Monday, November 08, 2004

Islington, church and the 21st century

A few days ago there was a story in the papers about Islington Council objecting to the Church of England using the word "saint" in the name of a new school it is partly sponsoring. The fullest account was in the Daily Telegraph.

I was interested in the argument used by James Kempton, the Liberal Democrat council's spokesman on children and young people. The Telegraph quotes him as saying:

We need to ensure this is a school which is appropriate for Islington in the 21st century. Church-going is now a much less significant part of people's lives.
It may well be a less significant part of the average Islington Liberal Democrat's life, but that is not true of everyone. When I walk around Leicester I am struck by the number of mosques and temples, many of them recently built. It is clear that religion plays a central part in the lives of many of the minority ethnic communities that characterise the city in the 21st century, and I doubt that Islington is any different.

For all my love of church music and architecture, if you force me to declare my religious position then I am an atheist. But we Western liberal atheists have to accept that, globally, we are in the minority - something which 21st century Britain must surely make clear to us. Nor can we take if for granted that our belief system is the one at which other groups will arrive when they have become more rational or better educated.

Philosophically, my belief is that expressed by John Gray at the start of his book Two Faces of Liberalism:

The liberal state originated in a search for modus vivendi. Contemporary liberal regimes are late flowerings of a project of toleration that began in Europe in the sixteenth century. The task we inherit is refashioning liberal toleration so that it can guide the pursuit of modus vivendi in a more plural world.

For a full, if ultimately critical, account of Gray's book see Glen Newey's review in the London Review of Books.

Gray, in more recent works such as Straw Dogs, has rather gone off with the fairies, but his books from the 1990s provide some of the most enlightening explorations of what it means to be a liberal in the modern world.

No comments: