Defending secularism

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.


  1. A great post. Secularism is fully compatible with personal faith, and I’d prefer to call it pluralism, since it sums up better what we’re really meaning – that society is organised in a way that permits a variety of beliefs (including none) without prejudice to any. That requires a vacuum of religion (or atheism) in state institutions… but not in people, who can be as personally devout in their personal lives and beliefs as they choose.

    Where I find Dawkins beyond the pale is the way he (and hardly anyone besides him) actively wants to attack religion. He is not a pluralist at all.

    A provocative question: when will the Liberal Democrats have the guts to come out against state-funded faith schools?

  2. To answer your question, there have been attempts to oppose faith schools in the past at conference, but these have previously been scuppered by front benchers. With a completely new education team since the last attempt, it might be time for another go however.

    I agree about Dawkins. The conclusion of my old dissertation was that he tended to set up straw men, concentrating on extremes and tarring moderates with the same brush. But I also concluded that his most vocal opponents (both religious and secular) did exactly the same thing.

  3. The Guardian seems to have found the Lord. Tobias Jones is just one of a recent line of crackpots they’ve given coverage to. I trust he’s outside Parliament at the moment with his “Burn in Hell Faggot” placard – it would be unchristian of him not to.

  4. An excellent post, James, although I would point out that quite a few religious groups – particularly the more extreme Christian ones – were also opposed to the religious hatred law. They thought it could be used against scripture or something.

    From reading Dawkins, I see no indication that he is not a pluralist. Yes he opposes religion, particularly fundamentalist religion. But surely you can evangelise your own position and still be a pluralist? So long, at least, that you don’t seek to recruit any arm of the state into your evangelism.

    It is of course a widely heard complaint that Dawkins is not a pluralist, but I’ve not seen any substance to it.

  5. Personally, my issue with Dawkins is simply that he lacks a nuanced view and uses the same oversimplification that he accuses others of when making his arguments. I have to admit I haven’t read the God Delusion yet though. I gave up reading Dawkins when I began to realise that all his books said pretty much the same thing after the Blind Watchmaker; when I get a chance I will read the latest though.

  6. This article is very reasonable,but I doubt if the author is aware of the seriousness of the campaign against secularism.

    I think someone should remind readers about what is happening in this regard. When Pope Benedict XVI alludes to Secularism: he does not mean some notions about people have a right to decide about their personal economic preferences. He means that the important social questions respecting the poltical nature of the world should be goverrned by us or by religionists like him and his agencies, Opus Dei, the Knights of Malta, etc., etc.

    Secularism is you and I deciding for ourselves whether marriage, contraceptives, abortion should be available to those who wish to avail of them, as well as whether we should allow Turks to be part of the European Community, or whether Blair and Bush should go to war with his ‘whispering’ approval, or whether men in Uganda dying of aids should have the right to use contraceptives or not.

    The opposite to secular society is ‘religious’ society, or religiously informed society; and anyone who has not lived in a religious society , I suggest, does not know to what extremes of totalitarianism religioun, Christianity and esepcially the R C Chruch can lead a country.

    In the Republic of Ireland I have prayed, as a child, for the conversion of Communist Russia as well as Protestant England. One does not have to expatiate upon the feelings of propgaganda and hate these organised prayer-meetings engendered. At the same time as this was going on, no other schools were practically allowed in the Republic. Male children went to school at one end of the town, females at the other. The day was punctuated by medieval bells , prayers, vespers and the like; the year was punctuated endless Roman Cahtolic feastdays, bank-holidays etc. As a child one delights in a day off; but when one realises how hard-faced the schools were, sado-masochististic, and eventually pedophillic. It was a society of high emigration, little production, a love of asperity and poverty, where the clergy grew fat and authoritarian, and the nuns did the work for the priests with the holy fingers. The holy-fingered ones ran the schools with an endemic and brutal definition of Christianity that Solzenitzn could do justice to, they ran the hospitals (which are presently in such a ruinous and dangerous condition); they ran every local authority; they destroyed young girls and nuns by the most outlandish antipathy to sex, fertility and the holy family; they ran and appointed the Judges, as they do today; the army, the civil service, the police, etc.etc.. In the end they buggered the nation’s children and the collective party system of those ‘fighting Irish’ conceded to impose the damage accruing to the buggered thousands onthe tax-payer, without even removing one school from the Chruch’s iron-fisted grip.

    When the Irish Republic helped the Chruch and the Franciscans to ratline the Nazi monsters out of assorted places in Europe, it was also careful to stop any helpless jewish people escaping the clutches of the Spanish/Italian/German/Vatican crusade.

    The crusade agasisnt secularism is no different that the one agasinst the Abligensians or the Jews or the native Irish pagans, whose culture the Popes destroyed absolutely , not just througout Ireland but throughout Europe. They have been whinging since the Protestant Reformation at the same kind of treatment from the outcrop of new Nations States, which the Vatican is intent upon still subverting. One of the latest ways of doing this is to discredit the secular freedoms of democracy (which the Vatica still resists), the return of power to individual persons (which Protestantism developed and encouraged) and the underming the status of the citizenship ( a status which Catholics can never fully share in, because of the constant subversion of the Papacy). And yet the RC Church start wars on the basis of those gifts that secular people have created, e.g. the Separation of Powers and democracy, both of which were used by the Papacy recently to beat up on Islam and encourage a revolt — a fa lse and imperialist-driven revolt – in East Timor.

    When the Pope mentions something — his latest hatred — secularism, you will hear the legions of crusaders, Opus Dei members and Knights of Malta, the legions of appointees, ex-priests, teachers, ex-nuns, ex-nurses, the chuch in its promoted seconds and thirds and fourths — you will hear them all echo the Pope’s message , just as at six p.m. every Irish person in Ireland has to listen to the Angelus. The programming is perfectly pavlovian. And if you hear Bill O’ Reilly bullying Oprah about ‘secularism at large’ , you can bet where his narrow black-and-white logic and his shouts of ‘Raus ‘Raus ‘Raus’ came from. Or if you hear the Irish Premier talking at length about the evils and dangers of secular people like you and I, you can bet there is an election coming up and the Bishop of Dublin is cheering by his side.

    The people who bash secularism, actually bash communities that have a rich sense of history. It is this rich sense of history that prevents them from going back to the values of the middle ages ,which the Papacy and Opus Dei want to encourage. Secularism is not a threat — not to people who want to live without medieval chains — but the diminishing influene of Roman Catholicism wants to make people think that it is a threat. And now that the Pope and Opus Dei are working hard to reign in the Protestant defectors from the universal plan in the form of ecumenism, they have called upon the Opus Network to stir the pot, cotemporaneous , let me say, with the Blair-Bush fiasco. The Pope is the central piece in the Blair Bush effort and it should not be understood, to my mind, in any other way short of a tenth crusade agasint Islam. All the rest is merely orchestration around that assault — as is the attack on you and I as secularists.

    My bet still stands: a pound to a penny the Pope orchestrates a war agasint China!

    Seamus Breathnach


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