Saturday, 12 December 2009

Correspondence with John Denham

Dr Evil?

After this interview with the Sunday Telegraph, I sent an email on 16th November to John Denham, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
Dear Mr Denham

I read the interview you gave to the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, on the role of faith based organisations in politics. You are quoted as saying:

"We should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution faith communities make on the central issues of our time.
Faith is a strong and powerful source of honesty, solidarity, generosity – the very values which are essential to politics, to our economy and our society."
If two or more faith communities made opposing claims about an issue, how would government decide which group to listen to? For example, the Catholic Church is adamant that the sin of contraception is more important than protecting people from HIV; should government listen to this honest, solidly held and generous view?

You continued:

"I don't like the strand of secularism that says that faith is inherently a bad thing to have and should be kept out of public life"

Secularism seeks to separate state and religion to *protect* private beliefs. Enshrining blasphemy laws for one particular faith, for example, would threaten the private views of the faithful of other religions. In the west, secular government has increasingly been seen as the only way to avoid persecution of religious minorities. Are you looking to limit this protection of people's private beliefs? Do you think the UK government should be more, or less, secular? Many people understand 'faith' as meaning 'believing something with insufficient evidence'. This is fine for comparatively trivial matters, such as 'which football team is the best?', but surely this is 'a bad thing' when it comes to matters of state? You may have a different definition of faith to me, so, if so, I would appreciate hearing it to better understand your comment.

I'm aware that newspapers sometimes misquote, so if that is the case here I would be grateful for any clarification you can offer.

Kind regards

Mark Jones
I received the following reply from his office:

24 November 2009

Dear Mr Jones

Thank you for your email of 16 November 2009 about John Denham’s decision to appoint a panel of advisors on faith issues. I have been asked to reply.

As Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government responsibility for the Government's engagement with faith communities lies with him. He has therefore, recruited a panel of advisors on an expenses-only basis to provide him with informed advice on relations with these communities.

The Government recognises that religious belief is of immense importance to millions of citizens, and believes that this fact should be respected. Many issues which concern governments cannot be tackled solely by regulation or spending. Governments and faith communities share an interest in the values which lead people to act the way they do. Campaigns for international development, peace, decent housing, living wages and many others have often been sustained by those of faith - not alone, but as key participants. On these issues, and others including climate change and the values of our economy, people of faith have views and values that deserve a hearing.

I hope I have reassured you on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Marina O'Neill

Cohesion and Faiths Unit

Not being reassured I sent a reply:

Dear Ms O'Neill

Thank you very much for the response to my email of 16th November.

However, I really need a response to my specific questions; in particular you haven't responded to clarify why Mr. Denham thinks that faith is *not* an inherently bad thing to have.

I need to understand how this Government judges what is a good basis for policy, and what is not. As I said before, faith is usually defined as 'believing something with insufficient evidence'. I want to know why Mr. Denham thinks this might be a good thing, or, at least, why he thinks that Government should listen to groups *specifically* because they think this is a good thing. Because that is what this means, from your letter:

"Campaigns for international development, peace, decent housing, living wages and many others have often been sustained by those of faith - not alone, but as key participants. On these issues, and others including climate change and the values of our economy, people of faith have views and values that deserve a hearing."

To reiterate, I'm happy for you to seek advice from people who have expertise in the areas you mention, including of course people of faith, but I'm not happy for you to seek advice from people of faith simply because they are people of faith; but that appears to be what you are saying. Could you confirm this, or, preferably, deny it.

Your reply doesn't seem to extend beyond restating what Mr. Denham has said in his speech at The Methodist Church Offices, so could you confirm that it's OK for me to make this correspondence public? If I don't hear back within a couple of days I'll assume that is the case.

Kind regards

Mark Jones
I was anticipating radio silence, and sure enough there's been no reply. It would be nice to know if they have a policy on this sort of correspondence. Presumably they cannot answer every email that arrives, but a simple acknowledgement of this should be a matter of good manners.

What concerns me greatly is the possibility that Government policy could be decided after input by faith groups based on nothing but *dogma*. It is imperative that policy should be informed by *evidence*, and we see that is not the most important factor for people of faith. Their input to the public square is quite acceptable when arguing their corner with reason and evidence, but quoting revelation and unjustified authority should not be allowed.

The Chilcot report into Iraq is under way now, and there is a very real sense that the major players, Bush and Blair, invaded Iraq because of an article of *faith*, rather than reasoned argument. It's beginning to look more and more difficult to determine Tony Blair's thinking as he approached the conflict. The reason that *Parliament* voted for the conflict certainly wasn't persuasive to him. He said "...this was obviously the thing that was uppermost in my mind - the threat to the region" (not WMD). But many regimes pose a threat to their regions, and we don't invade them.

So it will be interesting to see if the inquiry can uncover how he arrived at his decision. It's difficult not to come to the conclusion he simply 'felt intuitively' that it was the right thing to do; a hallmark of *religious* thinking.


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