The coalition has announced it "does God" - but it won't tell us which. How perplexing! It's honest to say you believe in a particular one, or in none - but to exalt all "faith" as a Good Thing displays either a misunderstanding of the need for one's opinions to have some content, or a self deception that fails to realise it bundles together beliefs that are rather fundamentally at odds. As if, by this word-act, unity or harmony is magically achieved. It's like announcing that we need "more politics."
Faith has become a jargon word in multicultural thinking. It conceals its value - to the extent that that it actually has any. As with all jargon it's occasionally helpful to replace the term with its meaning, to check that we're still talking sense. The word, in this context, means simply belief in a god. (Not its other senses - trust, confidence, loyalty, etc. - although it gets a free piggy-back on these connotations.) When a government minister, or Tony Blair, or a BBC correspondent talks of "re-energizing faith", they are simply saying "re-energizing belief in a god." They don't specify which one, bien entendu.
This is interesting on various counts, not least as an acknowledgement of the bizarre but superficial alliance between the different religions. In economics they call it a "thick market", a gathering together of competitors for mutual gain. The gadget merchants of Tottenham Court Road, for example, each benefit from the fact that consumers flock there for electronic salvation, but nevertheless fight each other for your custom. Thus when a Muslim minister assures Anglican bishops that faith will be restored its rightful place in the government of the country, one cannot help imagining a wry wink exchanged between all parties. As a strategy for advancement, an alliance with one's competitors can be advantageous. But what does it lead to in the long run? In the case of religions: differing world views; each more enfranchised; each asserted with greater licence.
This is not to dispute the successes of local ecumenical efforts in encouraging dialogue between opposing belief systems. But the word "opposing" is consciously chosen; to believe god A exists implies a belief that god B does not, and the claims are in logical opposition (unless you're an eager polytheist or a devoted post-modernist; I am neither.) The Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, Dr Giles Fraser, said it succinctly on BBC's Today programme: "ecumenical relations work in practice, but they don't work in theory." This has a superficially hopeful ring to it - notwithstanding that his comment was limited to only the relations between differing Christian traditions. The problem remains that theory persists and is not prone to our moods, whereas practice requires the lasting commitment and good-will of all parties.
A similar delusion exists in the form of atheist optimism about the possibility of sustainable secularism. If Richard Dawkins is correct regarding the various religions' claims to Truth (I think he is), he makes remarkable political deductions from it. His flaw is not "atheist extremism", but extreme liberalism. It's all well to criticize religious extremism, but liberal dogma has its own: that no constraint on liberty can be contemplated - even if the principals which would justify the constraint are themselves absolutely held. Thus Dawkins cannot, for example, help himself from declaring that all religious practices must be permitted - out of liberal duty - even if they represent for him the most reprehensible and illiberal dogmas, legitimised by non-existent gods.
In the end, these are all examples of bad faith - a failure to admit and stand by what one believes. This is the irony of a multicultural mindset; it encourages each of its constituent groups to believe that their beliefs are True and Good, while denying itself that very right - or at least pretending to do so in order to appear tolerant.
None of this, or course, is to deny the possibility of learning from what others might have to say. It has to be acknowledged, for example, that the Catholic Socialism the Pope would have us hear him advocate - above the tumult over paedophile scandals and PR failures - is worth paying attention to. As a morally-tempered capitalism (private property is respected, so the word "socialist" is misleading) it's an interesting example of a middle ground between the mind-oppressing theocracy that would be the final outcome of "faith"-pervaded politics, and the relentless advance of destructive economic and political liberalism. The Pope talks of upholding universals as a protection against the vested interests of opposing groups; while one could disagree with his claims to what is universal, at least he doesn't hide behind the false modesty of someone who promotes all "faith" without disclosing that they only really mean their own.
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