What bumper bowling can teach us about religious freedom

I read recently about a young urban professional – “irreligious but not anti-religious” – who came to a Christian friend of his with a conundrum.

“I don’t go to church or anything,” he said, “but I see the local vicar in the coffee shop every now and then; he says a polite ‘Hi’ to me, and I say ‘Hi’ back. I know he leads a community that includes the elderly, the middle-aged, young adults, and children. The church has a mum’s group that meets on Tuesdays, and it holds AA meetings on Thursdays. The vicar did a very nice funeral when my best friend’s uncle died.”

Then he explains the source of his confusion: “I keep getting the impression from the news I read and stuff I see on TV that as an atheist I’m supposed to hate these people. The problem is, I don’t have the foggiest idea why.”

The vast majority of most people’s lives take place not on the cultural battlefields of (for example) parliament and the press, but in everyday spaces

The story comes from Michael Bird’s forthcoming book Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government – a highly readable and refreshing take on a vexed subject. And it highlights something we could all use reminding of: that what we read in the news tends to show us the extreme edges of our life together, not the way things mostly are.

Those edges are real and important; their implications reverberate through the whole of society. But the vast majority of most people’s lives take place not on the cultural battlefields of (for example) parliament and the press, but in everyday spaces: in the homes, schools, shops, churches, streets where we’re mostly just getting by, and helping each other do the same.

I say this as someone who cares a lot about what’s happening in the headlines – my job is in media, finding ways to speak Christianly into the often turbulent public conversation. What happens in these arenas matters for all of us. But it’s often not the best index of what’s really occupying people’s attention or shaping their encounters with others.

Bumper bowling: an analogy

The recent (and ongoing) furore – inside and outside parliament – over religious freedom has been demoralising, it seems, for everyone, whatever side of the question you find yourself on.

I find it helpful to think about this and similar issues in terms of an analogy. It’s a ten-pin bowling analogy (despite the fact that I don’t really like ten-pin bowling – sorry).

When our differences – religious, political, ethical – come into conflict most severely, and relationships between groups start to break down, let’s say that those clashes are the balls that end up in the gutter. It’s ugly, and nobody’s knocking down any pins/winning any victories.

Legislation around rights (including religious freedom) is a bit like bumper bowling – that feature, beloved of kids’ birthday parties, where the gutters are covered. You put guardrails in so that, inexpert and sometimes wilful bowlers that we are, our shots don’t get too out of hand.

… having our rights doesn’t necessarily mean standing on them.

Legal rights tend to govern the outer edges of our public life – essentially, the places where things have gone wrong. But the game, the art of doing life together, is played in the lane itself: learning to get the angle, the force, the timing just right for maximum impact and (ideally) elegance. Most of the ways we speak and relate to one another across lines of serious difference should go nowhere near the bumpers.

Legislative bumpers are important. But having our rights doesn’t necessarily mean standing on them. The more frequently people on all sides of a question go straight for the bumpers in how we relate to one another, the less adept we become at doing anything else – at actual bowling. Issues that should be resolvable escalate instead, and the game becomes a series of noisy, embarrassing ricochets back and forth across the lane. Nobody wins a culture war.

As Mike Bird puts it, “Religious freedom requires a few guardrails, but under the aegis of confident pluralism those rails will be wide and not particularly jagged.” In the ways that churches are present in their communities, in the pastoral care Christian schools provide day in and day out to students and their families, in chaplaincy and healthcare and disaster relief and just plain old friendship, there’s plenty of room in the lane for people of faith to love God and their neighbour.

There are many good arguments for religious freedom. Few are more compelling than genuine service of others, especially of those outside the fold. In Bird’s words, “Ultimately religious freedom will flourish in those places where religion is a primary cause of human flourishing.”