Cultural Alzheimer’s

I know that cynicism is a vicious and demeaning attitude of mind, yet whenever I find myself in agreement with judges, especially judges from a European court, I recheck my position. Last week the judges in the European Court of Human Rights said something of interest, and of sense.

The case before them concerned the display of crucifixes in Italian state schools. This had been banned after a complaint by a secularist who feared that, because of the display of the crucifix in most Italian classrooms, her child might learn that many in Italy actually are Catholics. The ECHR overthrew the Italian court order banning the display of the crucifix and ruled that the display of Christian symbolism in a country with a Christian heritage was not a breach of human rights.

Importantly one of the judges argued that secularism is optional, but religious liberty is non-negotiable.

Another judge said secularism isn’t neutral, and requiring a state to pursue a secularist agenda risks intolerance.

Judge Giovanni Bonello from Malta, and the longest serving judge on the court, said: “Freedom of religion is not secularism. Freedom of religion is not the separation of Church and State.” He argued that: “Freedom of religion is not religious equidistance – all seductive notions, but of which no one has so far appointed this Court to be the custodian. In Europe, secularism is optional, freedom of religion is not.”

In her judgment Judge Ann Power, from Ireland and a member of the ECHR since 2008, warned that the pursuit of secularism could actually lead to intolerance of other’s beliefs.

She said: “Neutrality requires a pluralist approach on the part of the State, not a secularist one. It encourages respect for all world views rather than a preference for one.”

This case dealt with an important question: “What is the ‘neutral’ position with regard to relationships between religion and government?”

Is it possible for there to be a form of societal tabula rasa or blank slate as argued by the secularists? This view is akin to that of Hobbes who proposed a form of ahistoric ‘state of nature.’ This of course leads to positivist conception of law. The attempt to deliberately subtract history, in this case Christianity, from consideration of the human situation in order to reach conclusions regarding the formation or implementation of the law.

On the other hand there is the view that there can be no blank slate. Each and every community has its own history of interaction between government and religion, state and church, against which current actions have to be judged. The cultural memory of a people exists whether secularists like it or not. The supposedly ‘neutral’ position is actually a culturally determined position and the imposition of secularism denies that culture.

Judge Bonelli argued that: “The European convention does not oblige us to have a collective ‘historical Alzheimer’s’ ”. The religious aspects of a culture cannot be abstractly separated from the history of a people.

This contrasts vividly with the recent pronouncements in English courts that the law and Christianity have been divorced.

In the UK we must seek the recovery of a Judeo-Christian discourse and the values of the Bible. Not just to give us an historical perspective on how our nations were formed but to enable us to make laws which are integral to and reflective of the culture which has formed us. It is difficult to find much in the way of legislation which does not have some moral or spiritual aspect, to exclude Christianity from the discussion in the name of secularism is intolerance.

Christianity, as the foremost formative influence in our collective cultures, has to be taken into consideration by our legislature and our judges, even if only for cultural reasons.


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