The Religious Monopoly on Virtue

The pro-faith bore Mark Vernon talks about religion and volunteering in CiF and comes to the conclusion that ‘If you want big society, you need big religion’.

He bases that on a recent study of voluntarism by Robert Putnam, Harvard’s professor of public policy, and arguments made by the Big Society king wonk Philip Blond.

Let us resist the temptation to point out recent events in Ireland and the Middle East as an example of what Big Faith can do to societies. (Social problems in so many developing countries come down to the fact that there is too much religion and not enough of anything else.) 

I have come across Catholic and Anglican clerics who will take in refugees when no one else will, and who campaign for the living wage. They are heroes. But what Vernon seems to be arguing here is that religion is a precondition for such courage and kindness. It’s not enough for him to say that atheists are wrong on a philosophical level, or vulgar, or rude: they have to be spiritual inferiors.

Take a look at this glossolalia:

Religious people just do all citizenish things better than secular people, from giving, to voting, to volunteering. Moreover, they offer their money and time to everyone, regardless of whether they belong to their religious group.

To my mind, Blond asked exactly the right question: can you imagine a secular network that matches a church network for its pro-sociality?

Putnam could not. He doesn’t know what makes faith communities civically exceptional. Not even networks of environmentalists, that share interests beyond themselves too, score so well. In short, it doesn’t look as easy to separate the content of faith from the community of faith, which is intuitively as you’d expect, as communities of faith arise and are sustained for reasons of faith.

Putnam thinks that the evidence shows the link between civic engagement and religiosity in the UK is pretty much the same as in the US, notwithstanding that British religiosity is obviously far less pronounced.

The evidence is that strong faith communities make for strong interfaith and wider social links too. In other words, it’s a mistake to assume that inward-looking groups aren’t also, on the whole, civically outward-looking. So the French are wrong to insist that a good citizen can’t wear the veil. It also followed from what Putnam said, though he did not say so explicitly, that faith schools are, generally, good for society. In short, the link between bridging and bonding is not zero-sum, as is perhaps often assumed.

Again, it’s not enough for Vernon and Blond to say: ‘Let us all, from all faiths and none, work together to make the world a better place.’ Religion – or at least being part of a religious community – is the precondition for virtue.

Blond asks: ‘can you imagine a secular network that matches a church network for its pro-sociality?’ How about the trade union movement, the environmental/Fair Trade campaigners, the feminist movement, UK Uncut? It is just wrong for Vernon to say that such campaigns are not ‘civically exceptional’. We wouldn’t even have representative democracy without feminists and trade unions. Still, this kind of genuine pro-sociality might be a real challenge for the Red Tory Philip Blond, not to mention his colleagues in the Christian Conservative Fellowship.

It’s a rare thing when the comments at CiF are more intelligent and perceptive than the piece above the line. Vernon’s article is written in the public sector whalesong of the Big Society. He implores that ‘if you’re convinced by the evidence that religiosity is pro-social, then politicians should make sure they don’t undermine people’s habits when it comes to belonging to communities of faith.’

He is pushing at an open door.

Here are some recent examples that show the National Government’s commitment to bridging the social capital of strong faith communities:

– The Poppy Project is a secular charity that provides refuge and support for hundreds of trafficked women. The government has torn up its contract, and announced that these services will be run by the extremist and ideological Salvation Army. This may or may not be related to a recent case where the Home Office had to pay massive damages to a Moldovan woman after it mishandled her case, failed to investigate her trafficker and deported her, with the result that the trafficker hunted the woman down and forced her back into forced prostitution.

– On a recent sexual health forum the government left out the experienced professional organisation, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, in favour of another extremist anti-choice group that opposes abortion in all circumstances.

– In an alliance between the Methodist authoritarian left and the monomanical anti-abortion right, backbenchers Frank Field and Nadine Dorries have tabled amendments to the government’s health privatisation bill that would prevent women from getting counselling from Marie Stopes or the BPHS prior to an abortion. The amendmengts would introduce compulsory ‘independent’ counselling from ‘a private body that does not itself provide for the termination of pregnancies’. Pro-choice campaigners are concerned that ‘the private bodies most likely to step forward to offering counselling under such circumstances would be groups with an ideological interest in preventing abortions from taking place.’ Recently, we learned that elected MPs won’t even be able to vote on the Dorries/Field amendments.

So far, the Big Society appears to be a money train for doctrinaire religious organisations, who will be allowed to exploit our most vulnerable citizens for their own ideological reasons. It will be cheered on by a political class that believes there is no social problem that cannot be resolved by throwing Big Faith at it.


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