The Case for Secularism
In the heightened climate after the 11th of September 2001 and in the light of the ‘New Atheism’ of Dawkins, Hitchens et al, there has been much debate on the rights and wrongs of religion.
Much of this has boiled down to two questions:
- Does God exist?
- Does religion do more harm than good?
Despite the occasional deployment of topical examples such as the attack on the Twin Towers or the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, it is a long time since I heard much new or interesting in these debates. Sometimes arguments are advanced with more elegance or wit but mostly it is a case of hoary debating society cliches being wheeled out on cue. Despite this these are not trivial questions – people kill and die based on faith and the protection of free speech is fundamental to anyone who wishes to live in a free society.
It is obvious to any observer that not convinced much is gained by once more rehearsing the arguments as to whether Hitler or Stalin were atheists or whether the argument from design stands up to rational scrutiny. Those with strong opinions on either side get very worked up and much more heat than light tends is generated.
I come at this from a slightly different angle – one which I would describe as liberal. The word liberal has been much distorted and is virtually a term of abuse in American politics. When I use the term I use it to describe myself as a passionate defender of the intellectual inheritance of the Enlightenment – I believe in freedom of speech, trade and thought under a justly applied law.
I focus on one key phrase that comes up in the political versions of these debates – ‘religious freedom’. This tends to be employed in support of such practices as wearing of the veil by Muslim women or state-supported faith schools. I think that this is a dangerous reversal of what started off as a legitimate idea. Historically religious freedom was ‘freedom from‘ not ‘freedom to‘. The European settlers of the New World or those who campaigned for the emancipation of Catholics in the 19th century were opposed to the imposition of the religion. Freedom of religion is not the freedom to do whatever one likes using ones faith as an excuse, but rather the right to freedom from unjust strictures based on the religious sensiblilities of others.
While on the question of rights – there is no ‘right not to be offended’. In a true democracy one can offend whoever one pleases – and it is only those who resort to violence or other criminality in support of their beliefs who should have the weight of the state brought upon them. We cannot give up fundamental freedoms for fear of hurting people’s feelings. Application of this principle to the isssues of the day is left as an exercise to the reader…
Democracy can be summed up in two basic principles – that the majority may not prevent a minority from trying to become a majority and that a minority may not prevent the majority from going about their lawful business. The first principle is the justification for most traditional rights such as free speech, freedom of the press and so on, while the second in my opinion shows why the actions of intimidating trade union pickets or animal rights extremists using the methods of terrorism are fundamentally antidemocratic.
So – how is religious freedom in the correct sense preserved? The answer is secularism. This means that the state becomes neutral with respect to religion. The state does not enforce any religion (or persecute anyone practising their religion peacefully). Religion moves from the public sphere to the private. It becomes subject to something analogous the basic liberal position on sexual morality – what goes on within the minds of consenting adults is no-one’s business but their own.
One can therefore measure some of the quality of a democracy by its degree of secularism. An established church, an official religion or laws on scientific research or birth control based on the views of particular faith groups are antidemocratic and those who promote freedom should in my view oppose such things.
Religious commentators often refer to those who have strong anti-religious views as ‘secular fundamentalists’. This a poor use of language. The whole point of secularism is that the state does not take a position on whether Christians, Muslims or atheists are right. Secularism is just a transfer of the highly-charged religious debates out of the area of public policy and into the area of personal conscience. Those who wish to maintain their faith can do so and those who wish to argue for the n-th time about whether the existence of a watch implies the existence of a watchmaker can carry on. Meanwhile we all would get a less oppressive and more peaceful society to live in.