Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Does secularism mean atheism?

Secularism has been in the news a lot recently. It all started about three weeks ago with the High Court’s ruling that it is illegal for local councils to hold prayers at their meetings. Then came the research commissioned by Richard Dawkins suggesting that only a small minority of those self-described as Christians actually practise the religion, and that most Christians hold secular beliefs. The implication was clear: Britain should no longer be seen as a Christian country. Meanwhile, the Conservative minister Sayeeda Warsi expressed her fear that a “militant secularisation is taking over our societies”, and suggesting that “It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes”. The row has rumbled on, with even the Queen appearing to intervene, defending the role of religion in pubic life.

The disputes of the past few weeks have generally been framed as a question of whether Britain is or should be a secular country. The trouble is that very few people have bothered to define what they mean by ‘secular’, and inevitably this has led to people talking at cross purposes. At the most general level, we can define secularism as the belief that the state ought to be neutral between different religions (and, indeed, the irreligious).

Notice that on this definition, secularism need not mean the expulsion of religion from the public sphere – it only rules out partiality towards any religion in particular. So, for example, it would be fine according to this definition to have Anglican prayers before meetings, as long as Catholics or Muslims or anybody else is also free to have their prayers at the same forum. Public holidays would have to respect the holy days of all faiths. Faith schools would be permitted, as long as all faiths (and none) were represented. Church leaders could sit in the House of Lords, but only alongside rabbis and imams. However, this religion-embracing secularism is usually rejected in favour of a view that the state should equally neglect all religions.

Another useful distinction that tends to be elided in the debate is between secularism as a view about public reason and as a view about institutional neutrality. The first is essentially a claim about legitimate arguments. It is the idea that in a plural democracy people ought not to ground their arguments in sectarian religious worldviews. The second is more about public policies. It is the notion that institutions ought not to favour any one religion – for example, by hanging its symbols outside their offices or promoting it in their schools. Again much of the confusion seems to have resulted from assuming that the two views are necessarily linked. As I understand it, cases like the Bideford court case are more about symbolic institutional favouritism than about the role of public debate. Agreeing with the High Court decision does not therefore mean playing down the role of religious perspectives in public debate, as many seem to have assumed.

From this understanding of secularism, it should be clear it is not necessarily hostile to religion. If I am correct in interpreting the debate as primarily about the institutional privilege of the Church of England, then many members of that church can agree that it is wrong that their religion should enjoy such a prominent position without in any way compromising their faith. They might think it is unfair to presume that their religion is more important or deserving of respect than other religions. They might think the very topic of religion is inappropriate in contexts like public buildings or council meetings.

Given my belief that religious people can be secular, you can imagine my frustration at the fact that Richard Dawkins seems to have been appointed as the spokesman of British secularism. This inevitably narrows the constituency of secularism, as many religious people are likely to see atheism and secularism as inextricably linked, and so will assume that neither is relevant to them.

Richard Dawkins’ project, I think he would accept, is to wipe out religion. But this is a very different project to the secular one, which is to remove the dominance of one religion in one sphere of life. Now atheists may see secularism as a first step in undermining religion – by taking away its institutional authority, they might believe it will be weakened, discredited, or lose a platform to spread its message. But we need not take this view, and the idea that it is the only grounds for adopting secularism is a pernicious one.

G.J. Holyoake, who invented the term ‘secularism’, and was a founding member of the National Secular Society (which originally raised the issue this time around by pursuing the legal case against Bideford Town Council), recognised this distinction. He was adamant that secularism “neither affirms or denies the theistic premises of religion”. And yet Holyoake’s conception of secularism regularly lapses into rejection of religion and the proposal of secularism as an alternative and mutually exclusive belief system. For example, he suggests that “for the providence of Scripture, Secularism directs men to the providence of science”. Instead of what he calls “futile prayer”, to be secular is to believe in “self-help and the employment of all the resources of manliness and industry”. It is not clear how a religious person could accept this conception of secularism without abandoning their faith. And indeed, Holyoake at one point suggests that secularism “was addressed, not to Christians, but to those who rejected Christianity, or who were indifferent to it, and were outside it”

Now none of this in itself undermines religious secularism. Holyoake’s assaults on religion are in principle separate from his belief in disestablishing the position of the church. And yet these origins are bound to unsettle those who suspect secularism is just atheism in disguise. Perhaps secularism will never win their trust until it gains prominent religious support.

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