Not all that long ago, deviant beliefs really did have no place in British public life. The Test Acts, which debarred non-Anglicans from public life by forcing all members of Parliament to take the sacraments at a COE parish, were abolished in the 1820s. Still, other restrictions remained for some time after that. The Manchester Guardian was founded by Unitarians, non-conformists whose “Judaizing” beliefs were held to have, in Moore’s phrase, “no place in public life.” Along with Quakers, these small Christian groups played a huge part in creating the idea of progressive secularism now dominant on both sides of the Atlantic.
Political pluralism is hard work, an unnatural achievement, human beings having largely evolved in small groups of 150 people in which serious differences of opinion could be a threat to the tribe. The United States, dating back to Thomas Jefferson, has a more durable record of religious toleration, deeply ingrained constitutional protections, and a greater percentage of adherents. But even here religious tolerance faces intense pressure.
In the same week that Rees-Mogg was grilled on television, Professor Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump's nominee to a federal appeals court, faced a less comfortable interrogation, as Senator Dick Durbin asked whether she considered herself “an orthodox Catholic.” Could she, in other words, do her public duty as a neutral arbiter if she was also beholden to the Bishop of Rome?
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California went further, telling the nominee:
Dogma and law are two different things. And I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.
Of course, people may well argue that now the shoe is on the other foot and the culture war's losing side want to call for a truce. There was a time in Britain when atheists could not win child custody cases, while a few decades ago only a tiny proportion of Americans would have voted for a non-believer as president. Even today, atheists remain the least electable group in the U.S.
This fits in with Max Weber's observation that people are much more likely to trust people with religion - even one totally different to theirs - to atheists. Etymologically “religion” comes from the Latin “to bind,” and religious belief has almost universally played a central part in maintaining high levels of trust within groups. Trust, or social capital, is a vital ingredient for any healthy society or political system. Even highly secular, liberal groups, such as Canadian students, display distrust for atheists, in one study rating them as trustworthy as rapists.
And yet is not an exaggeration to say that we are going through perhaps the biggest cultural transformation since the fourth century, when Christianity went from being a minority faith of city people to becoming, at first the official religion, and then the only one. Its growth was almost certainly helped by its strong opposition to abortion and infanticide, which made it popular with women. To the last pagans, this sudden transformation in society's norms was baffling and unsettling. That progressive secularism stems from Christianity and shares some of religion's worst traits – among them intolerance and a belief that everyone, everywhere must share their worldview – is of course ironic. And it is this very dogmatism and lack of doubt that makes some of its true believers so frightening.
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