Rethinking religion in an open societyI would recommend reading this, regardless of whether you are an atheist or a person with a religion or a spiritual path.
Though the role of religion in society has come back onto the agenda with a vengeance in recent years, the political, spiritual and intellectual resources at our disposal for handling the issues involved seem perilously thin on all sides in public life. This paper aims to reconstruct some key terms in the debate and to offer a positive case for a 'disestablished' form for religion within a plural social and political order. In particular it suggests that the alternative to hegemonic religion or attempts to exclude religion from public life lies in the rediscovery of an alternative form of politics rooted in practical 'goods' and 'virtues' derived from different communities and traditions, accompanied by the development of a 'civil state' framework.
In this article, Simon Barrow takes a long hard look at the current debate on who gets to keep control over public life, and tries to move beyond the over-simplified "atheists versus religionists" picture peddled by the media.
I think he is right that we are now in 'post-Christendom' and I think this is a good thing. I think Christianity lost its claim to credibility when it got into bed with the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, and ceased to be a radical critique of the status quo at that point.
Likewise, ancient paganism lost its credibility (in modern eyes, anyway) when it became a state religion where you had to sacrifice to the numen of the Emperor. All the excitement was located in the mystery religions.
Theocracy is a bad idea anywhere - established religion is always a conservative force, because it is run by the rich and powerful, who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. It's the small radical groups like Quakers, Unitarians, the Metropolitan Community Church, Soulforce, Wiccans, eco-Pagans, Sufis, Hasidim that challenge inequality and promote justice (for LGBT people, peace, the environment, etc.)
Recently some Pagans have started to liaise with the government over various issues, which is great, but the problem is that the government wants Pagans to "speak with one voice" and I don't see how we can do this, when there are many different Pagans with many different agendas and ideas. I guess we can try to reach a consensus among ourselves and then relay that to the government, but owing to the distributed nature of Pagan networks and communities, it is difficult to canvass everyone's opinion.
What Simon Barrow suggests instead of the established church is a polity based on values and virtues instead of beliefs - an eminently sensible idea, and something that is compatible with many religions, including Paganism, Unitarianism, and Buddhism, to name a few - all of which are based on values and not on beliefs. There is disagreement about beliefs both within and between traditions, but most people can agree on a set of values and civic virtues - inclusivity, tolerance, social welfare, justice, equity, charity (all good Heathen and Roman virtues), and so on.
He does not mention Paganism (though he does mention small new religions and non-aligned spirituality), and so I wonder what his proposed model might be like for Pagans - I think it would be a good thing, because it would be based on values which we can all subscribe to, and there might be less of the governmental mindset that insists on consulting one specific religious organisation and assuming that it represents the views of everyone in that group. It could also mean that Christianity might no longer be seen as a model that other religions must be like, or conform to, in order to be regarded as religions.