I’ve been thinking a bit about the whole ‘militant secularism’ thing recently. If you’ve missed what’s happened, you must have been living under a rock. Or, paying no attention to the news. Either way, there’s been a whole lotta bloggin’ going on about it! This is the news article which kicked it off, although also see my post on healing and the ASA. Also you can read Baroness Warsi’s comments which I think really kicked off usage of the phrase ‘militant secularism’ in the past week or two.
What I’d like to talk about today is secularism itself: it’s often portrayed as a ‘neutral ground’ where those of all faiths and none can come together and make a stable society where people’s personal beliefs can stay out of the way. Just leave your religious beliefs at home, and there’ll be no problems.
The problem with that is that I don’t see secularism as ‘neutral ground’: secularism is a belief system too. What I mean by that is, the implicit idea behind secularism is that it’s possible to rightly govern, administer justice, and act ethically without a religious reference point. In other words, in this country at least, essentially secularism is equal to atheism.
The problem with that – with respect to the governance of this (or any) country, is that I think theism in general and Christianity in particular provides the only sound, rational foundation for any kind of ethical system. As such, what the secularists or atheists want to claim – that the country would be better off if we dispensed with the religious element in leadership – is simply not true.
Let me try and explain: in atheism, you don’t have many options for morality. I’ve heard a few different explanations, including reading an interview with Richard Dawkins the other day when he explains that morality comes from the cultural ‘Zeitgeist‘ (his word) – in other words, what people think is right and wrong at the time. But the general principle is that there is nothing objectively right and wrong – in other words, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ are simply labels which we have almost arbitrarily come to define in a certain way. That definition may well change in the future.
So to take an example, in some Islamic countries I understand a woman may be stoned to death if she is caught in adultery. Is that a moral or an immoral action? It seems to be the cultural ‘Zeitgeist’; it’s the law of the land – the punishment is not hidden. In other words, I can’t see how an atheist could say, with all integrity, that that was a wrong or immoral action. Now if that’s not an immoral action… what’s to stop the same thing happening in this country (UK)?
Similarly, in this country: for a long period of time (c. 8-900 years), kings and rulers have been under the same law as everyone else. In other words, all are treated equally according to the law (in theory, at least). Why should that be so? The original reason given was Genesis 1:27 – everyone is created in the image of God, and therefore everyone deserves to be treated equally. This isn’t an obvious idea – just look at the history books, look around at the world, to see that this is not so.
I believe that something underpins morality, and that something is the Christian God. There are no two ways about it.
This is what Dorothy L. Sayers saw clearly in her essay ‘Creed or Chaos?‘ (originally from 1940, the reference to Germany is to the Nazi party):
We on our side have been trying for several centuries to uphold a particular standard of ethical values which derives from Christian dogma, while gradually dispensing with the very dogma which is the sole rational foundation for those values. The rulers of Germany have seen quite clearly that dogma and ethics are inextricably bound together. Having renounced the dogma, they have renounced the ethics as well—and from their point of view they are perfectly right. They have adopted an entirely different dogma, whose ethical scheme has no value for peace or truth, mercy or justice, faith or freedom; and they see no reason why they should practise a set of virtues incompatible with their dogma.
If you reduce morals to things you can rationalise – well, you can rationalise just about anything. A secular society could well lead us down a direction we don’t want to go.
This is where I want to draw back to the issue of militant secularism. Now I don’t agree with Baroness Warsi that we are facing ‘militant’ secularism (Although I do think there are a number of strident voices which want to get rid of any religious influence in the public square whatsoever, which may have muddied the waters). What is more worrying to me is ‘secularism creep’ to coin a phrase. In other words, more and more, secularism is becoming the ‘default’ position without it ever being democratically introduced.
We’ve ended up in a situation where religion is marginalised in the public square, almost without anyone ever agreeing that’s a good thing – it’s just happened because of inertia and people believing that ‘secularism is neutral’.
What I’m hoping is that all this will provoke some kind of debate about the role of religion, Christianity and secularism in our society. If the people want secularism that’s fine, that’s democracy for you – but I’d rather people were aware of what they were agreeing to rather than it just creeping in by stealth.