Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Does God do politics?

Does God do Politics? This is, of course, a rhetorical question forming the subject of a debate I will be having with Prof. John White of the Institute of Education, a secularist for whom God does not exist, and Peter Hitchens of the Daily Mail, who believes in God but accepts the fallacy that secularism can provide a neutral playing field for both believers and non-believers. The debate has been organised by the dialoguewithislam.org for Thursday 21st May at Ebrahim Community College, 80 Greenfield Road (rear of East London Mosque), London E1 1EJ, and is chaired by al-Jazeera news presenter Hamish MacDonald. Kick-off is at 6.30 pm.

Purpose of the debate, followed by questions from the floor, is to explore both the way politicians use religion as well as the way adherents of religion use politics. The key question is not merely whether God exists or interferes in human affairs, but rather to what extent the believes of those who either affirm or deny his existence should have the right for the public engagement to be governed by those believes. When it comes to peaceful coexistence, will a secular framework provide a more tolerant environment or a religious one. Does the degree of tolerance differ between religions? Should there be limits to what can be tolerated? Is the separation of religious practice and public life workable or even desirable? If man becomes the sovereign instead of God, will inevitably abuse his power?

The two ex-leaders, George W. Bush and Tony Blair, both headed secular states yet repeatedly made references to God whom they claimed to have on their side. At the same time Bishops are criticised when they comment on social and political issues, and Islam is seen as a radical threat to Western liberal values. How can it be explained that exponents of the secular establishment appeal to religious sentiments whilst adherents of religions are told not to allow their faith to colour or govern their politics? Is the rift between the church and science a purely Western phenomenon that blinds Europe and America when dealing with the contribution religion has to make towards the progress of society? Or is the animosity against Islam a natural response from a secular elite seeing its power base threatened after having wrestled it at high cost from the Christian churches? Has liberalism become illiberal the moment it took the reigns of power?

Expect a lively debate. Advance tickets are available for £2 at dialoguewithislam.org; tickets at the door are £3.