Alastair Campbell this morning blogs that
I'm still not doing God, but as Neil Kinnock once said to me, I sometimes think it's a shame we're atheists, because some of the best lines are in the good book.
He could quote some good Old Labour authority for that position.
Clement Attlee told his biographer Kenneth Harris:
Believe in the ethics of Christianity. Can't believe in the mumbo-jumbo
That is quoted in Peter Hennessy's indispensable 'Never Again' study of the 1945-51 government, which recounts also that the exchange ended like this.
Harris: Would you say you are an agnostic?
Attlee: I don't know.
Harris: Is there an after-life, do you think?
Attlee's spirit of moderation is largely missing from contemporary debates about the public role of religion in a society of many faiths and none. As a secular (lapsed Catholic) agonostic, I find the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins almost as unattractive as arguments made in a similar tone from intolerant believers.
Each is entitled to their views about the nature of the universe and to promote them vigorously.
But, when it comes to the political question of settling the issues of the public role of religion in a society of many faiths and none, this often spills over into a highly antagonistic dialogue of the deaf. Oftenm we seem to have a competitive grievance debate, often conducted in forums like the Today programme and the broadsheet press, as high profile liberal columnists, authors and academics compete with the Bishops of an Established Church,arguing over which might have the best claim to feel persecuted in modern Britain. Something must be going wrong!
Theo Hobson offers a good critique of Rowan Williams' uncharacteristically clumsy intervention along those lines over Christmas.
But the gut instinct of much of the secular left that a multi-faith society can only find common ground if faith is left outside the public square is problematic too: settles in advance one of the central questions for political negotiation. Any durable settlement must surely be founded on human rights principles, but what equality and fairness demand in respect of the public recognition of faith is complex, contested and needs a deeper dialogue.
There will be different views about this, but we need to talk more and think harder about it. For me, if the secular left suggests is allergic to any public role for faith, it seems to me to risk misunderstanding its own history - given that the foundation of the Labour Party did owe more to Methodism than Marxism - and to turn down the opportunity to build new alliances for social justice today.
London Citizens, about which James Purnell and Stuart White wrote this week, is a powerful grassroots alliance which was forged largely by mobilising those from faith-based perspectives but which invites those of all faiths and none to join forces to push for social justice.
Clement Attlee, whose motivation to enter politics was rooted in his experience of Limehouse, would surely approve.
PS: I spoke on the liberal-left's approach to secularism and faith at a seminar, responding to Tariq Modood alongside Ted Cantle, a couple of years ago, in a discussion framed around the question 'British Muslims and the secular state'. My contribution can be seen on YouTube in two parts here and here. I have contributed to a forthcoming edited collection, drawing on the event, which will continue that debate.