Pause for Thought… for the Day

A report by Demos over the weekend has claimed that religious people are more likely to be on the left. The Guardian has seized on this:

The Faithful Citizens report also has implications for the aspiration of prime minister David Cameron for a ‘big society’. It finds that people who identify with a faith are more likely to volunteer, be politically engaged and to become active citizens in their neighbourhoods.

But the Demos report suggests that the example of the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, who combines deeply held progressive beliefs with his religious convictions, is not unusual.

‘Rowan Williams may be far more representative of the religious community than many have suggested,’ said Jonathan Birdwell, the author of the report. ‘Progressives should sit up and take note. Their natural allies may look more like the archbishop of Canterbury than Richard Dawkins.’

The report found that 55% of people with faith placed themselves on the left of politics, compared with 40% who placed themselves on the right. The report also suggests that people with faith are more likely to value equality over freedom than their non-religious counterparts. It discloses that 41% of people with religious views prioritise equality over freedom, compared with 36% of those without faith.

The report, based on an analysis of the European Values Study, also finds evidence that people who belong to a religious organisation are more likely to say they are very interested in politics, to have signed a petition and to have participated in a demonstration.

I read the report. In a sense it’s nothing more than a welcome confirmation that most religious people don’t share the prejudices and manias of ecclesiastical leaders. However, a few points:

Its definitions are problematic. The report defines respondents as being either a ‘religious exclusivist’ a ‘religious pluralist’ or a ‘non religious secular’. The ‘seculars’ are further defined as people who ‘did not identify as religious’, ‘did not consider themselves religious’ and believe that ‘None of the great religions have any truths to offer’. This runs counter to secularism as it’s been understood throughout history – you don’t have to be an atheist to be secular, you just need to accept a basic separation of church and state. Secularism welcomes everyone who isn’t trying to destroy it. This isn’t the first incidence of high liberal confusion over first principles.

For that matter, what do we mean by ‘left’? Is it ‘left’ to value equality over freedom? Shouldn’t we demand both freedom and equality? Of course you can go on forever about what it means to be left these days, but what’s important in this context is the liberal-left’s attempted revisionism and rehabilitation of religion since 9/11. It’s too stupid to rehearse here, but there has been a definite intellectual slide towards earthy spiritual values and away from bourgois neoconservative constructions such as secularism, feminism and human rights. Alain de Botton – who we’ve met before – encapsulates its motivations:

The progressive side of religion springs from their frequent reminders to live for others and to concentrate more on the wellbeing of the group than on the happiness of the individual… In this sense, religions run counter to the implicit philosophy of modern consumer capitalism.

The scramble for an alternative – any alternative – to consumer capitalism has led writers, thinkers and activists on the left into some very strange places. Termini ranged from a harmless flirtation with reiki and cosmic ordering to, at worst, active support for genocidal faith-based terrorism. This is another reason why definitions of a left wing outlook run into problems and why so many frauds and low men can pass for progressive. Rowan Williams is regularly lauded by the Guardian despite his support of sharia law for British Muslims (in effect, an inferior, separate and discriminatory legal system predicated on race) and his special pleading on rightwing G-spot issues like welfare and political correctness.

The report has a preoccupation with political engagement. The pro-faith left have claimed before that religious social networks do good works unmatched by any secular organisation – apart from the NHS, trade unions, numerous residential associations, Friends of the Parks groups and UK Uncut-style secular activists but no one mentioned them. We live in a time where someone who gives ten hours a week to a local church group is seen as morally superior to a paramedic facing five back-to-back twelve hour shifts over a hundred-hour cycle. You could say that the paramedic is getting paid – true, but s/he could make better money in a standard office job, and avoid the ruinous impact of shift work on his health, youth and relationships. It’s not just the little platoons that hold society together, or are motivated by compassion.

In the age of the Big Society it’s easy to forget that community engagement and unpaid work are not necessarily progressive. Councillors, magistrates and school governors are often little Bismarcks trying to build up a power base. The Demos report even considers joining a boycott, any boycott, as an indicator of virtue. The most prominent political boycott today is a boycott of Israeli academics and institutions that threatens labour rights of Israeli workers and the free exchange of ideas between our countries. The inner city Labour MP Stella Creasy hit on the assumption here, that ‘well, as long as people are taking part, whatever happens will be good. Well, the EDL [English Defence League] are taking part in their local communities – and I don’t think what they’re doing is good.’

Finally it’s interesting to note that religion is still losing its appeal. The report admits as much: ‘the active practice of religion continues to decline, with responses from younger Britons suggesting a significant generational shift.’ The Guardian summarises this: ‘Religiosity among younger citizens appears to be declining, with nearly two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds claiming that they do not follow a religion, compared with under one third aged 65 and over.’ The political-media class falls over itself to promote all things faith, while more and more of the public have escaped to the secular world of multiple living. This suggests that, although so many left politicians and intellectuals believe that faith will save us – almost believe that religious belief is a precondition for being leftwing – they will have to at least reach an accommodation with younger generations who are not pro faith. If they can’t do that, they will spiral into irrelevance.

Update: Over at the Staggers, Nelson Jones has gone much deeper into the methodology and has some real doubts. Jonathan Birdwell from Demos responds, somewhat intemperately, to Jones’s mild-mannered criticism: ‘Behind Jones’s straw man argument, and the misdirection and lazy assumptions that characterise his other two methodological ‘critiques’… is a clear desire to airbrush faith out of civic and political life.’ Jones has responded on his own blog:

Being neither left-of-centre nor religious, I don’t really have a dog in this fight, and I must say I was rather taken aback with the vehemence with which (in private correspondence) Demos attacked me for suggesting various flaws in their analysis and, most especially, for pointing out that the reports claiming that religious believers were ‘more likely to be left wing’ were seriously misleading. Until I forced them into it, Demos did nothing to correct this misleading impression by publicising the true figures.


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