Prudence Dailey’s Commentary: Does Religion Have ‘Special Status’ in Our Society?

Prudence Dailey’s Commentary

Does Religion Have ‘Special Status’ in Our Society?

As I write this, I am preparing to travel up to Durham tomorrow to speak in a debate at the Durham Union (a debating society similar to the Oxford and Cambridge Unions) against the motion that ‘This House believes that religious groups ought not receive special status’.

The wording seems hard to pin down: do religious groups, in fact, receive ‘special status’ in our society? On closer examination, the idea that they do is founded on the assumption that secular space is somehow ‘neutral’, and that religiosity is imposed upon it; but this is wrong. Writers such as Tom Holland and Douglas Murray have clearly articulated the extent to which our moral and cultural foundations are explicitly Christian; as Holland puts it: ‘To live in a Western country is to live in a society saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions’.

In Durham itself—as in my own city, Oxford—many of the colleges take their monikers from saints; there are also many street names with a Christian connotation. It is, however, not only our history that is Christian: many of the basic precepts of the modern imagination, which are nowadays blindly assumed to be secular principles, are rooted in Christianity. That the weak are equal in dignity and worth to the strong; that powerful men should not force themselves sexually on those perceived to be their inferiors; that it is as important for husbands to be faithful to their wives as vice versa—all these ideas, now pretty much taken for granted in the West, would have been regarded as unthinkable in the pre-Christian era.

In addition, many of the rights often thought of as ‘religious’—the right to opt out of participating in abortions, for example, or indeed to refuse to participate in military combat—are straightforwardly conscience rights, that do not require religious belief (even though they often go hand-in-hand with it). Our society currently has a real problem with respecting the consciences of others where these differ from our own, and we seem to be moving in the wrong direction: social media (and especially Twitter) have a lot to do with this. Well-known headmistress Katherine Birbalshingh—who is NOT herself a person of faith—recently used the phrase ‘original sin’ in one of her tweets. She was surprised by the ensuing Twitter backlash from those outraged at the very concept, and she said it brought home to her the especial difficulties faced by Christians in the public square at present. There are no easy solutions to this—but further narrowing the social space occupied by religion risks further increases intolerance.

To see what happens when the State distances itself actively from faith, one need only look across the English Channel to France, where the principle of laïcité is central. There, there are no religious state schools (although, even so, the government gives some money to private religious schools), and no expectation that dress does will take account of religious dress requirements (such as thee wearing of a turban or a hijab). A few years ago, it was reported that Muslim women were chased off a French beach by police for dressing too modestly. This kind of statist conformism sits ill with English sensibilities.

Overall, a religious—specifically a Christian—worldview is so thoroughly embedded in Western culture, that we easily overlook its presence. The danger is that, in failing to recognise it, we undermine the very principles on which our common life depends, and on which our society rests.