Rowan Williams declares war on secularism

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

So, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is back from his extended “study leave” and, according to an interview he gave to the Daily Telegraph last week, he’s raring to go.

He has met Prime Minister Brown for the first time, and he thinks they’ve hit it off. He likes Mr Brown’s Presbyterian “values-driven” approach – such a change from Tony Blair’s vulgar Bush-style religion. The Telegraph says that Rowan Williams “clearly intends to get more involved in the national debate. ‘Politics is so much about human issues now,’ he says.”

The rest of the interview is taken up with rather less than inspiring insights into why he thinks society is “broken”. There is inequality, he says, there is injustice, separation of communities, loneliness. The media is sadistic, parents are too pushy and don’t give their children enough time to think, the obsession with paedophilia is restricting the lives of children etc. etc. You could read any or all of these opinions just about any day of the week in the columns of newspapers (our own honorary associate Joan Smith gave an excellent analysis here) and none of them are particularly ‘religious’. There wasn’t a truly original insight anywhere in the whole interview, but there was a lot of “we’re all doomed – DOOMED I tell you!”

Of course, what Mr Williams forgets to mention is that the society we now live in – the one he thinks is “broken” – is actually far less ‘broken’ than the one that we inhabited in the days of over-arching church power. The last time the Church of England had a real stranglehold on this country was in Victorian times – and who would want to go back there? For the majority of people living in this country at that time, it was a question of dire poverty, relentless work, squalor and an early death. The Church had its sticky fingers in every aspect of life. It ran schools, hospitals and what welfare services there might have been.

Even in the upper reaches of society, the Church pulled many of the strings. You couldn’t attend or teach at a university unless you were a communicant of the Church of England. You couldn’t be an MP unless you swore on the Bible (as our founder Charles Bradlaugh found out to his cost). Child prostitution was common, child labour taken for granted, slavery excused and workhouses everywhere. The streets were unsafe and riddled with poverty-driven crime. Dissenters to Church doctrine (such as the “blasphemers” who started the secularist movement) were jailed with hard labour for printing comments that would these days be regarded as mild and rather feeble.

As we have progressed (and that means in science as well as in scepticism about religion), we have become a more compassionate country. We have a state-operated welfare system that is not perfect, but is open to all and sees most of us through. The state provides universal education. And despite what the doom-mongers like Williams say, most families are strong and supportive. Indeed, only this week a report indicated that people who care for their elderly or infirm relatives at home save the country £87 billion a year. They do this selfless, often completely unnoticed and unrewarded work out of sheer human love – not because the church or the state wants them to. See story here.

Society operates smoothly in most areas, and we manage, in the main, to co-operate to mutual advantage. Charities are well supported, emergency appeals bring forth large amounts of money (look at what happened with the tsunami). People generally have more empathy for those afflicted by tragedy and misfortune. We take care of our disabled and vulnerable in a way that would have been unthinkable when the church was in control.

Our society is imperfect, true, but it is not “broken”, and we don’t need Rowan Williams and his bandits to repair it. If you put 60 million people on a small island and expect there to be no problems, then you’re in cloud cuckoo land. There is bound to be crime. There will always be some malcontents and psychotics among such a huge population. But they are in a tiny, tiny minority – they just happen to get all the headlines. And let us not forget that the murder capital of the world is the USA, where religion supposedly informs 85% of the population.

So, although Rowan Williams plays the familiar religious trick of trying to persuade us that we’re all going to hell in a handcart (and we need Jesus to save us), it fails dismally.

Much more worrying is his threat to get involved in politics and bring forward what sounds very much like a reactionary agenda. His most recent moral lesson has been to abandon his own principles to mollify human rights abusers and bigots in Africa over gays in the church. Now he is making threatening noises about restricting abortion. He has said on other occasions that he intends to attack secularism.

He has made a start by supporting the government’s plans to expand the number of “faith schools”. He told the Church of England Newspaper that the “Church of England schools offer not a programme of indoctrination” but “the opportunity for children of different faith groups to understand each other.” How they will understand each other when they are going to different schools and never meet is difficult to grasp. But as we know, the Archbishop is much cleverer than we are.

And as for indoctrination – he says in the same article: “The more that religious schools form an integral part of our overall education provision, the better the chances of educating all students sensitively in what it actually feels like to share convictions of faith.” (My italics). Now – does that sound like indoctrination or not?

The Archbishop, it seems, has issued a warning to those of us of a secular mind. He’s coming to get us and to re-attach the parasite that is his church.

And I’ve got a little warning for the Archbishop. Why is it that church attendance is continuing to drop like a stone, and the vast majority of the public oppose your views on topics such as faith schools and voluntary euthanasia?

If you’re declaring war on a secular, open, inclusive society, Archbishop, then we will fight you every inch of the way to protect it.

See also: Daily Telegraph interview