Saturday, 25th April, 2015
The recent car bomb explosion in Erbil, in Iraq, came as a particular shock since only five days before I had been on that very street. My heart went out to those killed or injured in the blast. But online reactions were sharply divided: “Close 95 per cent of mosques, transform them into educational and social centres!” was one comment, “Terrorists do not have religion and want only to create hatred and confusion” was another.
They sum up the modern dilemma: is religion an enemy, a dreadful problem which we have to defeat or solve? Or it is a friend, a rich resource for our needed solutions and for our hope for the future?
The historical evidence is clear. Many of humanity’s greatest and noblest achievements have sprung from faith in God. Countless lives of love and service of others have their origins in a depth of religious faith sustained through prayer and community living. This religious instinct to seek meaning and purpose in life seems intrinsic to humanity. In fact, freedom of religion is a fundamental human right because the religious dimension of our lives is central to how we understand ourselves and others.
But this is not a licence for irresponsibility; the right to religious freedom should never be used as a pretext to justify acts that violate the freedoms of others. We all bear a responsibility in working out the place of belief in contemporary society. Religious believers have to give a rational account of their faith – rational not in the narrow sense of “scientific”, but in the broader sense of appealing to and supported by our faculty for reasoned thought. This is its bulwark against fundamentalism. Religious leaders also have to make clear their opposition to irrational fundamentalism and the terrible destruction it ferments.
At the same time, society has a duty to respect the rights of believers. Their legitimate place in society needs to be acknowledged together with their role in forming and nurturing the human spirit, helping to shape and articulate the ethical principles by which a creative society is maintained. When, as a matter of secularist dogma, this respect is missing or denied, society is weakened since reciprocity and mutual trust are undermined.
Religious fundamentalism and secularist ideology are joint contributors to a dangerous spiral of mistrust and antagonism that makes lasting solutions more difficult to attain.
As the election approaches, it’s a good time to reiterate that people of all faiths seek a partnership with government in which their gifts, and responsibilities, can be used productively and with mutual respect, rather than be met with suspicion. All public institutions should recognise that faith is at the core of our society; something seen daily in the actions performed by devoted communities that help sustain the common good of all Britons.
This means that central and local government have certain responsibilities to fulfil. They should strive to understand the coherence of religious beliefs. They should recognise the role of that belief in education, based on parental wishes. They should provide adequately for the meeting of spiritual needs in public services.
They should engage in respectful partnership with religious bodies in the provision of support for the needy and the marginalised, and they should avoid legislative measures that effectively limit freedom of religious expression in matters that do not infringe or impede the rights of those who hold different views. The harassment of those who have wished to provide services in accordance with their beliefs, when alternative services are readily available, has been understandably seen as the pursuit of an ideology and not of the common good. We should be questioning candidates on all these matters.
The Catholic community in England and Wales is profoundly committed to the common good of our society. Alongside those of other faiths we make substantial contributions to the human capital on which our society depends and to the religious and spiritual capital that nurtures service and human resilience among families and communities today.
Our commitment to our society is clear. I hope that this election will be an opportunity for candidates and parties to make clear their commitment to these partnerships.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols is the Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Society of St John Chrysostom