Dr Rowan Williams the current Archbishop of Canterbury has ruffled some political feathers by viciously criticising the current coalition government.
In an article for New Statesman magazine, he accuses the coalition of “committing Britain to radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted", and accusing them of creating “anxiety and anger” in the country by moving forward with swift reforms without sufficient public debate.
Now I suspect that Dr Williams is one of those people I would like in person. As churchmen go, he is a small “l” liberal, with something of a radical past and a nuanced theology, which actually makes me suspect that like a lot of intelligent people in church hierarchies his religious beliefs are far from literal.
I also have some sympathy with some, though not all of his concerns though perhaps for different reasons. He, for example is sceptical of Cameron’s “Big Society” as am I, but where he sees it as a cover for spending cuts, I see it as a cover for faith communities to gain undue influence (maybe he’s missing that opportunity). Also like me he is critical of “Free Schools” although I’m not sure of his motivation (mine is outlined elsewhere).
But all this aside and regardless whether I agree with the substance of his article, the attention it has drawn is yet another example of the ridiculous amount of weight we give to religious opinion. Dr Williams is a theologian (a dubious academic discipline at the best of times) and a poet; he is a member of the House of Lords purely by dint of being a Bishop, totally un-elected and representative of nobody’s views but his own. He cannot even be said to be representing the views of his flock, since Archbishop is not a position you reach democratically. What exactly is his constituency that makes his voice so powerful in the political arena?
The answer of course is the continuation of the established church, a situation that has so little relevance in our multicultural and largely secular society that it is surely time we divorced religion (and certainly a specific religion) from our government altogether. This in my view would be the best outcome of wholesale reform of the House of Lords.
It would not prevent high profile clergy from expressing their political and social opinions and nor should it, but it would put them in the appropriate position of being just another voice in the marketplace of ideas, rather than a privileged arm of government allowing us and our elected officials to treat those opinions accordingly.
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"