I am almost positive that the Baroness agrees with me on this one, and if she doesn’t, I will petition for her to be ejected from parliament.

Centrally, once more, it is because religions like the Church of England are not confident that they no longer dictate the restrictions to people and other religions. It is a modesty of conviction, rather than a confidence, which stops the cults infringing on each other. To return to the point I made about religions becoming established and assuming power at the expense of others — I do not want to give the impression that I am being mean to religion. Either of the following is the case: religion is man made, or religion is made by a deity and is man-administrated. In both scenarios, a religion, while it claims to by acting on behalf of its god, will be subject to the shortfalls of humanity. Therefore, a great portion of the motivation for atrocity within cults, and the tendency for religions to want to assume power and to subjugate others is not a specifically religious tenet, but a human tenet — and can be witnessed outside religion too. Discredit where discredit is due, most of religion’s failings are human ones. I’m keen to argue against principle of theistic religion, but that would be transgressing.

I dispute that religions are the source of astounding wisdom, nor are they a source of undue harm per se. The only difference between the actions of the religious action and of the non-religious action is regulation, that, for example, Catholic paedophiles do not feel the force of the law to the extent that non-religious ones do. I would move that the behavior which is exhibited by religions which are not properly criticised and regulated is similar to the actions of other semi-outlaw factions; I would move also, that when dictatorships get ingrained to a certain extent, they start to look like religions. It seems I have argued myself into a proposition that the excesses of religion are the fault of the state for not regulating religion properly, so be it.

‘Your Eminences. Excellencies. Reverend Fathers. Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen…I believe that the strength of our relationship can give tremendous hope and inspiration to others across the world.’

This is an extract from the throat-clearing with which the Baroness began her speech. I must say that I was queasy about the gushing affirmation of the splendid relationship which Britain has with the Vatican. Now, I’m not saying that we should be rude to our hosts on diplomatic visits, that would be the worst of form; what is prime is that the Vatican has issues which it needs to address both internally, religiously and in terms of its foreign policy — don’t misunderstand me, diplomatic relations with insalubrious states are some of the most important, a type of relationship at which Blair was proficient.

Consider this: Cameron goes to China, he complimented them, but at the same time he expressed that their nation has issues which need to be addressed. Blair goes to Lybia, does he tell Gaddafi that he ought to be nicer to his people? I doubt it, Gaddafi was a deranged, there would have been little point. I can’t be certain that Warsi did not express any misgivings in private; nevertheless, I would have wanted her to be a lot less prostrated when addressing a man with a solid gold loo-flush — the Pope is not Gaddafi, he could stand it if she used a little less charm. Finally, I think I’m with Wolfie in saying that we should dispatch with the frivolous ‘Eminences’ and ‘Excellencies’.

Warsi tropified the idea of Britain’s Christian past, and how we and the rest of Europe should be confident with it, and should, therefore, celebrate and maintain it in modern times. The United Kingdom’s religious past should make us proud at same time as make us squirm. I feel like I’m repeating well-published arguments when I agree that this religion has provided the country with a weighty trove of thought and writings, at the same as providing us with some rather regrettable, and on occasion horrifying, transgressions; it isn’t something of which to be proud, its something with which to be frank and unsentimental. Taking: ‘a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper, combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses, and the redress of real grievances’; to quote Robert Peel.

Don’t ever pretend that you cannot have the benevolent, generous and charitable elements of religion without being lumbered with the bigotry and the surrender of reason; like Peel we should be taking a scalpel to the superstitious and the immoral, and conserving what remains — this operation has taken place before and is taking place now. We can keep the Cathedrals and the King James, while conceding that bread can’t turn into body in a cathedral and that the King James bible is not actually true, this, citing Christopher Hitchens, is called  culture.

She presents religion, in the current iteration of Britain, as being subjugated and oppressed, citing certain grievances such as restricting whether a person can join a given faith or whether they can display a religious symbol. The former is clearly a factual inaccuracy, the later is true, but is a debate which has a great deal of weight on each side of the argument. In terms of whether people can display their religious symbols, this is a point of fairness. If there is a uniform or dress code, it should be applied to everyone — though I do not think that many institutions yet have a sufficiently pluralist dress-code.

Warsi spoke about the ban on religious symbols in state buildings, which is a more difficult area. Although it is a shame to restrict the extent to which people can express themselves, the employees in those buildings are representing the state to their colleagues and to the public, they should not be representing their religion; this would be, by proxy, having state publicity for a certain religion. This isn’t easy, nevertheless, religions usually claim that the most important aspect of their belief is the actions which they take and the words which they speak. In my Wolfie days, I was keen to test the tolerances of my secondary school; I would always wear a beret with a red star, like Che Guevara. One day, I went to school wearing an armband  featuring a hammer and sickle, over the top of my jumper; it was about three minutes before the deputy head spotted it: ‘Take off the armband, Oliver.’. I can sympathise; but can also attest, that the more difficult and really the more effective part of having an ideology or belief is taking action and convincing people; the wearing of symbols is the easy part, and is, to a large but not total degree, vanity. I don’t deny that it is fun.

Warsi makes an unfortunate misrepresentation of secularism, saying that it, especially in its current ‘militant’ variety, is acting against religion. Secularism, neither acts against religion of on behalf of it, all it does is establish a compact wherein religion doesn’t take any shit from the state and wherein state doesn’t take any shit from religion. The baroness seems to be proposing a system where faith has to be consulted, its advice attended; it must ‘have a seat at the table’. She even said that we should preserve the bishops in the House of Lords, but that we should be ready to disagree with them heartily. This is just silly: we should be allowed to disagree with them, but we shouldn’t be allowed to get rid of one of the atavistic traits referring to a time when the Church was an arm of the state? Warsi forgets that a very important component of democracy is the right of abolition. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained, a truly representative state is one which, if all its members were present and consented, could dissolve itself — one cannot profess a love of free speech at the same time as sanctioning the non-removable presence of a group shouting in one’s ear.

Britain has a fantastic democratic system in operation, and in terms of consultation, having religions present all the time would simply mean that certain people’s views being represented twice. There are a huge number of ways in which people can express themselves, and if people want to make the system even better there are many ways in which it could be rationalized, rather than instituting the absurd idea this.

Religions are just groups of people, and I stand by that statement — they do not deserve any more representation than that which would be assigned to a group of another type or to people who are not religious. Warsi claims that religion is a source of wisdom and morality, although I have already dealt with this to an extent, I say that religion is the source of a lot of things, including a certain amount of the above; religion is not the only source of wisdom and morality, nor is it the only source of its particular brand thereof; rather than giving religion a privileged position, it should, as any other organisation does, have to make its views know through agreed channels, subject to criticism and debate, without privilege, and as I must repeat, without arbitrary restriction.

Warsi also made some rather silly statements which are very worth addressing. In this order, she said that today is a time when faith schools are being refused funding by the state, this is clearly not the case in the United Kingdom; nevertheless, should we host these faith schools? Really, the phrase ‘faith school’ is an oxymoron, but if, rather than using faith as to mean acceptance without evidence, we use it to mean a more broad definition of theistic religion, these institutions should still make us queasy.

Now I want to be fair here, variety is important in education and, for example, Anglican services are good fun; however, we have not yet divorced the quaint and charming traditions from the dubious ethics or the superstition. So, while I would have no grounds on which to state that there should be no state-funded schools which host these enjoyable religious traditions, I am bound to insist that there be no school in great Britain which teaches any religious tradition as if it were fact and which imposes religious practices — I admit that I have established quite a fine distinction here, it is something which I would like to explore more fully. Centrally, schools must be places in which children should be given the equipment to challenge what they hear and to make their own appraisal philosophically, and if they wish, religiously. Warsi said that the Anglican school to which her daughter went met these criteria, maybe, but I appeal to to the reader to decide whether this is standard for the school in question or indeed for faith schools in general.

The Baroness even said that faith is compatible with reason. This is a perfect example of doublethink; I like to envisage the internal dilemma which she experienced at this point, the internal dialogue probably went something like this:–

Mouth: But they don’t realise, as the Holy Father [Archbish of Canterbury]  has argued for many years, that faith and reason go hand in hand.

Reasoning Faculties: Yeah, very clever, you know that’s bullshit don’t you? Also: ‘hand in hand’, of all the possible metaphors you had to use the most trite; why?

I’ve heard many people on the radio express their disagreement with a worldview which thinks that religious expression and action should be confined to the home, there are definitely people who count themselves as holding this opinion, and it has its draws. However, the state for which I am arguing is something which resembles the first amendment (as quoted above), so I want to hear those in opposition to secularism argue against this proposition, rather than spending their time on the more extreme — and more easily challengeable — ‘total removal of religion from the public sphere’.

Overall, Warsi’s speech gave me the same feeling as I get when I engage in cheap excess — rather than achieving satisfaction, achieving a sort of frustrated disappointment. This woman is in the upper chamber of our legislature, and the poor quality of her work comes in layers: first is the selective misunderstanding of her opponents’ arguments, then is the poor appraisal of facts and the law as it stands, only when we’ve penetrated these layers can we rub our eyes and see that what lies underneath is not the elegant type of contradictory argument which some can assemble, but was just like any other of Warsi’s second rate follies, only differing in that it was more opaque.

From our public figures, for whom the taxpayers pay expenses, this will not do. Warsi has no excuse for such crap arguments, she’s not stupid, just annoying.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.’ — Karl Marx

So, as people proceed with this debate, those on both sides should endeavour to properly comprehend the other’s arguments, propositions and actions. Let’s not hide from the genuine achievements of a certain practices, nor should we, when it is due, cringe at the thought of addressing some rather insalubrious practices and states of affairs. Foremost, I want something more satisfying from this member of the Privy Council.


Hi Oli, thank you for linking me this page! There’s nothing like a state/religious argument to get me out of bed on a lazy Sunday and to my laptop!

Firstly, I really enjoyed your argument. Whilst it may not be wholly ‘PC’ at times, I would expect nothing less from you – I even got the impression in some parts that this may have been your intention.

There were some parts wherein I found myself nodding along, wholly agreeing with what you had written. ‘Religions are just groups of people, and I stand by that statement – they do not deserve any more representation than that which would be assigned to a group of another type or to people who are not religious’. I completely agree, theists are of no genetic or moral supremacy to atheists, therefore why should they be treated so?

But (as Cath taught us in English, you should be aware of a change of tone coming up), I disagree somewhat with your view that workers in state buildings should not be representing their religion in their uniform. I personally see no difference in expressing yourself (to a degree in the workplace) by donning make-up or wearing a small cross around your neck. A woman may decide to wear a skirt instead of trousers. Would you then assume that the state for which she worked promoted a sexist female role? Personally, I have the ability to see the individual rather than the corporation. If, therefore, a man was to greet me in a state building wearing trainers rather than smart shoes I would take that as an expression of his character as an individual. What I am trying to say is that, why, if we are such a secular population, would a small cross on a necklace offend us? Or more to the point you were making, why would we see it as the state publicising religion? It would not offend me anymore than if an employee was to wear a fantastic amount of fake tan – I would still not see the state as promoting Fake Bake (that’s a brand of fake tan Oliver).

Also, your argument seems to be founded on the assumption that we are no longer a religious state. Under current law, if a royal family member marries a Roman Catholic, he/she is no longer eligible to inherit the throne. Although this is expected to change, it remains, nevertheless, the law.
Is this not an example of the Church influencing BOTH law and monarchy?

In her speech Warsi says that Britain as a nation ought not to deny it’s religious heritage. The problem with religion in Britain is exactly this, it IS our history. Britain has been shaped by the Church throughout the course of it’s existence. Although we are a secular society by majority, Christianity still possesses a hold over Britons. (I am surprised by the amount of young people in my university who are religious).

Naturally, human beings seek a a collective identity. Perhaps Warsi is expressing a fear for Britain’s identity (which is quickly becoming one of bankers and benefits) and is therefore promoting Christianity as a source of collective pride. Britain is very unique in it’s Church. I don’t think Christianity can be so easily tossed in the bin when it is so closely entwined within, not only our laws, but also our customs and habits – these may not appear visible to the naked eye, but they do, nevertheless, exist. Just as I am writing this I can hear the church bells ringing 2.30pm. As I said, the Church appears within our daily life whether we like it or not, reasserting a false sense of dominance as it attempts to hold on to society.

That’s it for me, I’m off to nurse my hangover!

p.s, I was wondering how far into the article it would be until a Marxist quote appeared 🙂

I’m interested by what you say about the display of symbols in state buildings, nor would I be offended if I saw someone wearing a cross, but it would annoy me, seeing as they are supposed to be representing the state rather than religion. About wearing a skirt, that is interesting to, though while wearing a skirt has the potential to remind of sexism, a cross is the explicit representation of Christianity — the redemption of humanity by the Crucifixion. By way of a reducto ad absurdum, what if a civil servant chose to wear a three-foot cross during a BBC interview on the 10 o’clock news? In terms of the brand, I think that the government would get annoyed if employees started going to work with blatantly branded clothing.
This is certainly a religious country, I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I thought that that wasn’t the case. My argument is that rather than embracing our religious heritage and status quo, we should observe it with an unbiased eye. Moreover, we should be ready to decide whether we want to continue being a religious country.
Indeed, Warsi is right in that we ought not deny our heritage, history is history; however, one can’t move from that premise to stating that we should automatically have to consult the cults all the time — her work is still ahead of her on that one. We need to be discerning here. Looking at Britain now, a great deal of the structures which exist originate from the Atlee government of 1945 and Thatcher’s of 1979; I concede that Britain’s heritage, therefore, is partially Thatcherite. One mustn’t let one’s opponent move from that statement to another statement saying that because that is our heritage we should act like Thatcher and remove the nutritional requirements on school meals, I claim the right to say that we should not be nervous about changing the changes which Thatcher made.
To regard this from another angle, Britain’s heritage is partially Pagan, we should be aware of this, but the pagan heritage doesn’t give us a mandate to go all Wicker Man all of a sudden.
So when someone proposes that we discard the Christian heritage, I say ‘no’, that would be wasteful; and when I say so I know that I am in agreement with Dawkins and Hitchens, it is probably the same with Dennet and Harris, but I am not certain. All I ask is that we create a system with maximum freedom and maximum debate, and where intolerance and delusion are separated from state £.

Hope you get through that hangover, thanks very much for the polemic comment!

Oli x

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