Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dishonest to God

The philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock has a new book out called Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics. Last week she took part in the discussion programme Start the Week on Radio Four. Her contribution was subsequently commended by a writer in the Catholic Herald for showing that polite discussion between believers and non-believers is still possible. But one is tempted to ask what in the end politeness has to do with it. Are we supposed to be grateful to those who talk kindly to us while all the time telling us that our views are so abhorrent as to have absolutely no place at all in civilised society?

Warnock is careful to concede the appeal and power of religion, its cathedrals and musical traditions for example. What she seems to find most irksome is that the religious think they have in her words a 'superior right to dictate what is and what is not a law'. But there is a world of equivocation between denying someone a 'superior right to dictate' laws and denying them 'any right to make laws at all'. Despite the reassuringly reasonable tones the underlying message is still the same bossy and intolerant one of Dawkins, Hitchens, or Fry: if you are a believer you should be kept from wielding influence in the public/political sphere. It appears that only the pure free-thinking atheist is capable of delivering the well reasoned dispassionate analysis that political decision-making requires. But in the light of the pope's visit, when Benedict XVI demonstrated a depth of philosophical reasoning and political acumen that most secularists and most politicians can only dream of, such a view looks not only old hat but, to borrow a term from Warnock, just plain silly.

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