Liberals and left-wingers once instinctively sympathised with the position of Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, concerning religion and public policy (emphasis added): "As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith."
How and why this axiom of progressive politics has lately been compromised is a convoluted story. The proposition that political Islam represents some sort of emancipatory force is on the face of it nonsensical. Its incursion into political debate has been assisted, however, by an increasing and unwarranted sensitivity about the bogus and question-begging phenomenon of "Islamophobia". Where Muslims suffer racism, that racism must be fought. Criticism of religion - including hostility towards it and blasphemy against it - is not racism. As one of the most formidable advocates of clear thinking on this issue, the French journalist Caroline Fourest, has nicely put it (in her excellent blog, which I have added to my links):
"Voilà pourtant des années que l’on met en garde contre le danger d’utiliser le mot «islamophobie» (littéralement phobie envers l’Islam) pour parler du racisme envers les Musulmans. Car si le racisme envers les Musulmans existe et doit être combattu, la critique de la religion ou d’une idéologie — elle — ne peut être confondue avec du racisme. À moins de considérer que toute critique d’une idéologie ou d’une religion est raciste. Et donc un délit."
My suspicion is that the feeble response of policymakers (Mme Fourest rightly takes to task President Sarkozy's tendentious equation of "Islamophobia" with racism and antisemitism) reflects an instinctive deference to the claims of religious interest groups. I was mildly interested that the new Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, professed his own unbelief this week in answer to a direct question. But I was incredulous that he appended it with the pragmatic observation that he had "enormous respect for people who have religious faith". I haven't. Why should a personal belief about first and last things merit any respect at all? The task of democratic politics is to defend freedom of thought on religious matters, not to take a stand on the content of that thought.
Yet even secularists get this principle wrong. Matthew Parris, in The Times today, maintains:
"We non-believers are always puzzled by protests that strong religious conviction could be without huge influence in the way a man lives his public as well as his private life. We read the Gospels (sometimes with more attention than believers seem to); we learn about Judaic beliefs in God's purpose for the Jews and for mankind; we hear and try to understand the claims of Islam; and it strikes us that these belief systems make enormous claims on their adherents, with the most profound practical consequences."
I'm a non-believer and I'm not at all puzzled at the notion that strong religious conviction might be without practical implication for a statesman's public conduct. Religious doctrine is consistent with any political position. Take Christianity alone, and consider the range of theological justification for everything from liberal Protestant social reform (e.g., the Social Gospel of the Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch) to slavery (why, in his Epistle to Philemon, did the Apostle Paul not urge that the runaway slave Onesimus be freed, rather than merely taken back by his master as "a brother beloved ... in the Lord"?).
I have no hesitation in describing Roman Catholic doctrine as unworthy of respect. Since the First Vatican Council of 1870, the defined dogmata of the Roman Catholic Church have included that God "can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason". Moreover, "all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith" (emphasis added).
I should be surprised if these doctrines played any part in the instruction accompanying his conversion to Catholicism, but Tony Blair is now nominally committed to such anti-intellectual absurdities. That doesn't bother me; I adhere to the Jeffersonian principle that there must be no religious test for public office, and accept its implications. I'm happy to describe a Roman Catholic convert as a statesman who more closely expresses my own fundamental principles than any other politician of my adult lifetime. In this, I take also the position of one of my intellectual heroes, the late pragmatist philosopher and anti-totalitarian social democrat Sidney Hook. Many years ago (in an essay entitled "Religion and the Intellectuals", published in Partisan Review in 1950 and included in his book The Quest for Being, 1961, p. 100), Hook wrote:
"So long as religion is freed from authoritarian institutional forms, and conceived in personal terms, so long as overbeliefs are a source of innocent joy, a way of overcoming cosmic loneliness, a discipline of living with pain and evil, otherwise unendurable and irremediable, so long as what functions as a vital illusion or poetic myth is not represented as public truth to whose existence the once-born are blind, so long as religion does not paralyze the desire and the will to struggle against unnecessary cruelties of experience, it seems to me to fall in an area of choice in which rational criticism may be suspended. In this sense, a man's personal religion justifies itself to him in the way his love does. Why should he want to make a public cult of it? And why should we want him to prove that the object of his love is the most lovely creature in the world? Nonetheless it still remains true that as a set of cognitive beliefs, religious doctrines constitute a speculative hypothesis of an extremely low order of probability."
If you're a religious believer, don't ask me for respect; you don't have it. Call me an "Islamophobe" or a "Christianophobe" and I will accept these terms as compliments, much as the early Methodists appropriated for their own purposes a name that was intended to be abusive. If you seek legal protection for your religious beliefs (as opposed to the freedom to worship any god or none) then I will oppose you and accept no compromise. But leave me and (more important) my fellow citizens alone, and I will remain indifferent to whatever myths of origins and eschatology you espouse.