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Meet the Archbishop of Awkward Arguments

2010-04-17

As someone with academic training in philosophy, I do find it amusing when our Parliamentarians turn their thoughts to the bigger things in life and start waxing philosophical. It is a pleasant change from 27 pages of partisan sniping on the crime figures or the Budget, but it does allow for rhetorical silliness to run free. Good philosophy is like good politics in requiring sound, valid arguments. Just because we are discussing the meaning of life or whether there is a God doesn’t mean that we should lower our tolerance for sloppiness.

How about this from a 2007 Lords debate on the concerns of the non-religious where John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, had this to say:

Twenty-seven years ago I was chaplain to a young offenders remand centre, Latchmere House. Every inmate was asked to declare his religious affiliation, and four young men were registered as having no religion. One Sunday, all the inmates were offered the chance to go to worship. The four young men with no religion declined the offer, while their fellow inmates on the A wing took up the offer. The prison officer, not wanting the four men to remain locked up in their cells, asked them to clean the toilets on the wing. The following Sunday, our four non-religious young men took up the offer to go to worship. The prison officer was puzzled why they had opted in this week. “Why are you going to chapel?” he asked. The four replied, “Sir, we didn’t like the ‘No Religion’ place of worship”. Crudely as they put it, those four young men were saying in their naivety that we are all essentially religious.

And so we observe yet another Parliamentarian failing to apply Occam’s Razor! You have four inmates in a young offenders remand centre. They are offered the chance to attend chapel on Sunday. They decline and are asked to clean the toilets instead. The next week they attend chapel. Which of the following conclusions seems more likely?

  1. While cleaning the toilets, they had some kind of religious awakening and they came to believe that we are all essentially religious and decided to attend chapel in order to explore their budding religiosity.
  2. They would rather sit in the chapel than cleaning toilets.

I think the latter explains the facts significantly better.

I have an acquaintance who once explained how when he was in the U.S. Army, they operated a similar regime. Those who chose not to participate in religious services were asked to clean the barracks. After a week of this, he was attending all the religious services on base: three or four different Christian services, then a Buddhist service. He is certainly no believer now. As A. J. Ayer said of saying grace at meals (in the context of an Oxford college): “I won’t utter falsehoods, but I’ve no objection to uttering meaningless statements.” Slightly rephrased: I won’t endorse falsehoods,  but I’ve got no objection to people uttering meaningless statements if the alternative is cleaning lavatories on Sunday morning.

Amusingly, this is in a debate about whether or not there is discrimination against the non-religious. In a more logical universe, surely the Archbishop would realise that using toilet cleaning as a stick to beat people into the chapel with actually is discrimination against the non-religious? If someone in the workplace were to insist that their employees ought to become members of the Church of Scientology and refused to promote anyone who does not attend the Scientology seminars, that would be an awful case of religious discrimination in the workplace. But when it is a choice between the established Church and toilet cleaning in a prison, it is a cute story about the universality of religious faith. No double standards here, dear reader.

The Archbishop continues:

Time does not allow me to speak at length, but let us be clear: dogmatic assumptions also underline non-religious world views—Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism, capitalism, secularism, humanism and so on. Those are clear dogmatic positions.

There is so much to unpack.

First of all, the debate in the Lords is not about whether or not the non-religious are dogmatic–or even whether they are right in their (lack of) beliefs; it is about whether or not the non-religious are being discriminated against in society.

The Archbishop’s statement is at best a red herring. At worst, it could even be a justification: okay, there is discrimination against the non-religious, but it is okay because they are dogmatic Freudian Marxist capitalists. And, yes, being a Marxist capitalist makes as much sense as being a Christian Muslim or a behaviourist Freudian.

To be fair, humanism is often about as dogmatic as the Anglicanism of Rowan Williams, Richard Holloway, Richard Harries or the clergymen so humourously depicted by Monty Python or Rowan Atkinson. The primary criticism of humanism is how bloody wishy-washy it is!

As for Darwinism: really, how dogmatic is the scientific consensus about the origin of biological diversity? I mean, given that we use it to understand the progression of HIV/AIDS, the dangers of agricultural monocultures and to design–rather, evolve–algorithms for use in computer software.

‘Secularism’ as a word begs the utterer to equivocate! Many religious people use secularism as a scare word to describe their vision of a post-religious dystopia where the Anti-Religion Police imprison anyone who dares to mention the man upstairs. But it is also a political doctrine that says that the state should be supremely neutral on religious matters. This does not “underline non-religious world views”. There are plenty of secularists in this latter sense who are religious: the head of the secularist lobby group Americans United for Separation of Church and State is Reverend Barry Lynn. There are also plenty of religious groups who agree with them.

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