Alex Kane is inviting a deluge of angry letters by putting his head above the parapet in the Newsletter to opine “keep your religion out of my politics”. Kane, by his own admission an “evangelical atheist”, believes that religion has been “a destabilising, lunatic and mostly unhelpful aspect of human history”. Unsurprisingly his conclusion is that religion’s influence in politics has been particularly pernicious and he believes that it continues to exude a divisive influence to this day.
On Slugger O’Toole Kane’s article has precipitated a debate as to the extent to which religion has influenced politics in the past, what influence it continues to exert in the present and whether this influence can be said to be wholly negative. I am sympathetic to Kane’s premise, but it is harder to disentangle secular and religious influences in the development of western society (or the UK) than he allows. If we condone extensive elements of the constitutional, political and cultural ethos of a society, is it fair to unequivocally dismiss something as elemental as the religion of that society as a positive shaper of these same values?
In western societies Christianity has shaped how we think, moralise, legislate and govern. It is difficult to conclude that its influence on all these aspects of our society was exclusively negative. Similarly if societies in which Islam or Hinduism have been integral, for example, produce great art or scientific excellence, can we divorce those achievements from the religious context in which they were realised?
Of course this more abstruse aspect to the debate does not diminish the strength of Kane’s central thesis as regards religion and politics today. Nor is there any denying that religion has caused division and fostered fanaticism historically.