Religion, human values and liberalism

Religion, human values and liberalism

Marius C Felderhof

Recently, migration and ethnic identity are said to pose important political challenges. This is because it is also claimed that these identities are proving to be socially divisive and are polarising political debates. But what is an ethnic identity? In some accounts, ethnic identity is differentiated from racial identity with the assertion that a racial identity is what one has by nature, whereas ethnic identity relates to qualities that are inherited or acquired and which one might therefore disown, affirm or alter, examples being: one’s dress code, what one does with one’s hair, having a religious affiliation or having a shared historical sense. Ethnicity appears to be a social construct, though somewhat confusingly in some accounts racial identity appears to feature in the formation of ethnic identity also.

No doubt others will counter that race, too, is a social construct and where one belongs “racially” may also manifest a degree of fluidity. In a recent NHS screening programme, they used various categories, including “White-other”, as distinct from “White-British”, for those having had the apparent misfortune of being born outside the UK. Place of birth appears to be a relevant ‘racial’ marker. But what of others who were born in Britain to a Korean mother brought up in the USA? Their place of birth and having a “White-British” grandmother and “White-British” father, is evidently irrelevant. They will be labeled “mixed race”, despite their British birth, ancestry and cultural up-bringing. But apart from NHS screening programmes which may raise issues of genetic predispositions to certain illnesses, why should these “racial” labels matter? What bearing could certain physical features, such as skin colour, possibly have on one’s social functioning?

Yet, “racial” identity does appear to have a role in the allocation of social privilege or in the experience of social prejudice and discrimination even though the selected physical features appear to be entirely arbitrary. This was strikingly evident in the 1970 film, The Eye of the Storm, in which an American junior school teacher sought to teach children about social prejudice through some first-hand experience of being privileged or discriminated against purely on the basis of their eye-colour. Children were elated when they were privileged but deeply deflated and upset when there was a planned role-reversal. Whether such experimental pedagogy would pass muster today in a university school of education ethics committee is doubtful, but it underlined the fact that just about any natural feature could be used for such an experiment. Yet in wider society eye colour, as opposed to skin colour, hardly features in social discrimination, raising the question why one and not the other?

The evident irrationality of focusing on certain physical features as the basis for social privilege or social discrimination may lead some to shift their ground. They may claim that it is not primarily the racial features that matter except in so far as this contributes to the formation of an ethnic identity. It is ethnicity that really matters. This ethnicity, referenced to its historical sense, religious affiliation, language and cultural expression, is supposed to be the source of one’s values. And it is the differences in human values that divides society, and thus drives and buffets political life in this or that direction. But from a theological perspective how could religions shape ethnic identity? Or one might ask in what sense could “values” be used to differentiate one ethnic identity from another?

Firstly, one observes that the major religions, i.e. those with the most numerous adherents, are often called “world” religions for the very good reason that they embrace members from nearly every corner of the globe and thus embrace members from the widest conceivable range of people. Moreover, the religious traditions frequently go out of their way to supersede human differences. Thus within the Christian tradition there is the explicit teaching of St Paul in his letter to the Galatians (ch 3 vs 26-28) “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (KJV) Here St Paul deliberately makes the point that religious faith supersedes or bridges the key prevailing social divisions in the ancient world.

In this St Paul is echoing the position of Jesus who summarised the Torah as the wholehearted love of God and of one’s neighbour as oneself (Luke 10:27). Challenged as to whom is one’s neighbour, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37). He does this in a context, it should be remembered, where He and His disciples had just been driven out of a Samaritan village (Luke 9: 51-56). The disciples had wanted to respond with violent vengeance. Jesus had turned on them and said in so many words: ‘what kind of people are you? I’m not out to destroy people. My message is for all.’ In short, there is a universalism here that rejects ethnicities. But Christianity is not alone in aspiring to share its insights with all and in being open to all. One could find similar sentiments in Islam, amongst others. It seems strange, therefore, to use religious labels as forms of exclusion and discrimination.

The facile use of religious labels in demarcating “ethnicities” is all too evident in situations of conflict where the conflict hardly relates to genuinely religious matters. Thus, in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ where Roman Catholic and Protestant labels were used extensively, one would be hard pushed to encounter any discussions on a par with those of the Reformation relating e.g. to the meaning of the Eucharist or to ecclesial governance. The issues were more of a political nature, to do e.g. with civil rights and freedom of expression.

But it may be protested that it is the value systems of the different religions that create the political divisions. Yet this assumption should also be examined and tested. When the Agreed Syllabus Conference met in Birmingham between 2005-2007 to determine the religious education syllabus for maintained community schools in this ‘ethnic-minority majority’ Local Authority, the many religious traditions represented in the Conference, (a) readily agreed that religious education should be focused on the transmission of values and the cultivation of the dispositions of pupils, and (b) had little difficulty in identifying and agreeing what those dispositions and values should be. The truth of the matter is that the major religious traditions share the key human values. The problem may be that people from one tradition do not always know how to read the signs and symbols of the other to understand the values they represent. Where a Muslim woman may don the hijab as an expression of modesty and commitment to her husband and faith, the secular British woman, fresh from struggles of equality, can only see an expression of oppression and patriarchy.

The focus on values as the basis of human differentiation and division also runs up against a basic understanding of moral reasoning. Immanuel Kant highlighted the principle of universalisability which in effect tests any claim to an action being morally right by whether it would be right for all others in similar circumstances. Genuinely moral values are not simply right for one but not for another. This is not to say there are no conflicts of value. A classic example is provided by Plato in his dialogue, Euthyphro, where he sets the duty of honouring one’s parents against the demands of society’s justice. However, this is not a question of taking sides, as Plato’s dialogues famously ended in aporia, in being inconclusive where the dimensions of religious and the interdependent moral meanings are explored. The aporia is the acceptance of a lack of absolute clarity in our religious and moral human life; as St Paul put it, “For now we see through a glass, darkly.. now I know in part…” (1Cor. 13: 12).

John Hick once claimed that the essence of all religions was a de-centring from the self. If he is right, then to use religions and their moral values as a means of creating group identities, in which the individual is empowered to become a greater “self”, becomes a particular religious perversion.  Such temptation to become a greater “self” is found in gang cultures, tribalism and nationalism. This human possibility was examined by the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his influential studies, The Nature and Destiny of Man (vol. 1&2) and Moral Man and Immoral Society in the middle of the last century. No doubt the apotheosis of a human self-aggrandisement is found in the religious nationalism that denies both human finitude and the mystery of God in favour of the certainties of omniscience and the exercise of omnipotence. It is the realisation of this apotheosis of self-aggrandisement that appals the religious and secular person alike.


Marius C. Felderhof is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Religion and Theology at the University of Birmingham.He drafted the 2007 Birmingham Agreed Curriculum in Religious Education.