Tag Archives: enlightenment

Does Rowan Williams have any more idea of what he’s going on about than I do?

It isn’t every day that a single line blog post elicits quite so many responses – clearly Rowan Williams has touched on a raw nerve.

I’ve listened to his WATO interview and I’ve skimmed through his speech (pdf). I’m still struggling to get my head around what exactly he’s going on about.

On the one hand, much of what he’s saying seems to be what we have already. Civil law is a fairly flexible beast and contains within it the scope for individuals dealing with it however they might like. Where there are restrictions to that, there is certainly a scope for reviewing it. Personally I’m delighted that we have regulated for Islamic mortgages for example – extending choice is a fundamental good thing.

There is no particular conflict between religion and a secular society in this narrow context, but what applies to religions must also apply to the rest of us. You cannot simultaneously say what Williams appears to be saying here on the one hand while taking a moral position on what the UK law on marriage, civil partnership or adoption should be. So long as people of faith are not being required to get married to people of the same sex, it should be none of their business at all what anyone else gets up to. The claim that same sex partnerships “undermine the institution of marriage” should, under Williams’ argument here, be utterly irrelevant.

Sadly though it appears that he must have it both ways, appearing to not only argue for exceptionalism, but refuting the value of the enlightenment project itself. He seems only interested in religious people having this flexibility and appears to attack the notion that it should be a universal right on the grounds that that would be a “legal monopoly” – the right is reserved only to people with their own quasi-legal (religious) framework. Any attempt to talk about universalism in the context of a single rule of law for all is denounced as positivism.

Yet he seems to lack the courage of his own convictions, waffling on about apostacy to the point of absurdity and essentially accepting that you couldn’t have sharia apply here. He seems to want Muslims to have the flexibility to pick and choose between sharia and the country’s legal system; my reading of that is that they wouldn’t be bound by either.

What I find completely baffling is this strange switching between on the one hand rejecting out of hand of us having a set of universal legal principles on the basis that it can get in the way of what he regards as the “good” aspects of sharia while on the other hand wanting to avoid a situation where all the “bad” caricature of sharia – stoning, limb removal, denial of basic rights to women – can be wafted away. How can we judge what’s good or bad without a set of universal principles? The conflict, some would say straw man, he subsequently creates he then declares can only apparently be resolved through theology. Oh, how convenient!

For the most part though, I’m just confused, which you can probably tell. I think its going to take me quite some time before I’ve got my head properly around what he’s talking about at all.

As I’ve said before I think there is some capacity in a liberal, secular society for allowing individuals to resolve private issues between them using whatever process they feel appropriate. But that only reinforces the need for a set of fundamental rights that everyone is entitled to in order to prevent abuse. Putting all this emphasis on an essential withdrawal from the public sphere also renders the Church of England’s current constitutional position untenable: we cannot have Bishops sitting in our legislature setting our laws while simultaneously demanding their right to pick and choose them whenever it suits.

UPDATE: I can’t really improve on Andrew Brown:

Dr Williams, characteristically, is interested in the arguments over what sharia law actually says. The rest of the country is more interested in whether and how it might be enforced. Only if Islamic law can be reduced to a game played between consenting adults can it be acceptably enforced in this country; and that’s not, I think, how it is understood by its practitioners.

The true enemies of reason

I saw Richard Dawkin’s two-part documentary The Enemies of Reason a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to add a note of criticism here.

It’s not that I disagree with his assessment that people such as spirit mediums and alternative health gurus are not antithetical to enlightenment values; far from it. My problem is that the programme lacked analysis about why such movements have grown in popularity over the past forty years.

Take homeopathy for instance, and the fact that the NHS now ploughs millions of taxpayers pounds into clinics such as the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital. How has such a thing come to pass? Have health managers lost their minds? While no doubt there are true believers working inside the NHS who are pushing for homeopathy, I suspect the underlying reason is more prosaic. Indeed, Dawkins himself alluded to this, as Susan Blackmore points out, by alluding to the Placebo effect and comparing the amount of time a homeopath spends with their patient – 1 hours – to the amount of time a GP spends with their patients – 8 minutes.

We could, arguably, achieve the same effects as homeopathy by allowing GPs to prescribe a wider range of treatments. A week in a health spa, for instance. Healthcare professionals know however that such leftfield treatments would be politically untenable. Mental health treatment is very much a Cinderella service, despite the fact that it is now well recognised that depression and a whole range of long term health problems are inextricably linked. So is it any wonder therefore that they turn to an approach with is supported by people such as the Prince of Wales and has at least a quasi-scientific basis to it? Who can blame them for indulging in a noble lie, if the result is more people treated successfully?

Who, then is responsible for creating this climate whereby mental health treatment is marginalised while homeopathy is lauded? We can’t really blame the Prince of Wales. The real problem is that the latter is championed by a whole section of the media. The same media champions horoscopes, the Bible Code and all sorts of anti-intellectual faffery. By coincidence, it also advances an agenda that women are better off staying at home being dutiful housewives, that Princess Diana was murdered, that the poor get what they deserve, that padeophiles are lurking on every street corner, that asylum seekers live like sultans at taxpayer expense while local people struggle to find housing and that the house price boom is an unequivocal good.

What I’m getting at, of course, is that the missing third part of Dawkins’ the Enemies of Reason is an expose of Paul Dacre, his poisonous empire and his competitors at the Express. It seems odd to expose well meaning dowsers as frauds while failing to lambast the people at the top of the chain. Of course, were Dawkins to indulge in such a project he would find himself having a torrent of shit poured onto him by the very people he chose to attack. That may be what is holding him back. But if he doesn’t, who will? It would at the very least be entertaining to watch the likes of Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens go bright purple.