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Never Mind What Jesus Would Do: Progressive Atheism & the Big Society

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David Cameron’s recent Easter message continues to attract media attention. In the unlikely case that you didn’t see it or hear about it, the message affirmed not only a deepening development of his own Christian faith, but also reminds the nation as a whole of the importance of its Christian identity and heritage. Some have welcomed this message as an example of refreshing candour and a riposte to the assumption that Britain has become irretrievably secular and humanist – indeed post-Christian. Others interpreted it is as a more strategically motivated attempt to appease traditional Conservative voters in the rural heartlands, disenchanted with Cameron’s more liberal pronouncements on issues such as same–sex marriage, and tempted to join the UKIP fold. Another sector of opinion claimed these pronouncements were designed to neutralise church–led criticism of the more devastating impacts of government welfare policy on the most vulnerable sectors of our society, which has led, for example, to the unwelcome but increasingly normalised provision of food banks.

But perhaps most eye-catching was the Prime Minister’s (repeated) claim that, ‘Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago; I just want to see more of it’. In particular he cited, ‘the millions of Christians … who live out the letter of the Bible’ by setting up clubs and volunteering (including the setting up of food banks). He also recommended Christianity as a moral code by which to raise children. The increasingly confident and comfortable way in which Cameron claims the public space back for Christianity (and religion in general) seems out of step with what on the surface appears to be a widely-held assumption that religion is increasingly irrelevant and in terminal decline.

The marginalised atheist and socially conservative Christian – strange bedfellows?
A collection of atheist and humanist voices were quick to object to Cameron’s claim that Britain is a ‘Christian country’, stepping-up to the challenge set by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams for ‘atheists to show faith in themselves’. Williams’ arresting article published earlier this year depicted a well-meaning group of tolerant and decent people who don’t like to make a fuss, but who find themselves ignored for it. Williams’ writes of British atheists yet her illustration reminded me of so many popular depictions of the Church of England and hand-wringing Anglican vicars (think Derek Nimmo sitcoms from the 70s).

Meanwhile, Williams’ complaints that the public debate is generally hostile to the atheist/humanist perspective, runs parallel to conservative voices who cry foul over institutional and cultural discrimination of Christianity (despite Cameron’s more recent protestations of ‘evangelical’ fervour). Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury has claimed, for example, that it is no longer possible to state traditional Christian views about the uniqueness of Christ or marriage without being accused of being anti ‘other faiths’ or homophobic.

How have we managed to create a public square where both atheist and religiously conservative citizens are so equally convinced of their marginalisation that they contemplate political lobbying to address their plight?

The confused space of the postsecular public sphere
One possible answer to this pressing conundrum is the idea developed by the Marxist-influenced social theorist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas – we have moved from a secular to a postsecular society. The postsecular is not the triumphant return of religion into the public sphere at the expense of secularism and secularisation, but rather a new and uncharted territory whereby, ‘the vigorous continuation of religion in a continually secularizing environment must be reckoned with’. The twentieth century ‘one-size fits all’ version of the public square, in which religion is confined to the private sphere and only neutral (i.e. secular) symbols and language are permitted, no longer addresses the realities of the twenty-first.

Habermas argues that the religious and secular actually need each other. The relationship between the two is symbiotic, not hierarchical. Religion, he claims, helps provide the deepest ethical and moral imperatives by which to shape public life. On the other side, the dynamism of the secular helps convert religious ideas into progressive political agendas; for example, the Christian doctrine of Imago Dei (that every human being is created in the image of God) is translated into secular ideas of human rights and equalities. This complementary understanding of the religious and the secular provides a profound ethical challenge: to forsake our right to feel offended by others in favour of something far more risky; a willingness to engage and listen and then act together. It makes, says Habermas, ‘a difference whether we speak with one another or merely about one another’.

No one has the monopoly on being progressive
The key word here is progressive. Progressive is a word that has been used as a stick to publically beat others with. To label your opponents as non-progressive suggests that they are ignorant and backward looking – i.e. regressive.But this is a sterile and immature debate.  We need to capture less narrow understandings of these terms.

To be progressive means essentially that you are outward looking, ready for opportunities to move forward with others for the sake of the common good. To be regressive is to be inward looking, and willing to work only with those who share your view of the world. There is growing evidence to suggest that as many citizens seek alternatives to the current politics of despair, that ‘progressive’ people of religion and no-religion are coming together ‘to do something about something’. This coming together can be risky and contested, but at least it’s real. And more often than not it is remarkably effective and helps challenge reductive stereotypes.

Can we create together a genuinely bold and transformative vision of the Big Society?
Regressive minded people of whatever stripe, who are interested only in policing the public sphere and looking for wrongs to be righted, are of no help in the present context. That is why we need a progressive atheism and humanism, proud and comfortable in its own skin and willing to work in honest collaboration with those who share agendas for hope and transformation across the ideological divide. To shift the debate about the Big Society on from Cameron’s preferred vision of familial morality and enthusiastic volunteering, we need to develop together a more transformative view of the Big Society that offers much more than just warm hearts and a safe pair of hands (not to mention opportunities for still further privatisation of public services). I am not opposed to the flourishing of enthusiastic local groups caring for those less fortunate citizens amongst whom they live and work. But we also need to generate genuine alternatives to the way society is structured, and the distribution of wealth and opportunity. New affinities or alliances between progressive people of all religions and of none-religious beliefs can create a genuinely progressive shared (Big?) society.

For the postsecular society is here to stay – let’s see it as a glass half-full, not half-empty.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.


Read more blog posts:

“Blurred Encounters in a Messy Church” by Greg Smith

“A Change of Climate for Political Theology” by John Reader

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Blurred Encounters in a Messy Church


A Victorian Gothic barn of a church, with most of the pews still anchored in place, on a cold wet Saturday afternoon in February. The parish in a multicultural inner city in the North of England has struggled to survive, but remains committed to evangelical mission and community engagement. Twice a term now we put on a Messy Church session, advertised mainly through the majority Asian Church primary school that stands next door. The vicar’s wife, a retired teacher does most of the work of planning and preparation. The vicar himself does most of the platform presentation, and the team of a dozen or so volunteer helpers are predominantly aged over 60, white and English.

From 3pm the church fills with parents and children, mostly families who attend the school, and maybe two or three who regularly come to worship on Sunday mornings. It’s mostly women and children, though there are a handful of dads. There is a group of white working-class mums, some of them lone parents, who obviously know each other and spend a lot of time chatting and letting the kids get on with the activities. But as the number of people in the building rises to 90 we realise this is the most popular Messy Church since we started 18 months ago – and that over half of those attending are Muslims. One of the women is dressed in a black abaya, worn with a niqab – though she does remove the face covering when she has become comfortable with the social setting inside the church. Several other women and girls are wearing hijab (headscarf) and are in modest Asian dress.

One of the Muslim women who had encouraged friends to come is a single parent who first came along to a Messy Church a few months ago. We got to know her better through the midweek job club in the church hall. She had been unemployed, and destitute because she had been sanctioned for some trivial breach of benefit conditions by the job centre. We had helped her with food parcels, friendship and eventually to find a job in child care, and though she does not say she is a follower of Jesus or attend Sunday worship, she clearly feels herself to be part of the church family.

As usual Messy Church is a mixture of games, child-friendly Jesus songs, craft activities, a story and eating together. The vicar tells the story of Joseph, bringing out the importance of family and forgiveness. The crafts features coats of many colours, camels and silver cups.  People are invited to write their prayers for forgiveness on coloured paper cut in the shape and size of their hands and to stick these to a board at the front of the church. We then share in food which church people have brought along – sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and some fruit (up North this is known as a Jacob’s join). Probably we should have thought more clearly about making sure there were halal options, but vegetarian items mean everyone found something they were happy to eat. By five o’ clock the helpers were anxious to start clearing up but several people just wanted to stop and chat, so it took a long time before we could all go home, tired but encouraged.

How do we reflect on what was happening here? The situation has all the characteristics of what William Temple Foundation’s Chris Baker and John Reader have labelled a “blurred encounter”. There were a wide range of expectations and motives in the room. Christians were there with the hope of sharing the gospel. Children from a variety of backgrounds were just happy to be together and to have fun. Parents of various faith backgrounds and none were pleased to have something for the family to do on a cold February afternoon, that didn’t cost anything, and had some free food thrown in.

Sociologically speaking it seems that the parish church, though its close involvement with the school next door, is able to offer a safe social space for the banal everyday encounters on which social cohesion can be built. The school and the relaxed informality of Messy Church, linked with other community involvements such as the job club offer a milieu for building bridging social capital, crossing boundaries of communities which some commentators suggest are trapped in parallel lives. Religion is not in itself a barrier, but rather seems to offer common ground where trust can be built. It is significant too that Messy Church is an environment where women and children go first – perhaps typical male approaches to faith would be more dogmatic and divisive. There can be everyday good neighbourliness, friendship and trust across faith communities at this level. However it is also the case that in the local community there are examples of barriers and racisms directed against Muslims, while we also know of painful and hostile experiences when someone from a Muslim background “comes out” publicly as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Theologically one can also ask what is going on in this situation and how is God at work? A classic evangelical answer would be that to some degree at least, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached, if only implicitly, or at least proclaimed by deeds and attitudes. A more liberal approach would be to stress that the values of acceptance, friendship, trust, love and forgiveness are signs of the Kingdom of God, and of the Holy Spirit at work. Whether or not anyone discerns or names the name of Christ in this situation, God alone knows what is happening in people’s hearts, and He alone is the final judge of us all.

It might be worthwhile to reflect on NT Wright’s recent perspectives on Pauline theology where the emphasis is placed not so much on individual justification before God as on incorporation into the multicultural community of those who are “in the Messiah”. However, this raises many questions about how in such blurred encounters and ambiguous social and religious spaces, people may or may not find “salvation” — amidst all the competing definitions of that term one may come across in our theologically diverse environment.

Greg Smith is Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

Read more blog posts:

”Never mind what Jesus Would Do: Progressive Atheism & the Big Society” by Chris Baker

“A Change of Climate for Political Theology” by John Reader

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