“Doing God”

Theos — Britain’s new public theology think tank

"We don’t do God" said the PM’s spin doctor. When Vanity Fair’s David Margolick tried to steer Tony Blair into a conversation about his religious beliefs, his director of strategy and communications, Alastair Campbell, butted in — "We don’t do God. I’m sorry. We don’t do God." Blair’s advisers seem to have decided that, mixing religion and politics is a bad idea.

That was 2003. Today God is back. The Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster today launched a new think tank — Theos. According to the Theos web site:

Society is embarking on a process of rapid de-secularisation. Interest in spirituality is increasing across Western culture. Faith is firmly on the agenda of both government and the media. In the arts, humanities and social sciences there are important and exciting intellectual developments currently taking place around questions of values and identity. Theos speaks into this new context. Our perspective is that faith is not just important for human flourishing and the renewal of society, but that society can only truly flourish if faith is given the space to do so.

With a wry nod to Campbell’s remarks, Theos has released it’s first major publication, “Doing God” A Future for Faith in the Public Square by Nick Spencer (pdf). Australia’s Clive Hamilton gets a mention in a chapter titled ‘the pursuit of happiness.’

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Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Bloody Hell. I wondered if it was a spoof. Demos – Theos say no more. Demos itself is a kind of spoof of itself, in the true British manner – the Royal Family being at the apex of this particular tradition. But it’s all true. Hallelujah, praise the Lord etc.

17 years ago

Society is embarking on a process of rapid de-secularisation.

Rapid? Is it more rapid than a fundamentalist’s bomb?

Ken Parish
17 years ago

Thanks Don. Nick Spencer’s paper appears to be an entertainingly amiable attempt at justifying a push into politics by the mainstream British churches. And fair enough too. If it’s good enough for the pentecostalist-backed Family First to wield political power in Australia with just 1% of the vote, then why should the Anglicans and Catholics be backward in coming forward?

Probably Theos’s (and Spencer’s) most audacious logical leap (among many) is indeed to claim that “society is embarking on a process of rapid de-secularisation”, while carefully avoiding mention of any empirical data that would examine whether that is actually true. Spencer’s document is 76 pages of amiable waffle. In fact, UK census and other survey data (summary from a somewhat ratbaggy atheist site) provides a radically different picture (not dissimilar to Australia):

In August 2003, 18% of the British public said they were a practicing member of an organized religion, 25% they were members of a world religion. According to these results, one fifth of self-declared members would also not describe themselves as practicing that religion. Presumably the others remain members for traditional reasons or due to social pressure.

In a large 2006 August poll of year 9 and 10 teenagers in Cornwall, only 19% said that they ‘have a religious faith’13. It seems certain that if these teenagers reflect the future (only 22% said they believe in God), religious affiliation is going to continue to drop.

Organized religion in the UK has severely declined to the point where it is generally overlooked and ignored. The cultural attachment to Christianity in general lives on, but Monica Furlong in her 2002 comprehensive review of the state of English religion summarizes the English in the same way as Grace Davies who wrote “Religion in Britain since 1945” by saying the English “believe without belonging” to our religions. That is, many profess belief but do not take part in organized religion.

I have no problem with the notion that religious groups should be acknowledged as having a legitimate voice in the political process/secular world, and nor do most other people despite Spencer spending a good part of his paper setting up a strawman to the contrary (cf the Bolt, Blair etc gambit of portraying Howardians as a beleaguered underprivileged minority). It becomes potentially problematic, however, in a liberal democratic society when religious groups acquire enough power (by means including idiotic ALP preference deals) to impose their viewpoints on the rest of society despite only representing a minority viewpoint. However, FF’s current position is not really any different from that of Pauline Hanson or Brian Harradine in the recent past. The political process seems mostly to ensure that their period of influence is fairly short lived. Australians, like the Poms, tend in the long run towards hardy secular pragmatism and (in contrast to Americans, it seems) have a healthy scepticism towards the pretension and pomposity that suffuses Theos and Nick Spencer’s paper.

Tjhen again, maybe Spencer has a point in arguing that the Christian churches, if they play the game well, could surf back to a position of much greater political influence on a wave of public unease about the decline of values, civil society etc, just as the Mont Pelerin Society and its spinoffs managed to ride and in part create a wave of public concern about the welfare state and thereby reassert the primacy of classical liberalism against a seemingly triumphant social democratic ethos. Is Theos the Mont Pelerin of the God-botherers?

David Rubie
David Rubie
17 years ago

Theos is not the Mont Pelerin of God-botherers, it is the dead cat bounce.