Roundtable Discussion with Dr Rowan Williams
ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION WITH DR ROWAN WILLIAMS, FORMER ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
The SRP Programme played host to Dr Rowan Williams at a roundtable discussion on 8 Sep 2015. Dr Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and is currently the Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. Members from various local religious institutions also participated in the discussion.
Drawing from his book Faith in the Public Square, Dr Rowan Williams covered four essential themes during the course of the roundtable discussion held at RSIS.
Audio of Roundtable Discussion with Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Williams first examined the notion of secularism which, according to him, can be divided into two types – programmatic secularism and procedural secularism. The former is marked by the divorce between religion and the state and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. This understanding of religion as private and personal has often come under attack by religious institutions and believers. Procedural secularism, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that no one religion has the power to dictate the public discourse. This means that religion is a part of public debate and that religious identities are not excluded or confined to the private. India is an example of a country that is reflective of procedural secularism; while constitutionally a secular country, religion is an integral part of India’s public discourse.
Critical of programmatic secularism, Dr Williams pointed out that civic identity was just an aspect of one’s identity. One’s solidarity is not only with a single community; one can belong to a number of communities and maintain solidarity with them all. He emphasized that during public debates on moral issues, it was important to know what informed and motivated our views. It is imperative to acknowledge that in order “to be a good citizen, you need to be more than just a citizen”. This, according to him, is important in creating a richer society and a good state will recognize that. The third theme was the recurring collision between the state and religious bodies on matters of loyalty. At times, religious bodies or persons are considered to be disloyal to the state owing to the belief that loyalty to the state and to one’s religion is mutually exclusive. For example, in 16th century England it was believed that by virtue of being a Catholic, one was disloyal to the Queen. Today, many in the United Kingdom believe that if one is a Muslim then one would automatically be disloyal to the country. While the state “commands loyalty in all the things that belong to the state, the state cannot command my one’s loyalty in conscience”. This, however, is often misconstrued by many as disloyalty or opposition to the state. The loyalty to the state is marked by fulfilling one’s public duty and not by blind allegiance to the state at the cost of wider convictions.
Following from the issue of loyalty, Dr Williams differentiated between the nature of power as understood by states and religion. According to him, it is crucial to understand that a person who takes the risk to oppose the absolute power of the state is not trying to set up another centre of absolute power. Many a time, “there is the temptation to think that religious power is just the same as other sorts of power, only religious”. Most religious traditions themselves have at one time or another bought into that belief. However, what differentiates religious power from political power is that the former liberates us. People who exercise power in religious communities are not there to control but are meant to liberate a relationship which allows you to be human in a full way.” As Dr Williams views it, the crisis of loyalty that at time arises between the state and religion is not because of a collision between two political powers but a collision between two different visions of power.
To conclude, he remarked that procedural secularism was preferable as it allowed for an expression of views and convictions informed by religion to exist without being dominated by a single set of beliefs.