A Judge, Secularism, Pluralism and Fundamentalism

“The laws and usages of the realm”

On 28 February 2011 the BBC had a news item about a “Mr and Mrs Johns [who] said they could not tell a child homosexuality was an acceptable lifestyle.” This they were required to do if they were to be foster parents. The report said: “a Christian couple opposed to homosexuality have lost a battle over their right to become foster carers. Eunice and Owen Johns, 62 and 65, from Derby, said the city council did not want them to look after children because of their traditional views.” The whole case seemed confused and confusing. But at one point the judge said this:

“Although historically this country is part of the Christian west, and although it has an established church which is Christian, there have been enormous changes in the social and religious life of our country over the last century. Our society is now pluralistic and largely secular. But one aspect of its pluralism is that we also now live in a multi-cultural community of many faiths. One of the paradoxes of our lives is that we live in a society which has at one and the same time become both increasingly secular but also increasingly diverse in religious affiliation. We sit as secular judges serving a multi-cultural community of many faiths. We are sworn (we quote the judicial oath) to "do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will." But the laws and usages of the realm do not include Christianity, in whatever form.”

The arguing on all sides in this case left much to be desired. But I was amazed to find a British judge concluding that “the laws and usages of the realm do not include Christianity, in whatever form”. For a number of years I was a chairman of the General Synod of the Church of England. The General Synod, is empowered to pass Measures which after consideration by the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament become Statute Law and have the same force as Acts of Parliament. So the General Synod has to spend a considerable time on legislative business. A significant Measure, for example, is the “Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974”. This defines the doctrine of the Church of England as that of Canon A5 which says:

“The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.”

Secularisation and pluralism

But how secular and how pluralist are we and what do these terms really signify?

Secularization was a theory that the more “modern” a society became, the less religious it would be. This fitted in with an Enlightenment view of progress, namely that as the world “matured” it would throw out religion like a child-hood toy and be free of such “superstition”. But since the 1970s it has been seen how wrong that theory was. For worldwide there has been an explosion of religious activity and growth (with the exception of western and central Europe and a small global band of influential intelligentsia, often western educated).

But secularization theory was correct over one thing. It did see that modernization undermined a significant amount of accepted beliefs. It was wrong, however, to assume that this loss of belief was due to secularization. It was not. It was due to pluralization.

Pluralization occurs with the erosion of traditional societies. Traditional societies by definition have enduring world views and morality. They are geographically separate and protected from other societies and so from any “cognitive contamination” (the undermining of those views and values). But once there are human migrations coupled with urbanization people have to live together and interact. This means that worldviews and morality become less “taken for granted”. For as communication through various media increases – first printing, then the telephone, after that radio, films, TV and now the internet – so does pluralism. People are now so simply and so easily made aware of other people’s beliefs and morals whether they like them or not.

And pluralism relativizes. This happens because there is a level of “cognitive negotiation” as people discuss and argue about worldviews and morality. This, however, leads on to that “cognitive contamination” where views and values get diluted. This happens on all sides. The result then is that the individual is confronted with a range of choices from a new market place of beliefs and behaviours with no “society with a tradition” to guide or help. For such traditional societies are being de-institutionalized. This occurs as the institutions within them disintegrate. For example, institutions like “marriage” and “the family” that support individuals through law, social expectations and accepted norms of behaviour begin to break down. This forces the individual to rely simply on his or her own strengths and abilities for marital and family success without any social support. For many the challenge is too great and societies themselves start to disintegrate. As the sociologist Peter Berger writes: “every functioning society requires a certain degree of normative consensus lest it fall apart”. When such a consensus is lost many advocate a return to the “old paths”, hence the rise of “fundamentalist” movements in all the religions.

Fundamentalism and Islam

“Fundamentalist” is a pejorative term because in Protestantism it has been associated with obscurantism and a lack of rational thought. But the writers of the original “Fundamentals”, early 20th century essays against the destructive theological liberalism of the 19th century, were often by distinguished academics. Furthermore, some of today’s Muslim “fundamentalists” are anything but obscurantist or irrational. James Davison Hunter quotes “the critical figure in Islamic extremism … Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual who, more than anyone else, theorized the rationale for contemporary Islamic radicalism. In his book Milestones, he wrote:

‘Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice, not because of the danger of complete annihilation which is hanging over its head – this being just a symptom and not the real disease – but because humanity is devoid of those vital values which are necessary not only for its healthy development but also for its real progress. Even the western world realizes that western civilization is unable to present any healthy values for the guidance of mankind. It knows that it does not possess anything which will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence … If we look at the sources and foundations of modern ways of living, it becomes clear that the whole world is steeped in Jahiliyya [pagan ignorance of divine guidance]; and all the marvellous material comforts and high level inventions do not diminish this Ignorance. This Jahiliyya is based on rebellion against God’s sovereignty on earth; it transfers to man one of the greatest attributes of God, namely sovereignty, and makes some men lords over others. It is now not in that simple and primitive form of the ancient Jahiliyya, but takes the form of claiming that the right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behaviour, and to choose any way of life rests with men, without regard to what God has prescribed. The result of this rebellion against the authority of God is the oppression of His creatures …The Islamic civilization can take various forms in its material and organizational structure, but the principles and values on which it is based are eternal and unchangeable. These are the worship of God alone, the foundation of human relationships on the belief in the Unity of God, the supremacy of the humanity of man over material things, the development of human values and the control of animalistic desires, respect for the family, the assumption of the vice-regency of God on earth according to His guidance and instruction, and in all affairs of this vice-regency, the rule of God’s law [al-Shari’a] and the way of life prescribed by Him … (italics added).’”

Qutb says that Islam is “the only system which possesses [the] values and … the way of life” capable of resisting this wilful ignorance. And he is very persuasive.


Christians would agree with much of Qutb’s analysis but disagree with his conclusion. The issue is, where do you discover “what God has prescribed”? Qutb would say “the Koran” and in Jihad. We would say, “the Bible” and non violence. And Qutb’s “Unity of God” excludes Jesus! The public policy advocated by biblical Christians is so very different from the public policy in a Shari’a state. Qutb will be supported by those Pakistanis supporting the murders of Salman Taseer and, on 2 March, of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Government Minister, who were working for a reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. These can sentence you to death for criticizing Islam, as the farmhand Asia Bibi was sentenced. There is, therefore, an urgent need to distinguish between so called “fundamentalisms”. Also in the UK it will be important to look again at the results of the new National Census soon to be taken. The latest figures (September 2010) from the Office of National Statistics for religious identity in Britain are that 71% are Christian, 8% are of non-Christian religions (with Muslims 4%) while 21% have no religion. With such a small number of other faiths and only 21% secular Lord Justice Munby was surely incorrect to say that Britain is “largely secular”; nor is “a multi-cultural community of many faiths” a judicial description.

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