By Cardinal Cormac Murphy-Connor, Archbishop of Westminster
'The Times': Saturday, 25 November 2006
Is British society turning against religion? My predecessor, Cardinal Hume, sometimes used humorously to wish for a bit of persecution, to challenge people’s faith and make it stronger. We are not on the verge of that, but religion is rarely out of the news as one controversy succeeds another.
Faith schools are threatened with having to take a quota of non-believers; anger against terrorist outrages inspired by religious ideology is now a fact of daily life; even natural disasters are examined for the light they throw on the existence or otherwise of a God who cares for us; and Richard Dawkins’s new book, The God Delusion, is among the top ten bestsellers.
I take heart from a remarkable 24-hour meeting last week when Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops from England and Walescame together to spend time in shared prayer, reflection, study and recreation. Our encounter, characterised by a warm sense of fraternity, was hugely beneficial not only to the bishops, but also to the development of a shared vision about the public space our Churches occupy nationally. We were united in resolving to defend that space, for the sake of the common good. Standing firmly on that ground, we seek to pursue dialogue with everyone of good will.
There is an urgent need for respectful dialogue and co-operation between all interested parties, whether Christians or members of other faiths, agnostics or secularists. The dialogue needs to be well-informed: the easiest but not the most honest way to dismiss an idea one does not agree with is to misrepresent it, as Professor Dawkins does.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his well-publicised address in Regensburg, spoke of the crucial link between faith, reason and culture. He was stating that the only honest basis for dialogue is reason rooted in goodness and love. This applies not only to dialogue with religious believers whose understanding and spiritual traditions are different from Christians, but also to secular Europe.
Shallow multiculturalism that fails to appreciate the basis of culture in faith, leads us away from social cohesion. In its deeper meaning, multiculturalism is about mutual respect and understanding for those of different beliefs. It is not about fulfilling the secularist dream of banishing faith from the public square, but about admitting new varieties of faith and inviting them to join the public conversation and valuing what they have to say.
I am becoming tired of the mockery of those who seem to regard faith communities, especially Christian ones, as intrusive and contrary to the common good. I label them Christophobic. They wish to close off every voice and contribution other than their own. Their inability to see the Christian seed in what is noble and good in Western culture chills the possibility of a true pluralism. Sometimes it spills over into the kind of anti-Christian bigotry that has appeared on some university campuses.
The great majority of people in our country do not want the erosion of a culture that is ultimately rooted in Christianity and its values. The presence in Britain of Muslims and other faith communities is leading to a renewed interest in Christian identity, boiled down if you like to the simple proposition that if a Muslim woman may wear a headscarf, a Christian woman should be able to wear a cross.
What is lacking in the new secular aggressiveness is the very Christian virtue of doubt. Only secularists such as Professor Dawkins seem to have no doubt when it comes to faith. We cannot build a truly human society on such narrow and rigid foundations.
Religion is not safe or easy. The new presence in Britainof an angry expression of Islam is a challenge; but the right response is not an angry dismissal of faith. We will not bring about a society at greater ease with itself by attempting to declare faith-free zones. British society is not a secular fortress needing to repel boarders, but a society permeated by belief as well as non-belief. The public space must be broad and permeable if it is to be truly public.
On my entry into seminary 56 years ago, my parish priest advised me to “Pray for perseverance”. I thought it rather unimaginative counsel at the time; now it seems to me quite inspired. For believers, the real task is to witness to God’s presence by lives of love and service, patiently persisting with those we disagree with.
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.