Earlier this week, the Daily Mail suggested the Queen did not approve of same sex marriage. Regardless of the accuracy of the report (and the Daily Mail is not always the most reliable of sources) it does raise the question of the role of faith in what is now a predominantly secular society.
Secularists sometimes suggest that faith should be a purely private matter and that people of faith should leave their beliefs in their lobbies (or perhaps closets) before leaving their homes. Even if this were possible, I am not sure how desirable it would be.
First, let us define “faith”. Faith is belief that is not based on proof. It is often associated with religion, but religious belief is not necessary for faith. When I cross the road at a pedestrian crossing, I believe that motorists will stop when I have right of way. I have no proof of this. In effect I am saying I have faith that drivers will obey the law. Yet there have been many instances where pedestrians have been knocked over, even killed, or had close shaves.
Atheism – the belief that no god and no afterlife exist – is a belief for which there is no proof or evidence: atheism is as much based on faith as Christianity or Islam. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, secularism is “the belief that religion should not be involved with ordinary social and political activities of a country.” This too implies a faith in something that is not based on proof: that the secular organisation of society is best. Even the briefest look at history shows that secular societies are just as likely to oppress their citizens as societies in which religion plays a role. In this context, one needs only look at Stalin’s Soviet Union, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and currently North Korea.
In reality, it is simply impossible for us to leave our faith at home. Faith, including religious faith, informs behaviour and attitudes. I cannot separate my Christian faith (or for that matter my belief in socialism) from the way I live, the work I choose to do and my priorities. My Christian and socialist beliefs provide me with the core of my morality. To the extent that my behaviour accords with that morality I am being true to my faith. But like all human beings I am far from perfect and there will be times when my behaviour is at odds with my morality – occasions when I am selfish or try to control others or behave in ways that damage others. On those occasions I am behaving as a hypocrite.
Even if I could leave my faith at home, why would I? There are countless people who have used their faith to improve the lives of others, sometimes giving their lives in the process. The names of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, Florence Nightingale and William Wilberforce come immediately to mind. Florence Nightingale wrote a work of theology “Suggestions for Thought” in which she said genuine religion shows itself by actively caring for and loving others. It was her religious faith that underpinned her work, and let’s not forget she provided the foundations of modern nursing and was responsible for setting up the first training programmes for nurses. The world would have been a far worse, a far more brutal, place without the religious beliefs of Florence Nightingale and the other people listed above. Alongside these there are all those billions of unknown people whose religious beliefs inform their trade union activities, their political work, their voluntary work, even the way they relate to workmates and people they meet in the street.
Sadly, there are those who think their faith gives them the right to impose their beliefs on others, and in western society this is particularly the case with fundamentalist and conservative Christians. Elsewhere I have argued that conservative Christianity is distortion of the message of Christ – however, though I disagree with them, they have the right to their beliefs. When conservative Christians campaigned against same sex marriage, they were merely following their beliefs, their faith as they saw it. Not only did they have the right to campaign against the law being changed, it could also be argued that – according to their beliefs – they had a duty to do so. Likewise, they have the right to continue to campaign for the repeal of these new laws.
What they do not have the right to do is to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. Conservative Christians employed as registrars or in registry offices do not and should not have the right to refuse to conduct same sex marriages or to make it more difficult for same sex couples to marry. Those employed in any area of health and social care should not have the right to refuse to take part in the medical or social care of patients or service users because of their opposition to abortion or contraception or homosexuality. Those employed in education should not have the right to refuse to provide information on sex and sexuality because of their moral objections. To allow conservative Christians – and others with similar moral views – to do so would be to allow them to restrict the rights of others.
We all have the right to hold opinions that are different from those of others; we all have the right to campaign for what we believe in. What none of us should have the right to do is to force our lifestyles and moral codes on others. As a gay man, I refuse to let conservative Christians interfere in the way I choose to express my love for another man. Likewise, as a Christian I reject secularist attempts to stop me bringing my faith into the public sphere.