Like inclusion, parity of esteem is something we talk about a lot, assuming fair-minded people accept and promote it. Having parity and being inclusively esteemed or respected is almost defined today as a right. It is so much part of what we think we are, and what we think we should think other people are, that parity of esteem is part of the lexicon of human rights.
Parity of esteem is a familiar idea among humanists, and across the spectrum from agnostics to atheists. Britain is enough of a traditionally faith-shaped society for humanists to believe they're right when they say that parity of esteem is more elusive than everyone thinks. The injection of political correctness, paranoia about hate-speech, multi-faith transition, and secularisation have all shaped current debate.
Faith-based organisations have got rather good at purveying the message that they are inclusive. Their very PR is often well run, and like mainstream charities they know effective ways of stirring the conscience and confronting the indifferent. Many articulations of faith are cannily lite or bland versions of what is really a dogmatic and assertive position on the central concerns of human life.
The reason for suggesting this is that I believe there are red lines. These lines derive from what believers believe – the doctrinal stuff, the perceived historical role – and how they operate as social organisms. At base, these organisms are familial, clannish, and/or tribal. As such they attract disciples psychologically drawn to clear binaries (in/out, white/black, good/bad) predisposed (through indoctrination or revelation) to believe the doctrine and cherish the social bubble.
So how does this impact upon parity of esteem, if, say, an open-minded humanist sets out to interact with believers who say they are inclusive? I have set to one side the closed-minded humanist (some do exist!) who, in my experience, may not (sadly) try to interact at all, however productive interaction might otherwise be for social well-being.
Two challenges exist for such an open-minded humanist – a man or woman, say, who wants to give space for religious practice in private in society, who is keen to engage with believers on matters of belief, who believes that rational argument over things like faith schools and abortion and euthanasia should not close down early on because parties take unshakeably dogmatic positions.
The first challenge is that of condescension. However benign the discussion or personal relationships happen to be, on matters of faith and belief, the open-minded humanist is often regarded as having a spurious knowledge base. However sound a scientific argument, about evolution or cosmology, might seem to the humanist, or to an onlooker with no thought-through stance on faith and belief whatsoever, for the true believer it lacks credibility.
It must, because for them it makes claims based on empirical objective evidence, themselves unreliable because anthropocentric and human-created, falsely independent of any assumption of supernatural creativity and divine revelation. The 'natural world' is not 'the world of creation'. A soundly thought-through and calmly expressed humanist argument is dismissed as mere scientism, in itself hostile to claims of godness.
Humanism, then, is regarded as a deficit model of the real world, impoverished by its rejection of a relational God and an inspirational intermediary like Jesus or Mohammud. Coming from behind and playing away, then, on matters of faith and belief, the open-minded humanist is put neatly on the back foot by having to defend the existence or the non-existence of something supernatural, and by being put in a false position of seeming arrogant in asserting the superiority of human beings over anything else. A type of metaphysical speciesism.
Condescension emerges in other ways, above all in the claim that, through not having studied theology or divinity, the open-minded humanist is ineligible to speak about faith and belief matters in the first place. Like a householder trying to fix a tap when she really needs a plumber. So for all the plausibility of arguments put by, say, Richard Dawkins or A C Grayling, what they tell us is an insidious form of misinformation because they are not theologians.
Humanists, then, are put in the same position as the Pharisees in the New Testament, characterised not only as argumentative pedants but demonised as vipers – men and women setting out to undermine 'the good folk' and their message. There can be little parity of esteem in any discussion if one group is convinced only it has the truth and that open-minded inquiry is a threat. In fact, such inquiry is the very form of response to scriptural and doctrinal assertions which, by being the opposite to faith, is closed to any experience of faith.
The other challenge to the parity of esteem, which humanists believe should apply to faith and belief, is that of exclusion. While condescension tends to operate on levels of doctrine, exclusion operates on the level of social organisation. Like families, clans and tribes, each has the right to include or exclude as it likes, however arbitrary it may seem. Faith-based organisations, however, have a bad record of success. Exposures of abuse spring to mind, examples where accountability and transparency are glaringly absent.
Even on less melodramatic levels, subtle and insidious criteria can be used to include and exclude. Not now the poor or the mentally unwell, but fully-rational, inquisitive and socially-functional men and women, who, say, think that morality is as much a matter for us as social beings (and base their ideas on moral philosophy) or who think that things are or happen by chance and not by design, or who think that when we die things come to a full stop. Or even that the virgin birth and the ascension of Jesus could never have occurred, but are okay with Jesus as a fine example of leadership and goodness.
Not religious, compliant, conformist enough. The debate about secularisation is old hat in and for the West, enough to evoke indifference in anyone who thinks about it for a moment (though it springs to life, like a hot coal, when immigrants are mentioned). Even so, no distinction is made by believers between open-minded humanist inquiry on the one hand, and a heart-hardened hostile indifference to 'the God squad' on the other.
Believers have circled the wagons and decided who are the pioneers and who the savages outside the magic circle. Parity of esteem is an idea, an aspiration, formally (as in some healthcare and college chaplaincies) and informally (in interactions between open-minded humanists and believers) rejected by faith organisations. Such people dilute and threaten the faith. And the family must stay strong. Yet this parochial mindset sets faith organisations well behind the curve of social change, and is a self-confirming and self-marginalising fear which is self-fulfilling.
How can humanists openly interact with believers if believers don't accept parity of esteem? Humanist lives matter, even if they're said to be shorter.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland