Transcript of My Presentation for the Chatham House Debate: ‘Should Religion be Separate from State?’

Here is a transcript of my presentation at globally prestigious think tank , ‘Chatham House’ [The Royal Institute of International Affairs] [1], to a debate on Thursday 7th December 2017, on the title ‘Should Religion be Separate from State?’ [2].

My opponents were Andrew Copson, director of the Secular advocacy group, ‘Humanists UK’, a career campaigner for Secularism, and has been instrumental in repealing in the name of Secularism, a number of UK laws and policies that had established and recognised religious aspects of the UK state and society.  The other speaker for the opposition was Zineb El Rhazoui, an ex-Muslim, former columnist for CHARLIE HEBDO, who came to the event from France.

On my side was Nick Spenser, of the Christian thinktank THEOS. My opening presentation was as followers (with text in brackets added for clarification).

The title of this debate, is not about any particular religion, state system, nor is it about the UK specifically.  Rather, it is a general question that we should consider in light of any number of different societies and cultures around the world.

This debate is purely whether a state should have some connection, or relationship, with religion, other than simply ignoring it – which is what complete separation between the two would require.

Now it must be clearly understood, that no one here will be arguing that anyone deserves more financial or social advantage or ability to prejudice others, because of their religion or none.

Furthermore, this is not the first time in history we have multi-faith societies, a number of systems in the past guaranteed a degree of plurality and rights to exercise religion, from the Islamic Ottoman Millet system, where each religious group had autonomy and their own legal systems, to the Westphalian system in Europe from which the modern West emerged, where one Christian denomination was established by the state, but tolerated others to exist and worship within their realm.

The recognition of religion by the state, is about protecting conscience and fairness. Because most people don’t choose religion like they choose the colour of their cars, or the brand of their clothes, religion is about what one believes and is convinced of, and in the performance of actions and rituals one believes is required by such conviction.

Religion – or conviction – in its broadest sense, is a worldview (whether spiritual or materialist), which is believed by its adherents to be a true and an accurate description of their reality, which cannot easily be changed by an individual’s own whim nor by government diktat, and religion’s scope is so broad that it defines a person’s character more than the superficialities of their ethnicity or skin colour, to the extent that it shapes their interests and needs.

Now, the state is formed by people who pay taxes, and have needs, therefore, the state’s purpose should be to represent their needs.

Therefore, it is only natural for us to expect the state to recognise that the religion and ethical systems of its people are a matter of public interest, and to establish a relationship with it, whether it is regulation, or special accommodations and protections against indirect discrimination and disadvantage.

This is why religion and the state should not be separate, and this why almost all countries, whether in the West or everywhere else, with the possible exception of North Korea, continue to choose some form of relationship between the state and religion.

Lets take the example of the United States of America, and the two clauses of the U.S. Constitutions’ first amendment.

‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’

Now these are usually held up by some Secularists as a model of state separation from religion. But [even] the U.S. constitution’s relationship with religion is not that black and white.

Michael McConnell, a constitutional law scholar and former U.S. Circuit Judge of the Court of Appeals, explains:

If there is a constitutional requirement for accommodation of religious conduct, it will most likely be found in the Free Exercise Clause. Some say, though, that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause for the government to give any special benefit or recognition of religion. In that case, we have a First Amendment in conflict with itself—the Establishment Clause forbidding what the Free Exercise Clause requires.

One famous example of the use of the Free Exercise clause, was the 1963, Sherbert v. Verner case, where a man used the clause to win his case after he was fired from his job for refusing to work on Saturdays because he believed it was the Sabbath.

Another case in 1990 ruled in favour of a religious exemption for the illegal drug, peyote, by a Native American – and was then followed by a religious exemption clause drafted into state law.

In other words, instead of establishing a particular religion, the U.S. constitution grants a form of special protection to conscience.

In the UK and Europe we see the state recognising the needs of religious taxpayers, providing for state-funded faith schools, or like in Switzerland, state funding of the teaching of religion-specific classes for students of those beliefs.

Additionally, the reality of human nature and politics is such that separation of religion from state is practically impossible without extreme draconian measures. Even if the state ignored religion, and only recognised individuals and their demands, it would be susceptible to populist nationalism based upon religion redefined as a secular ‘national culture’ like the Hindutva in India, the Front National in France, or powerful lobby groups united by religious concerns repackaged as ‘secular demands’ like the powerful [religious] conservative lobby in USA.

Even in states considered closer than the UK to full separation, like France, we see state funds still go to a large number of Catholic schools, and in the USA, to religious parochial schools, via the [state funded] student voucher system.

Lastly, were we to fully separate state from religious based concerns of its people, it unbalance political platforms against controlling state power and against powerful unelected political lobbies in Capitalist political systems – corporate interests. With full separation, profits would speak even louder than Prophets.

To vote no to full separation, is not to endorse the extreme of making a state coerce everyone to adopt one particular religion, but it is to reject the other extreme, where the state completely separates itself from religion, whether ignoring it, or worse, eradicating any public manifestation of religion in the paranoid attempt to free individuals from it, as Rousseau put it, ’to compel people to be free’.

A society would be fairer and more representative [in supplying the needs of its constituents], when the state isn’t afraid to recognise public holidays such as Christmas, gives tax breaks to religious charities (which my colleague Andrew Copson’s Humanists UK also enjoys equal right to [and currently benefits from]), and supports religious schools, allows you to swear on your holy book in court or when taking public office, while at the same time ensuring that equal accommodation [for religious practice] is made available to others.

To conclude, I argue that a state that recognises religion, is safer for all, than a state that ignores it and who might consider it an annoyance or even potentially dangerous. So I ask you [all] to vote no to full separation.

The debate was decided by seeing which speakers managed to change the most minds by the end of the debate. Alhamdulillah, by the end of the debate, our side (arguing that Religion shouldn’t/can’t be separate from the state), caused the most changing of minds toward our side, and we won the debate.

The full debate can be watched here:

[1] Declared top global think tank outside U.S. (or second top after including U.S.) by University of Pennsylvania’s annual Global Go To Think Tank Index


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