Why we should take accusations of “militant secularism” seriously.

I’ve just been fuming listening to a ridiculous interview with John Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield and Alan Beith MP by Evan Davies on the Today programme. It wasn’t the interviewees who infuriated me, although Alan Beith’s argument that disestablishing the Church of England would lead to an aversion culture akin to “elf’n’safety” did come pretty close. What I found infuriating was the normally sensible Evan Davies’ repeated use of the phrase “militant secularism”.

I seem to remember being here before. Back in 2007, at the height of the rise of the so-called New Atheism as espoused by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, there was a similar counter push to present this new wave of assertiveness as sinister and extreme. I got particularly annoyed by a “balanced” (in the worst sense of the word) article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian which leant people claiming that “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube” a wholly uncritical platform.

With the tube bombing now a more distant memory no-one has quite gone as far as Colin Slee, the now dead former Dean as Southwark, did in that article. Nonetheless, over the past week or so we have seen a whole slew of attacks, partially provoked by the National Secular Society’s court action against Bideford Town Council and the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s MORI poll suggesting that many people who define themselves as Christian don’t actually agree with basic Christian tenets (only 28% of people who self-defined as Christian said they believed in the teachings of Christianity).

It would be far too generous to credit Baroness Warsi with coining the term “militant secularism” – nonetheless, alongside “secular fundamentalism”, it was a term she used in her recent speech at the Vatican.

For someone as absurd as her (remember this is the woman who made a direct appeal to get BNP voters to support her when she was a Conservative Party candidate) to make such a statement is one thing; for the BBC to use it as if it is a legitimate term is something else entirely. Because the implication takes us right back to Colin Slee and his quite offensive notion of equating vocally expressing a desire to see Church and State kept separate with a desire to wound and murder.

Although I actually got on better with Dawkins’ The God Delusion than I was expecting, I don’t actually agree with him on a number of issues. I think he goes too far when he claims that raising a child as a Christian is a form of “child abuse” (I appreciate the point he is making about the important of allowing children to make their own minds up, and there are certainly disreputable practices worthy of condemnation, but you could the same thing about any parent passing on their beliefs to their impressionable offspring as child abuse – and yet it is an inevitable aspect of raising a child). I’m not a fan of the National Secular Society either, which tends to take things too far, and unlike Clive Bone I doubt I would have been sufficiently outraged by the idea of prayers happening at the start of town council meetings to take the matter to court. But none of these people can be described as extremist, militant or fundamentalist in any way which reflects the meaning of these words. At worst you could call them perhaps strident (although they are typically softly spoken), imposing or intolerant – and even then it is hard to see how they could be described as particularly more strident than, say a Giles Fraser, let alone a George Carey.

They are people with a point of view who express it. Not only are they not bombing tube carriages, but they rarely even employ the tactics of public demonstration – which would make them rather less strident than the majority of politicians (of all colours), trade unions or democracy campaigners (guilty).

In fact, the only palpable quality that these people have which warrants a term like “militant” is that their views provoke a fury in their opponents in such a way that in almost every other sphere we would consider extraordinary. It is akin to the heightened atmosphere that I lived through during the AV referendum campaign, except that it isn’t time limited in the way that was. That in itself is a subject worthy of further investigation, but in short, it suggests that opponents of secularists are playing the man not the ball. Nor is it limited to the religious. Plenty of non-religious people appear to be sufficiently provoked by Richard Dawkins’ voice alone to use similar terminology. Nonetheless, the implication of using such terminology for such unextreme views is, as it always has been, to keep the holders of those views in their place and to warn off others who might share them from expressing them. It is a framing device designed to chill debate.

That’s entirely fair enough in public square, so long as people don’t mind having their bluff called. But, like I say, it is another thing when a public service broadcaster decides to pitch in for one side. When they do so, they cross the line from referee to player. The meaning of words matter. The BBC ought to be more careful.


Two things I should add to this post. On a happy note, Evan Davis responded to it on Twitter, saying:

On a more sour note, the Sunday Telegraph have today done a hatchet job on Richard Dawkins and attacked him for, um, being the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of slave owners. I suggest you ignore the article itself and just read Dawkins’ own account of the interview.


  1. In what way does the National Secular Society take things “too far”? I’m a member of the NSS and I can’t see how it does anything but campaign for secularism. Surely that is no more than anyone would expect from a secular society! Can you give some examples of where it goes beyond that purpose?

  2. Good blog. I don’t tweet so I sent a formal complaint to the BBC, which I expect will receive a standard response in a month or two.

  3. The phrase “militant secularist” is used for the same reason and by the same people who say “militant muslim” or “jewish conspiracy”. It is an attempt to insinuate and denigrate, to foment hatred. Of course it should be taken seriously.

    Worst of all, it is an attempt to accuse atheists of the behaviours and actions that the religious are guilty of.




  4. Very good, reasonable blog and I’m impressed that Evan Davis was good enough to respond.

    I would disagree on a couple of points, Dawkins ‘child abuse’ comment, IIRC, actually focussed more on impressing ideas of eternal helfire and torment on children than simply passing on one’s beliefs as a parent. I believe he mentioned a child who had been informed that a friend or relative who had died was in hell for eternity for being the wrong religion. SImilarly he experienced American ‘Hell Houses’ aimed at terrifying young children into belief. Of course publicly funded institutions coercing children into faith might be considered in a different light to the parents as well.

    With regard to Colin Bone and Bideford, I think the picture that has been painted in the media has by and large misrepresented the situation to make it look like pointless trouble making. As the prayers were held as an agendised part of the meeting could not avoid the prayers without being listed as late or absent from the meeting, for which he could face consequences, and was forced to choose between hypocritically pretenting to endorse a belief he did not hold or remaining sitting and appearing to be ‘making a point’ in a way that some members of the public (who can attend the meetings) would probably consider rude. My understanding is that Mr Bone did seek compromise such as moving the prayer to before official business began, but the leader of the council’s attitude was, and I paraphrase but this is close, ‘if you don’t want to pray you shouldn’t stand for the council’. I don’t think under those circumstances it would have been fair to the non-religious taxpayers of Bideford to have not opposed this situation. The fact that Bideford Council is now seeking to appeal the decision, presumably with taxpayers money, so that they can spend more time on their religious beliefs when they should be working for their constituents beggers belief.

    Eric Pickles as a government minister claiming to have circumvented the High Court on this matter is a scene more fitting for the sixteenth century than the twenty first as are Baroness Warsi’s comments at the Vatican.

    Funnily enough, in all the coverage of her speach, much of which has been claims that she voiced what the silent majority has believed but been prevented from saying under previous governments, there seems to have been little mention that this was a speach given by a politician who stood for Parliment and was rejected by the voters of her constituency before being enobled and given a ministerial post, an unelected speaker to the head of Western Europe’s only theocracy, where the rule is ‘one Cardinal, one vote’.

    Of course, it is impossible to deny that there is comedy value in the David Brent like lack of self awareness of a Muslim woman, enobled in a country with an established Christian Church and given ministerial office under the most (nominally) Anglican of the three main parties complaining about secularism.

  5. Hi James

    On ‘Militant Secularists’.

    I use the word because it is an accurate description, as in ‘militant campaigners for secularism’. ‘Militant’ has been used in connection with ‘secularism’, ‘atheism’ and ‘humanism’ for over a century, which is another reason to do so.

    Charles Bradlaugh himself used it, who founded the NSS. Very recently so did David Tribe, former NSS President, when he published: “GODLESS AND GLAD OF IT: Fifty years of militant secular humanism”. That was 2007.

    I’m baffled why the likes of RD, Polly and all the other Distinguished Supporters of the NSS (I’ve counted at least half a dozen) who happened to have mentioned it in their columns in the last week are running away from it.

    Perhaps they are attempting to detoxify their brand.

    Suggestions that ‘militant’ implies critics are suggesting terrorist secularism are a strawman. It is about vigorous campaigning.

    On Dawkins, this morning radio 4 reminded me that he branded the scientist Martin Rees a “compliant quisling”.

    If that isn’t playing the man not the ball, I don’t know what is. That is the language of a man on an ideological crusade, who divides the world into the good – who he thinks agree with him, and the evil – who don’t.

    >In what way does the National Secular Society take things “too far”?

    Making up alleged ‘facts’, misrepresentation of scientific data, and constant personal demonisation of those who disagree with them, for a start.

    The Bone case is interesting. NSS have been looking for cases to take to law since 2009, possibly 2008. That they only found one, when well over 100 Councils have this sort of practice, suggests just how trivial this whole thing is.

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