Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics

(Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay)

Excerpts from Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics, by Baroness Mary Warnock (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2011). Reprinted with permission from the author.


The idea of God (or of gods) is central to religion, and without it religion would not exist. A religious person should be able, without either embarrassment or irony, to make mention of the God in whom he or she believes. My concern in the following pages is to consider some aspects of the role of religion, and therefore the idea of God, in the twenty-first century, as it relates to legislation and politics. To discuss religion and politics historically would be a bold task, and one that only a professional historian could undertake. My aim is more modest. It is concerned with religion and politics as they are currently practised. It is the Christian religion and recent politics that is at the centre of my enquiry, though sometimes other religions may be relevant. It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of Christianity on our culture and traditions, but also on our political thought and legislative practice. However, important though the part played by Christianity has been, no one doubts that the Christian religion has now lost its dominant and taken-for-granted position in the lives of the majority of citizens, many of whom are totally ignorant of the text of the Bible and of what goes on in church, and for whom the word ‘God’ is meaningless except as an exclamation. It is necessary therefore to consider what part Christianity should continue to play in legislation and politics, and what influence it has and should have in Parliament, whose responsibility is to legislate for Christian and non-Christian alike.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, of which the Church of England is part, God has a triple role. First, He is the creator of the universe, and, as the climax of his creation, of human beings, formed in his own image. Then, second, for those human beings, he is the ultimate source of morality, having revealed his laws to them alone. Third, he is the object of reverence and love, and the source of hope. However flawed the world may be, however much suffering it contains, God has promised that somehow or other all will be well, for those who put their trust in him. For Christians, this promise was historically confirmed through the life and death of Jesus, sent to earth as both God and man, to show that God cares about individuals, and can grant them salvation at last, if they follow his commandments, newly revealed through the Messiah. For Christians, this God is tripartite, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The third member of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is the giver of hope, security and truth: ‘Non vos relinquam orphanos’ (‘I will not leave you comfortless’). Though death is, in one sense, the end, and though what happens after death is a mystery, yet somehow the sharpness of death is overcome by God, as is proved by the death and resurrection of Christ.

This is the tradition in which I was brought up, the tradition of the Church of England, and this is what forms the background of the culture within which I, and many others of my generation, feel at home. Indeed, as far as I myself am concerned, the Church of England has played a significant part in my life. I went to a High Church school; until I was in my mid-sixties, I never lived anywhere except in a cathedral city. Church music has been one of my greatest passions, and in Oxford, where I spent most of my adult life, there were almost unlimited opportunities to enjoy liturgy and sacred music.

At the present time, having for long been a minority interest, the question of religion, its truth or falsity, its relevance or irrelevance to the way we should think and should live our lives, has come back into prominence as a subject of debate and disagreement; not as fierce, perhaps, as the controversies in the latter part of the nineteenth century, but significant nevertheless, especially in the field of morals and politics. Avowed atheists, such as the ubiquitous Richard Dawkins, once a quite rare bearded and sandal-wearing breed, are now everywhere to be heard, and are matched by people asserting that, whatever the atheists may think of religion, God exists, the Bible is true and religion is on the increase all over the world. Statistically this seems to be a fact, for good or ill.

I personally would not at all want religion to come to an end, and I give some reasons for this in Chapter 5, below. But there were those at the end of the nineteenth century who predicted that it would necessarily decline and die, succumbing at last to science. Dawkins and other atheists assert that this time has come: that religion should now curl up and die, being not just untrue, but damagingly so. For my part, I have increasingly come to think that one ought to try to be a bit more clear-headed about what religion essentially is, and what, if any, authority it should command, and over whom. I have been much influenced in this both by the writings of the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway (see especially, Godless Morality, Canongate 1999, and Doubts and Loves, Canongate 2001) and by my former tutor and friend, Dennis Nineham, who, more than thirty years ago, wrote:

The characteristic religious difficulty today is a metaphysical difficulty at least in this sense: where men seem to need help above all is at the level of the imagination. They need some way of envisaging such realities as God, creation and providence imaginatively in a way which does no violence to the rest of what they know to be true. They need to be able to mesh-in their religious symbols with the rest of their sensibility in the sort of way supranaturalist and messianic imagery meshed-in with the sensibility of 1st-century people. [Emphasis added]

The problem is thus partly historical. We can, helped by long tradition and by a familiar culture, partly put ourselves in the place of the first disciples, the Gospel-writers. We can even partly understand St Paul, the true inventor of Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism. But their natural imagery is not ours, much as we may love it, and all its associations. This is because of all that we know that they did not. Our viewpoint is inevitably different, and we cannot honestly overlook the gap that exists between us and them, or pretend that it does not exist. It is the issue of this gap that I try to address in the following chapters, not as a theologian, but as someone above all interested in morality, politics and the law, as well as in the concept of imagination itself, which, as Dennis Nineham understood, is central to the very existence of religion. It hardly needs to be said that other animals are not religious, nor are they, like us, politicians or law-makers. Neither do they have the need to explain the world to themselves. It is the human imagination that both demands and supplies such allembracing explanations; human beings alone need to place themselves in the universe as a whole, and religious belief has historically been their way of doing this. So I want, albeit within a very narrow and recent framework, to look at the ways in which religion should and should not influence our moral and political decision-making.

It is misleading to say that this country is already an entirely secular society; but it would be equally wrong to overlook the ambiguous position of religion within it, and the curious role that religion plays in political debates, different certainly from its role in the USA, but equally demanding of examination and equally prone to accusations of hypocrisy or downright dishonesty. Part of the difficulty of conducting any study such as this is that the British do not, on the whole, care to talk about religion, at least not about their personal beliefs. In a general way, as I have suggested, religion versus atheism has become a topic of public debate. But the debate is conducted in relatively abstract, or at least historical, terms, and does not involve too much in the way of private sentiments or aspirations. This has meant that it is often difficult to separate arguments according to whether they are religious or secular, and if I have misrepresented anyone’s beliefs I can only apologise.

From Chapter 4: Where Morality Comes From

The belief that parliamentarians must accept what it is that they ‘ought to desire’ from a higher, transcendental or supernatural source has always been characteristic also of the Roman Catholic Church, and has posed great difficulties for individual Roman Catholic MPs in recent cases of ‘moral’ legislation. This was nowhere clearer than in the passage through Parliament of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (2008), an update of the 1990 Act which we have already considered. The Act of 2008 regulates the use of human embryos outside the uterus, however they came into being, whether through normal fertilisation in vitro, or through the process of ‘therapeutic cloning’ (see pp. 35–36); it permits human admixed embryos created for purposes of research by a combination of human material and that from other animals; it formally lifts the restriction of IVF treatment to heterosexual couples, and it omits the provision in the original Act that, before providing IVF treatment to a woman, the child’s ‘need for a father’ must be taken into account. It is, in short, a paradigm case of liberalising legislation.

It had been the intention of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, that, this being a Government Bill, all votes would be on party lines, and there should be no free or ‘conscience’ vote. But the representations of various Roman Catholic members of the Cabinet, and some junior ministers, forced him to remove the whip. These Roman Catholics were not acting simply on their own conscience, however imbued that conscience might be with Roman Catholic doctrine; they had been positively instructed that they must oppose these provisions of the Bill. In a doctrinal note published in 2002, the Vatican had pronounced that ‘while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person. Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle.’ The note was specifically directed not only to bishops but to all those who took part in public debate or who had public political responsibility. ‘Catholics have not only a right but a duty to oppose any legislation that undermines the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.’ Here, then, is a statement echoed by John Milbank, though he writes as an Anglican, not a Roman Catholic. Democracy is to be defended only insofar as it is founded upon theological doctrine. Only so can individual parliamentarians know what it is that they ‘ought to desire’.

In my view, such a role for theology is profoundly wrong, and I believe that it is necessary to reinstate secular morality as the basis for introducing new legislation and for the criticism and amending of existing law. But before engaging with this matter directly, I must first say something about what may perhaps be thought to be a little local difficulty relating to parliamentary proceedings in this country alone, and raising no philosophical issues. This, of course, is the existence in the House of Lords of the Bishops’ Bench. Elizabeth Wicks, senior lecturer in Medical Law at the University of Birmingham, in an article published in the Medical Law Review in 2009, has argued that the presence of the bishops as part of the legislating body obscures the true nature of the moral arguments that must be seriously addressed in debates on ‘moral legislation’. Writing about the House of Lords debate on the Assisted Dying Bill in 2006, she says this:

there is a legitimate cause for concern over the role of the bishops in legislating on complex moral issues … Many lords spoke as Christians (or Muslims or Jews or Atheists), and it is right that they should do so, for their religious faith (or the lack thereof) will inevitably feed into their conclusions on ethical issues such as assisted dying, but it is not solely a religious issue. Much less is it solely an issue for religious leaders. The high-profile presence of the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords for this debate [and the Bishops’ Bench was conspicuously crowded] distracts from the multi-faceted ethical debate that should surround any proposal to legislate for assisted dying because it presents a superficial view of the objections to such a proposal. (‘Religion, Law and Medicine: Legislating on Birth and Death in a Christian State’, Medical Law Review 17, p. 410)

She goes on to quote an article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian (12 May 2006), where she speaks of a cabal of bishops, rabbis, imams, evangelists and other believers organising a coup against the bill. Elizabeth Wicks says that perceptions such as this, of religious peers single-handedly preventing the Bill’s passage

may not only undermine potentially valid secular objections to the Bill, but also serve to deny all validity to genuine religious objections. It is the idiosyncratic presence of religious representatives in the modern legislature, more than the religious opposition itself, that encourages such extreme and damaging perceptions, while the true ethical debate becomes obscured. (Ibid.)

She would therefore abolish the right of bishops to sit as part of a legislating body (though she would not object, I suppose, to some bishops becoming life peers, in virtue of their general suitability for that role, for then they would sit not as representatives of the Church, but as individual Christians).

To debar the bishops from membership of the House of Lords in virtue of their office would not necessarily entail the disestablishment of the Church of England, for the bishops could still take it in turns to say prayers before sittings, and could perform other ceremonial functions connected with the monarchy and the judiciary. So the issue is not whether or not the Church of England should be disestablished (and I do not believe that it should, however disunited, precarious and lacking in standing it may temporarily have become). The question is whether the presence of the bishops within Parliament, as a group representing the Church, has undue influence on the outcome of debates on legislation concerned with moral matters.

Now it is true that the convention in the House of Lords is that if anyone gets up to speak at the same time as a bishop, that other peer will defer to the Right Reverend Prelate (the bishops are, however, careful never to get up if a front-bench peer from any party wishes to intervene). And I do not deny that this is sometimes irritating. It is true, too, that when they speak they obviously speak as religious believers. How could they not? But then, so do other peers; there are at least two rabbis in the House of Lords, several retired bishops and archbishops, and many people who declare themselves as believers. However, as I have already remarked, most of these peers – including the bishops who have been created life peers and are cross-benchers – say very little if anything about what their faith tells them, or elaborate in detail on what part their faith has played in the formation of their moral beliefs, and some, as we have seen, deliberately try to separate their religious from their moral convictions. In the debates on the Assisted Dying Bills, for example, nearly all of these peers who spoke, including those from the Bishops’ Bench, after perhaps a nodding reference to the predominantly religious argument from the sanctity of human life, went on immediately to use purely secular arguments derived from the disastrous consequences that they foresaw if the law were changed, arguments used equally by the godly and the ungodly alike. I agree with Elizabeth Wicks when she says that it is not the religious opposition in itself that is objectionable; such opposition is proper and legitimate. I disagree with her, however, when she says that what is wrong is that the bishops represent the Anglican Church. In my view, the mischief lies rather in the assumption on the part of most peers that because the bishops are religious professionals, they are therefore moral experts. It is in their supposed role as experts, experts not in theology but in morals, that they are attended to with such deference. This has a doubly bad effect. First, it means that many peers fail to take seriously their fellows who are atheists or humanists or who, while professing a faith, yet try to separate dogmatic from practical, or indeed private from public morality. They are thought not to be qualified to speak. Second, it serves to reinforce the confusion between religion and morality, which is intrinsically dangerous for reasons which I have already, in part at least, adduced. While no one could seriously hold that any religious beliefs whatever, however dotty or perverse, will give rise to moral opinions worthy of respect, there is nevertheless a tendency to speak as if Faith were in itself good, so-called People of Faith being somehow joined together in a common moral enterprise. And so they often are, insofar as they are part of a long tradition, not only among Christians but among other religions too, of caring for such things as education and the relief of poverty and disease. But often they are not; and we do not have to search very hard to find evidence of religious faith that is conjoined with barbarous moral beliefs and flagrantly illegal activity.

In April 2007 Lord Harrison – a Labour peer, and a forthright and generous man well known for his philanthropy as well as for his passion for architecture and education – introduced a Thursday Debate (not for the passage of legislation, but for the discussion of matters of current concern) ‘To call attention to the position in Britain of those who profess no religion’. His contention was that government policy to encourage all the faiths to cooperate with one another and with the government for the same social ends discriminated unfairly against those who belonged to no faith. The policy had formed part of the Labour manifesto of 2001, and issued in a government paper entitled Working Together, and another entitled Building Civil Renewal, where religious groups had powers delegated to them for work within the community, especially in inner cities. Almost any religious group, however small, eccentric and obscure, such as the Jains and Zoroastrians, might be so privileged, while no such powers and responsibilities were proffered to those who, equally minded to help their community, held no faith. (In her reply, the then Under-Secretary of State, in the Department of Communities and Local Government, the amiable Baroness Andrews, assured him that the point of the government paper Working Together was only to encourage faith groups to work in communities with which they often have a unique relationship, not to exclude others from doing so, or from tendering for the provision of local services.) Many peers agreed with Lord Harrison, especially in the matter of state-funded church schools which may refuse to enrol children whose parents are not churchgoers. Some who were non-believers, on the other hand, felt no sense of being unjustly discriminated against and did not want to be categorised as a new group – say, perhaps, the Humanists. It fell to Lord Joffe, not surprisingly, to address the question whether within Parliament itself, and in matters of legislation, the godly had undue power over the godless. His point was that parliamentarians, even members of the House of Lords who have no constituents to consider, are subject to lobbying, and their votes on any matter may be swayed by the intensity of the lobby, especially if the letters and briefings they receive purport to be backed up by statistics that show the views of the public outside Parliament. In the case of his last Bill to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill, the lobbying was unprecedented. It was initiated by Archbishop Peter Smith, the Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, who announced that he was launching the biggest political campaign by the Church in its whole modern history. Questionnaires were sent out to highly selective groups, so that a huge majority was shown to be hostile to the Bill. The campaign culminated in an article published in the Catholic Times on 2 April 2006, entitled ‘Legalising Euthanasia turns Carers into Killers’, which included a photograph of 24 children who had been murdered by the Nazis in the late 1930s. Lord Joffe was not pleased. He said (Hansard HL, 19 April 1997, cols 357–358]: ‘The faith groups’ campaign was a great victory, as the Bill was defeated at Second Reading by the breach of a long- standing tradition never to oppose a Private Member’s Bill at Second Reading, and by the ignoring of the key recommendations of the Select Committee which the House had set up to consider the Bill.’ The outcome, he said, was that a Bill which other opinion polls had shown to be supported by 80 per cent of the public was defeated by ‘a campaign orchestrated by the churches’. Of course peers need not have paid any attention to their lobbying post, especially as the letters were entirely formulaic, not the outcome of individual thought but written by a central source and merely signed by the sender; and indeed I suspect that Lord Joffe, certainly suffering a sense of persecution, exaggerated the influence that this less than honest campaign had on the recipients of the letters. There was, as I have outlined already, fierce opposition to his Bill not only from the churches, but also from those other great monolithic obstacles in the path of reform, Medicine and the Law. Nevertheless I believe that the conflation of religion and morality, and the habit of according moral authority to the declarations of religious leaders, played a considerable part in the refusal of a Second Reading to this Bill.

So how is this conflation to be avoided? How is the separation of morals from religious faith to be brought about? It is clear that one of the things that chiefly drives people into demanding and clinging to a superhuman foundation for morality is the fear that without it there will be no possibility of agreement on ethical issues. Moral standards, if any survive, will be totally random, as changeable as fashion and therefore as trivial. Moral relativism denies the possibility of certainty and permanence in moral judgements; it reduces them to the status of personal preference, or personal interest, not even aspiring to the solidity and stability of truth. We live in a culture of tolerance, or at least in a culture where tolerance, even if not practised, is regarded as a virtue. We also know well how enormously various the beliefs, superstitions and taboos are, even among people who live on our doorstep, and we are taught that we must respect them all. Criticism of them, if too loud, can lead not just to disapproval but to prosecution. Teachers are deeply afraid of failing to show complete even-handedness. Such careful refusal to pass moral judgements leads to moral vacillation and confusion. It is no wonder that people seek the embrace of a dogmatic and self-justifying Faith, even if adopting it, or clinging to its familiarity, entails assenting to propositions which they do not actually believe, or which if literally interpreted contradict both science and history.

Excerpted from Dishonest to God by Baroness Mary Warnock. Copyright © Mary Warnock, 2011. All rights reserved.

Mary Warnock is not just a distinguished educator and one of the UK’s most respected moral philosophers, with a long record for forming opinion and guiding legislation on moral issues, but also an Independent Life Peer in the House of Lords, and a writer and broadcaster. She emerged in the international limelight in 1984 when she headed the committee that brought the so-called “Warnock Report” that legalised IVF procedures in Great Britain. Her autobiography, Mary Warnock: A Memoir – People and Places, was published in 2000.

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