Practical secularism: Can we distinguish between people and positions?

I was woken this morning by a rather strange story of the Sunday morning variety on the radio. The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police was talking about his faith, and how important it is to him at times like this, after two of his colleagues were killed on duty. It jolted me out of my sleep because it seemed like an egregious intrusion of religion into public service, but the more I think about it, the more complicated it seems to be.

The conversation which had made the news reports was recorded for Songs of Praise. My hazy early morning understanding had interpreted this as a religious statement by the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy, when it seems on closer examination that it was the personal view of Sir Peter Fahy, speaking about how his faith is important in his job as Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police. Confused? You might well be.

There are two opposite dangers here. I find it entirely unacceptable (I nearly wrote that it was plainly unacceptable, but nothing’s ever plain, is it?) for public services to favour any religious belief, whether by policy or accident, but it’s equally unacceptable to reserve public roles for people who don’t have any strong beliefs.

It’s fine for someone to have beliefs, as long as it doesn’t intrude into their work in a way that’s unprofessional or divisive. But clearly and unambiguously drawing a line between the two is problematic. This case can be viewed differently depending on whether the statement was made in an official capacity, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes as long as it’s a personal view. I’m sure Fahy doesn’t believe this, but if he’d said in a personal capacity that (for example) Christians were more trustworthy, or disparaged other religions, his position would surely be untenable.

Now it gets really tricky – what if he really believed that, but had the sense not to say so publicly? His views would be no different, but no one would have any idea that he had such worrying views. This is also relevant to the recent “late abortion” case, where there’s a suspicion in some quarters that Justice Jeremy Cooke’s religious beliefs influenced his actions in sentencing Sarah Catt, but no clear evidence in either direction.

The New Humanist recently published an interesting piece by Richard Smyth, “Down with secularism”, in which he argues that secularism is a bad thing because (among other things) it’s important to know if public servants are being motivated by (what he considers to be) irrational beliefs. If a rigid secularism is enforced, people’s beliefs and actions are unlikely to change, but their true agendas become more opaque.

I don’t agree with all Smyth says, but he raises some very interesting points. The principle that no religious belief should be privileged over another is paramount, but despite my discomfort with public statements of faith like this, it would be a mistake to extend this to prohibiting anyone from speaking about their beliefs. It would not only be illiberal, it would be dangerous for pragmatic reasons of transparency and honesty.

It’s a familiar balancing act to weigh up the competing demands of professionalism and personal freedom. It’s basically the same issue as in occasional high-profile stories of teachers being sacked for having a personal life just like everyone else.

The trick is to ensure that people are able to speak openly about their beliefs or lack of them, but not to allow such beliefs to influence public policy unduly, or to favour any particular worldview with privileged status. That’s a fine principle, and easy to say, but almost impossible to achieve. In the meantime, we must do what we can to separate the person from the position and treat each case individually.

Photo by The Laird of Oldham, used under Attribution License

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

3 responses to “Practical secularism: Can we distinguish between people and positions?”

  1. Ben Searle says :

    A liberal society and freedom of speech need to include faith. Faith and ideology influence individuals, and cannot be separated. Anyone who believes that religion is a private matter that shouldn’t influence other aspects of everyday life must ask a militant atheist if this applies to them also.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Militant atheists – are they the ones who kill people for believing in God?

      Anyone who thinks belief or faith shouldn’t influence daily life has moved beyond secularism as I understand it, into some illiberal anti-religion fantasy world. But there’s a big difference between living your beliefs and using your position in public service to promote them. If people want to shout their beliefs from the rooftops, that’s fine. If they want to use their publicly funded position as an MP or a doctor to promote their beliefs, or favour them over others, then we have a problem.

      And this applies to atheism too, although it’s not much of an issue, but don’t confuse promoting atheism with arguing for secularism. They’re very different.

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