Here are the notes I took at Rowan Williams’ talk at the Cheltenham Literary Festival
Co -exist Foundation Lecture : Rowan Williams
Rights, law & faith – religion vs rights – are they opposites? Should we talk of obedience, not our own rights that are owed? Faith communities are not comfortable yet with the idea of rights for sexual minorities. Some religious communities are not being allowed rights in society – and others are not allowing rights for others. The opposition of these actually collude to cause a destructive inter-cultural illiteracy.
Legal universalism – the idea that everyone has the same rights and freedoms. Embodies that we need these for stability, creates safety etc, not dependent on status. Protects minorities & all recognised as a citizen. Gives continuity in the law, not negotiated politically each govt. or whim / fashion. Not a luxury but a set of assumptions that continues & underpins civilised society.
Based on the idea of human dignity, giving recognition, respect and attention to others. If we don’t begin with this, it is possible to engender a sense of entitlement, of demand that the state must give us as individuals what we want or demand.
Religious perspectives should start from the notion of human dignity in their approach to human rights. This is embedded in many doctrinal statements; with Christian and Jewish doctrine, the idea of man being made in Gods image.
How can Faith lend its ideas of human dignity to the society, without demanding doctrinal allegiance to those ideas by the society? It shapes and offers, doesn’t demand or want in return.
Procedural secularism – a place where faith debate can happen openly but without privileging religious voices as more important than other voices. We need to allow rights for others who don’t agree with us.
What about the voices and rights of those who are not successful or in power? Religious voices can be an appropriate creative nuisance in society by asking for the voices of minorities to be heard and their rights defended.
Communities are the safeguarders of these essential rights and they must make sure these are not eroded. Economic pressures can take away our safety net. Terrorism can be used to justify torture, now even though it was assumed previously that this was not acceptable, as a human right.
Freedom for religious communities: “the foundation of all other liberties” Lord Acton. Assumes that the state doesn’t have one single moral agenda but has a procedural identity to act on various agendas, facilitating a broad debate on the best options. This used to be the case – a broad debate on the death penalty reflecting the majority views among democracy – not something that would be proposed and enacted by the state against the will of the people. Govt is now driving its own agendas rather than responding to the debate in society. Usually the state would decide legislatively in order to protect the safety and universal rights of the people – not in respect of its own agenda.
Communities of conviction that advance a view are not impinging on a liberal society – it is part of a liberal, open debate that hears all the voices. There isn’t a universal secular philosophy that everyone buys into!
Communities of faith need to have a voice in the debate – but not a casting vote. They can open up streams of debate & discussion in the public sphere – that would not otherwise be heard. They bring an ethical dimension to the table & steer away from management theories and pragmatism. What best serves human dignity, rather than thinking of the relative value of the life of some groups?
Setting the tenor and tone of debate is something faith groups can influence for. For this, they need some voice and profile in society.
Books to read on this:
‘What money can’t buy’ Michael Sandell. Commodifying human action and life.
‘How much is enough?’ David Skidelsky
No way back from pluralism in society now – no uniformity of thought & philosophy anymore. What is there in pluralism that makes a creative & interesting society? There is a lot of diverse imaginative response from humans as to how to live.
Radical human dignity. And radical legality. Let them shake hands warily
Religious broadcasting : better if more conversational rather than propagandist.
The arts as a place that bridges the secular and religious in society. Artists upset functional assumptions, re-staging the debate on human dignity.
Is the established church privileged in our society? 200 years ago there were privileges for the CofE & exclusions for outsiders. Now the tide has gone out & privilege is almost lost. Let Bishops still have a foot in the door, on behalf of all religious communities in the UK. We mustn’t suppose we will regain privilege or be able to exclude others.
Education to promote religious harmony: interfaith activity among young people on issues such a environmental or other matters.
Society has actually loaned the idea of human dignity to the church and not the other way round: Comment from atheist. Rowan: Christianity provides a slow burning fuse of revolution that brings change in society.