Keep religion out of politics

THERE are a number of words which, when used by a politician, should raise your hackles and set off the internal alarms.

When, for example, they mention integrity, check your handbag or back pocket for your wallet or purse.

When they speak of morality, lock up your wives and daughters; of patriotism, send your sons to a neutral country; of compassion, prepare for a tax rise; and of security, expect even greater levels of surveillance and state control.

In other words, operate from the Newtonian premise that a key word or phrase almost always indicates that the exact opposite will happen.

Tony Blair

And, when they drag their religious beliefs into the public arena, it's a fair assumption that their internal party political agenda has been replaced by a Messianic desire to do "something big".

Tony Blair has set out his plans for the modestly entitled Tony Blair Faith Foundation, saying that it will "focus on the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, and that it will help people of those faiths discover what they share and help partner those within any of the faiths who stand up for peaceful co-existence and reject the extremist and divisive notion that faiths are in fundamental struggle against each other".

The New Labour vanity project has been dwarfed by a New Religion vehicle in which our former Prime Minister will take the easiest options from the various creeds and create a lovey-dovey, touchy-feely pseudo philosophy which can be packaged in floss and promoted on vacuous sound-bites.

It's the same sort of approach which turned Labour into a "we-can-be-anything-you-want-us-to-be" campaigning machine (no core values, just electoral targets) and allowed Blair to treat the United Kingdom as a brand rather than a sovereign nation.

His new ambition, it seems, is to become the people's Pope. He has already converted to Roman Catholicism – a decision he put off until he had secured a political deal with Ian Paisley! That fact alone tells you a lot.

Atheist

Now, as many of you will know, I'm an atheist; the sort of evangelical atheist who regards religion as a destabilising, lunatic and mostly unhelpful aspect of human history.

That's not to say that a personal religious belief cannot have, albeit in the right sort of mind, a positive purpose; sometimes as an individual moral compass, and sometimes as a psychological comfort blanket to help people weather their own storms.

That aside, I don't believe that a religious belief – by itself – makes anyone a better person and I certainly don't believe that the church, or mosque or temple (take your pick) has much to offer in the way of problem-solving.

Indeed, given the "us-and-them" mentality which seems to be the centrepiece perspective of all religions and sects, it strikes me that religion is, more often than not, the source of, rather than the cure for division.

Anyway, and much closer to home, what can our local Presbyterians, Methodists, Church of Ireland, Baptists, Mormons, Scientologists, Episcopalians, Jews, Roman Catholics, Free Presbyterians, Elims, Brethren, Muslims, Buddhists, Seventh Day Adventists, Harri Krishnas et al (and there's another 50 or so religious types listed in the Yellow Pages) teach us about the dangers of a divided society?

Given the scale and the nature of the divisions between religions and the differing schools of thought within each one, isn't there an overwhelmingly logical argument to be made that religion can never be more than a source of division?

Religious blocs

Let me put it bluntly: two main religious blocs have been present in Ireland for hundreds of years and both have been active in Northern Ireland since 1921.

Yet, despite the decades of supposed bridge-building and happy-clappy cross-community proselytising from priests, ministers, cardinals and primates, Northern Ireland is as polarised today as it has ever been.

The moral, spiritual, personal and "political" input from the Churches – singly and collectively – hasn't made a button of difference. Each promotes and protects its own.

On a wider front, the Pope is criss-crossing America apologising for serial child abuse; Presbyterians in Portadown can't agree on whether a female minister should be allowed in different pulpits; the Church of England remains torn on the issue of homosexuality; and Islamic clergy are urging a Holy War against Western infidels. Let's see Mr Blair find common ground there!

I have no problem with the Church having a social role in the form of being a more compassionate and hands-on manifestation of the welfare state.

There is essential work to be done in helping the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, the distanced, the drunk, the drug-addled and the derelict.

And if that is where we were accustomed to seeing the Church in constant frontline action, then perhaps atheism and agnosticism wouldn't be the growth industries they are!

Secular society

But I don't believe that the Church is either capable of, or should be playing, a political role in an increasingly secular society.

Yes, historically speaking there was a time when the Church and State were almost indistinguishable in many parts of Europe; but the hallmarks of that period were corruption and warfare, with religion used as a coercive political and social tool rather than a cohesive moral and spiritual tool.

The malign influence of Christianity across Europe for hundreds of years is now mirrored by the equally malign and uncompromising influence of Islam today.

In general, I regard Church involvement in political matters with very great suspicion.

I accept that individuals with deeply held and practiced religious beliefs also have a view on worldly issues; but I draw the line at the State affording any protection or position for them, or their religion, above and beyond that of the protections and freedoms afforded to "ordinary" citizens.

In other words, the Church, individual religions and clergy should have no special role in either society or the State.

What religious people choose to believe is their own business, but when they aren't putting those beliefs up for a democratic endorsement at elections they certainly shouldn't be trying to skewer the political and legislative agenda towards their own ends.

I don't want the moral template for a modern society built around something as nebulous as a belief in the unproven.

Render unto Caesar, guys, and keep the rest in the privacy of your own lives. Please, keep your religion out of my politics.