I describe myself on my Facebook profile as “Heterodox Liberal”, a title actually given to me by a Conservative Unionist. I like it – to be clear, I am Liberal on the grounds that I believe in individual (and indeed social) freedom, in allowing the maximum reasonable degree of self-identification, and judging people on merit rather than background (be it religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender of whatever).
However, I cannot help but feel that sometimes, in some contexts, Liberals are the most illiberal people of all – particularly when it comes to religion.
To be clear, I am a Christian but also a raving secularist. I do not believe religion has any place in our schools at all, for example – a position much more extreme than the Alliance Party’s, for example (and, as it turns out, a position much more consistent than any adopted by any party in Great Britain, if recent debates are anything to go by!)
However, that is not illiberalism. It is simply a view that religion has its place – and a school with a diverse intake (as all schools should be) is not that place. There is a distinction between this and the outright illiberalism often (perhaps unwittingly) entered into by other raving secularists.
This is perhaps most obvious in the same-sex marriage debate – which is too often (and self-defeatingly, for those in favour of it) is reduced into a battle between the secular and the religious. Worse, by “secularism”, proponents of social change all too often really mean “state-sponsored atheism”. That is absolutely not what it means – and, in a society where a comfortable majority still identify as religious, it renders their case utterly hopeless when it comes to the democratic vote. If, for example, same-sex marriage is ever to pass in Northern Ireland, it will in fact need to be adopted prominently by people who self-identify as Christian.
It also became obvious in the recent debate over Pastor McConnell’s remarks. The First Minister earned scorn, and rightly so, for backing the Pastor. Both subsequently semi-apologised, noting that they were sorry if their remarks had caused offence (not what I would call an apology, but a move in the right direction). Some correspondents were astounded by my and others’ position that the Pastor’s apology should be accepted (on the grounds that he was speaking from a religious viewpoint) but not the First Minister’s (on the ground that he was required to speak from a secular one).
To be clear, many self-confessed “Liberals” argued that the Pastor’s apology should not be accepted, essentially because it retained a degree of religious intolerance about it. But that’s the thing – religions are intolerant. Christianity, at least in the form adopted by most “Christians” and all Churches that I know of, demands acceptance of Christ into your life or you are doomed to Hell. The logic of that is that all non-Christians are doomed to Hell, regardless of how good they are. I see no need to provoke hatred or use the sort of language the Pastor used, but we also need to tolerate that for practising Christian groups there is no room for compromise on that point – it’s the ultimate either/or.
Politics is utterly different from religion in that it absolutely requires compromise at all times (this may explain why comparatively religious societies, such as Northern Ireland or the United States, aren’t great at politics). For that reason, a political debate is utterly different from a religious one – the former must deliver a (compromise) outcome, the latter absolutely cannot; and for that reason, the requirements of a political apology are different from the requirements for a religious one.
This is why, while Liberals preach “tolerance”, they struggle with how far you can tolerate intolerance; and thus how far you need to tolerate religions which are (almost by definition) uncompromising, irrational and intolerant – at least at their core. It is evident that Liberals have some way to go in learning how to tolerate the open and free expression of religious views on one hand, while rightly not tolerating religious fundamentalism and oppression on the other.