Religion - And the left - Should the state 'do god'?

The relationship between religion and politics needs a radical rethink

"Since even quite common men have souls," wrote R H Tawney, "no increase in material wealth will compensate them for arrangements which insult their self-respect and impair their freedom." A large part of the history of the British left is one of religiously inspired campaigns against social injustice - in the workplace, on slave ships, and in the poorest neighbourhoods of Victorian cities. At the same time, the constitutional trajectory of the nation has been one of steady secularisation. The Church of England is still established - but the bishops are not really part of the establishment.

The existence of a secular state has made it possible for the left - and the right - to accommodate those inspired by religious conviction, as well as those whose political activism springs from godless ground. But the accommodation of the left and religion is under strain, for a mixture of personal, ideological and social reasons.

The personal problem lies in the character of Tony Blair. It may be that Downing Street didn't "do God", at least after 2003, but the PM certainly does. It really doesn't matter that he goes to church. Indeed, this is probably welcome. It doesn't matter if he prayed with George W Bush: if it happened, it was in private and they are both consenting adults. It does matter if Blair believes, as he appears to, that his ultimate responsibility for sending us to war is to his Maker. Blair's responsibility is on earth to the families of those injured and killed.

Ideologically, religion has risen in imp ortance again because of the collapse of the old, competing systems of left and right. Even the Christian Socialist Movement isn't socialist any more. This collapse has made the moral grounding of left poli- tics less certain. That is a gap which, for many, religion can fill. The moral resources of faith are richer, at least for now, than the humanist and rationalist philosophy be-queathed by the Enlightenment. The left defines itself, ultimately, by a thirst for justice. And while there are intellectually ingenious formulations of a just society - not least John Rawls's - none of them has much capacity to inspire action or change. For most philosophers and scientists, rationalism has defeated religion. The problem, politically, is that philosophers and scientists are in the minority: about as many Britons define themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual as define themselves as atheist. Even if church attendance is low, most people agree with Tawney that we all have souls - and that one of the goals of progressive politicians is to SOS: to save, or at least protect, our souls from rapacious markets, poverty and discrimination.

But the greatest political challenge for the left, in terms of engagement with religion, is the rise of Islam. The instincts of centre-left politicians towards multiculturalism, freedom, secularisation and a moral politics are in continual conflict when faced with a perceived threat from the militant wing of a system of belief with a wide following in the UK.

So far, the response of the government has been mostly correct: dismissing the crude secularism of the French ban on the hijab, allowing for the establishment of Muslim schools and working closely with the leaders of the Muslim community. The next step, probably imminent, is to remove the constitutional anomaly of bishops sitting in the House of Lords.

But there is a deeper, paradoxical problem. British Muslims are second-class citizens, but for reasons entirely unrelated to their faith. They are at a disadvantage in the labour market and wider economy because of their disproportionate levels of poverty and because of race discrimination. The loss of a clear political vehicle for addressing these injustices - such as socialism - means that their religion becomes both the mode of expression for anger, and the means by which redress is sought.

The intertwining of religious faith and social injustice is not going to disappear. The correct response is to create the necessary space for its peaceful expression. This applies most obviously to debates between religious groups. But it equally applies to the debate between atheist, Darwinist scientists, such as Richard Dawk-ins, and philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, and their religious opponents. They seem to forget that one of the most important legacies of the Enlightenment, especially in Britain, was a conviction that the truth emerges from the continual collision of ideas. (Their own faith must be pretty shaky if the crazy creationists can get them so rattled.)

It is time for the left to rethink the relationship between secularisation and politics. Religion continues to provide many of the raw materials for progressive politics. But it can do so without a particular link to the state. Disestablishment should clear the way for more realistic debate about the role of different, competing value systems: which is a pretty good definition of politics done properly. And with enough will and courage, the secularisation of British Islam that is required will take place. This will not weaken Islam, or the left, but strengthen them both. What is certain is that the left serves the causes of both progress and peace ill by wishing religion away.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Religion: who needs it?