Three years ago, I attended a friends’ pointedly humanist wedding; two weeks ago I learned that this couple was now attending church with a view to getting their daughter into the local CofE Primary School (alongside their devoutly Jewish neighbours!). A shocking ten years ago, I was writing my undergraduate dissertation on Richard Dawkins’ war with religion, back then a somewhat more obscure topic than it would appear to be now (back then, my tutor had to get his girlfriend to examine my paper as he admitted it went over his head; by contrast I suspect that thousands of undergrads this year will be writing on a similar topic).
I recall these two bits of my past because they both appear to have become quite topical in recent months. This Christmas, the tabloids were full of “PC loonies try to ban Christmas” stories, with the Archbishop of York going out of his way to blame it all on militant secularists (a claim which appears to have no basis in fact whatsoever; not that that has ever stopped Christians in York from making outrageous claims about another group before). Last week, the Guardian went a bit more potty than normal, publishing an article from “self-hating atheist” Neal Lawson and an even more zany one from Tobias Jones, equating seculatism with totalitarianism.
We do seem to be well in the midst of a backlash against secularism. Screaming about the militancy and totalitarianism of atheists is going a little far however, given that most commentators themselves are reacting against a rising tide of quite aggressive religious extremism. “Militant” secularists, at the extreme, are calling for the banning of religious clothing in the interests of integration. By contrast, draw a cartoon of a religious prophet and you are likely to be bombarded with death threats.
This week, it has become apparent quite how wrong headed articles such as Neal Lawson’s are, when he argues for a greater role of religious groups in providing public services. Those religious groups are on the march outside Parliament protesting, not about the state of public services or poverty, but in defence of their right to exclude homosexuals from any service they might provide. Polly Toynbee, unusually, is the voice of sanity in the Guardian, pointing out how vicious all this is.
On the Today programme this morning, Angela Eagle ran rings around Lord Mackay, pointing out that far from giving homosexuals extra rights, these proposed new laws merely mean that legislation defending lesbian and gay rights merely keep up with existing legislation blocking discrimination on the grounds of race and religion. Here, it seems to me, the religion-ideologues seem to be on a loser, as they tend to be the first to oppose racial hatred and were vigorous in demanding similar rights on the grounds of religion (the case for which is far more questionable).
It does seem to me that the battle for secularism is one that must be won. This isn’t a war against religion, although many ideologues on both sides seem to think it is; liberal democracies can only exist in a climate that keeps church and state apart. For many years in the UK, this has been the de facto position, but as the C of E embraces evangelism and fundamentalism, so the case for formal disestablishment has increased. In the US, a country which has the separation of church and state written into the constitution, the battle lines are different, but the overall issue remains the same.
What is at stake is a political system in which profound issues regarding morality and conscience can be debated without resorting to violence and abuse. Where moral absolutes are allowed to direct legislation, oppression is the inevitable consequence. It is up to secularists – both atheist and religious ones – to passionately argue the case.