Is Secularism ‘neutral’, ‘godless’ – or even possible?

Image source: Flickr
Image source: Flickr

After writing my previous post, I read Gillan’s excellent post over at the God and Politics blog, which I do commend to you. At the bottom of the article, he linked through to an article on the Theos Think Tank website, written by a Christian barrister, entitled “Is Secular Law possible?” I would encourage anyone who has an interest (either positive or negative) in religion in the public sphere to read it. It’s not a short article but it will be well worth your time.

It basically argues: (1) secularist law – i.e. law which excludes any religious influence – is impossible, but ‘secular’ law (understood correctly) is possible; (2)  secular law is only possible because of Christian foundations in distinguishing between law and morality; (3) secular law is imperative, the idea of limited government logically comes from Christian foundations.

In these days of alleged ‘militant secularism’, I think it’s high time that these kind of issues got out into the open and were actually discussed rather than simply being assumed. What kind of secular society do we want? I don’t think we want a secular society which can be used as a weapon against religion. To whet your appetite for the article, I’d like to quote from the first section on morality, which puts rather more eloquently what I have said here before:

It is almost impossible for us to think ourselves outside of the Judaeo-Christian understandings of who human beings are and how they should relate to one another that we have inherited.  We react with shock when we discover that Aristotle, the Philosopher, believed that slavery was natural, that some people were fit to be no more than living tools for others. We are horrified when we understand how caste prejudice affects the Dalits, the Untouchables, whose common humanity is denied.  We couch our debates about euthanasia in terms of the suffering of the old, chronically ill and dying, because it is unthinkable for us that they should be exterminated simply because they are now no longer contributing to society or able to fend for themselves.

We react in these ways because our public morality, our universal, reasonable, liberal morality tells us that no reasonable or sane person could think in those terms.  And yet, what we believe to be reasonable turns out to have been profoundly influenced by Christianity’s teachings.  The architects of our universal, reasonable, liberal morality are John Locke, great Enlightenment philosopher but also a lifelong member of the Anglican church and author of The Reasonableness of Christianity; Immanuel Kant, a child of Pietist parents who attempted to defend religion in the aftermath of David Hume’s scepticism by writingReligion within the Bounds of Reason Alone; and most recently John Rawls, who seriously considered being ordained in the Episcopal Church before turning to a life of writing as a political philosopher.

The issue is not about the strength of the religious convictions of each of these three men.  It is that the assumptions these men made – about the equality of all human beings (in the case of Locke), the need to adopt maxims of action which you would accept others applying also (in the case of Kant), and the need for society to be justified by reference to its treatment of its weakest members (in the case of Rawls) – are all assumptions which we accept as reasonable, even as ‘natural’, because they and we are the products of a civilization in which Christianity has had a significant influence.

What this means is that neutral secular law, law as doing nothing more than providing a neutral playing field, is an impossibility.  There is no neutral playing field.  A public square from which religious influences are excluded is not a neutral public square. It is a public square in which all influences bar the secularist ones have been censored.  That is not a public square in which everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s views are respected, it is a public square in which religious voices are silenced and anti-religious views are imposed.  This is not a tolerant society, it is a tyrannous society. [My emphasis]

We seem to face, therefore, a choice between a secularist legal system on the one hand and a Christian legal system on the other.  A secularist legal system clearly is a possibility.  Indeed, it is an experiment which has been tried in the twentieth century, most obviously in the Soviet Union, but the results were not a good advertisement for ‘secularist law’.

I think this is worth paying serious consideration to. If you systematically eliminate religion from the public square, you don’t stop having to make moral decisions. It just means the moral decisions you make will be made by … well, what exactly?

That’s exactly what worries me about a secular society. If you exclude a Christian moral framework from having any influence on public policy making, you could replace it with pretty much anything you like. We in the UK may think certain moral choices are “obvious” or “natural”, but I wonder whether that is simply because we have lived in a country which has been highly influenced by Christianity. What are we replacing Christianity with? Do we even know? Surely that is a conversation worth having.

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8 thoughts on “Is Secularism ‘neutral’, ‘godless’ – or even possible?

  1. “but I wonder whether that is simply because we have lived in a country which has been highly influenced by Christianity.”

    If you look at history, you can see it isn’t because of that. Mostly because Christianity got its morality from earlier sources. And our morality has improved from what is laid out in Christian texts. (We don’t stone homosexuals to death any more, for example.)

    • “If you look at history, you can see it isn’t because of that. Mostly because Christianity got its morality from earlier sources.”

      Which particular moral sources are you talking about here? Which part of the contemporary world 2000 years ago? As I understand it, the culture in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ could be pretty ugly – well, one piece of evidence being that they crucified people. And let’s not forget that their morality was in a sense more ‘natural’ than ours – or at least, equally natural. I do highly recommend David Bentley Hart’s book “Atheist Delusions” for Christianity and morality and history (that link is my review with lots of quotes).

      And I would argue that, if the Christian story is true, you would *expect* different cultures to have some similar morals because God created humankind in his image.

      I think it’s harder to defend any kind of morality from an atheist position though – what makes our morality today any better than the ancient Babylonians, for example?

      “And our morality has improved from what is laid out in Christian texts. (We don’t stone homosexuals to death any more, for example.”

      From what position do you say that morality has ‘improved’? What standard do you appeal to? If you say something is ‘better’ than something else, you must have an ideal to compare it against.

      • Firstly Lol – Atheist delusions.

        Secondly, yes our moral foundations may be based on Christianity, but Christianities morals have evolved over the years.

        And now we as a people are evolving.

        I would say that total Secularism is impossible as Christianity is intertwined in our societies fabric.

        How ever, as more and more people see the atheist light, we are able to see the religious morals and sensibly choose which christian moral teachings are sensible and which are outdated and immoral.

        I would say that ultimately, having to think about your morals as an atheist means that you are more logical about the moral choices you make and end up being more morally intelligent than someone who has been spoon fed their morals by the church.

        There will always be ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys no matter what the morals or the state of the society. Atheism/Religion that won’t ever change.

        In the end a Secularist society is possible and probable as more and more people wake up. And although the god side of things will die, the morals and teachings will stay in our fabric, as it is who we are and where we have come from, society will move on as it did from paganism, and the religions before that to a more enlightened time. I look forward to that, although I cant see that happening in my life time.

        Good article again! 🙂

        • “Firstly Lol – Atheist delusions.”

          What’s funny? It’s an excellent book, although it has a provocative title. Please read it. 🙂

          “Secondly, yes our moral foundations may be based on Christianity, but Christianities morals have evolved over the years. And now we as a people are evolving.”

          Christianity’s morals haven’t really evolved over the years, they’ve just been applied to different situations. It seems to me that if the history of the 20th century shows us anything, it’s that the only so-called ‘advances’ in morality we’ve seen from secular societies have led to a huge death toll.

          “How ever, as more and more people see the atheist light, we are able to see the religious morals and sensibly choose which christian moral teachings are sensible and which are outdated and immoral.”

          How do you choose which Christian teachings are moral and which are not? From which moral platform do you say X is good but Y is bad? The thing is, as an atheist you have to say that everything is natural. Islam is as natural as Christianity. What’s wrong with Islamic morality? Why do you say our morality is better than Islam’s? Or better than the Pagan religions of first-century Rome?

          Also, what happens if someone – a national leader, for example – decides that something is actually moral. Let’s say a certain charismatic leader from the early 20th century decides that it’s right to exterminate a whole people group on Darwinistic lines… is that moral evolution? Where do you draw the line? What if you draw your line in a difference place to someone else?

          “I would say that ultimately, having to think about your morals as an atheist means that you are more logical about the moral choices you make and end up being more morally intelligent than someone who has been spoon fed their morals by the church.”

          Similarly, how do you know you are being ‘more logical’ about morals? The fact that you’re still assuming Christian values – selectively – does not make you more logical about it. Surely if you’re going to be completely logical about morals from an atheistic perspective you ought to say we should pursue eugenics, because that’s where evolutionary ethics leads us (in fact, I believe many contemporary philosophers do argue passionately for eugenics of some kind).

          “There will always be ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys no matter what the morals or the state of the society. Atheism/Religion that won’t ever change.”

          One last point. How do atheists explain ‘bad’ guys? We’re all ‘bad’ guys anyway – most people have double standards when it comes to themselves. One example, look at the MPs expenses thing a few years back – well-educated, intelligent people who were doing something they themselves would consider immoral. And it wasn’t just a few isolated individuals, it was widespread.

          Christians have an answer for the problem of evil in the world, why human nature is as it is. I can’t see how atheism can provide an explanation.

  2. Bah, so much wrong with your reply, I don’t know where to start.

    As i am in a hurry, I’ll give you a quick reply:

    “Christianity’s morals haven’t really evolved over the years, they’ve just been applied to different situations. It seems to me that if the history of the 20th century shows us anything, it’s that the only so-called ‘advances’ in morality we’ve seen from secular societies have led to a huge death toll.”

    What planet do you live on?! – Christians morals have changed constantly depending on who led it and who needed them changed, mini example – divorce Henry the 8th – churches and gold etc.

    Eeeerrrmmmmm – look back at History and almost every conflict has had the sticky religious hands all over it – to imply that secularist societies are more violent and is the cause of more conflicts is such weak argument – even Hitler – he wanted rid of Jews, who are a group held together by…. Religion. Whatever the case Religion is always part of conflict, a reason, a justiication. God wants me to do this. He is on my side etc… Have a look at http://www.nobeliefs.com/Hitler1.htm

    Not that that even matters anyway – people can be violent little ***** I don’t think religion or atheism can stop that.

    “Christians have an answer for the problem of evil in the world, why human nature is as it is. I can’t see how atheism can provide an explanation.”

    The answer is that nature, evolution, society has brought us to this point. What is your answer? Original sin, some horny red man?! Come on give me a break.

    How do I know what wright and wrong, maybe religion has helped me get to where I am, but I think this is where the ‘god’ bit gets in the middle, you believe that the bible etc was all written by god (maybe not literally but you know what I mean). I believe that a group of men wrote the beliefs and created a religion that in turn gave people a structure to live their lives by. This was constructed by people, who knew what was wright and wrong. And although they may have believed that their ‘God’ was telling them what to write, the truth is that people just like you and me, wrote these morals with which you live your life. Therefore going forward people will get their moral compass by society as has always been the case. Just as they wrote morals that were relevant then so to will people now.

    Also you mention the MP expenses scandal – ok ace card (haha) – pedos in the church – neither are helping my moral compass.

    There are always rotten apples wherever you look.

    I lol ed at atheist delusions as it is so cringe worthy and so typical of religious people getting the message wrong – that title says everything.

    Its not suppose to be a pop at atheism – but it takes its title from the god delusion book. It shows me that the god delusion is seriously bothering this guy so much that he had to write a whole book to counter act it. Rather than have the conviction of his beliefs and write a book that is about what he believes to be true, he has to defend.

    And if it hasn’t bothered him – then his publicist has told him to change the title so he will make more money out of people… Either one pretty sad and cringe worthy.

    That’s why I loled. lol.

    Quick reply this is not I realise… oh well, have a good weekend. 🙂 Sorry about spelling mistakes, not got long to check it.

    • Hi Darren, don’t push yourself to write a reply quickly if you’d rather wait until you had a bit more time. I don’t always get round to writing replies instantly!

      “Christians morals have changed constantly depending on who led it and who needed them changed, mini example – divorce Henry the 8th – churches and gold etc.”

      You’re right that certain things have been considered right or wrong by the church at different times, but I’d say the “big ideas” haven’t changed, in particular (say) things like the ten commandments, the value of humankind by virtue of being created in the image of God, and the so-called ‘golden rule’ (do unto others…)

      “Eeeerrrmmmmm – look back at History and almost every conflict has had the sticky religious hands all over it – to imply that secularist societies are more violent and is the cause of more conflicts is such weak argument – even Hitler – he wanted rid of Jews, who are a group held together by…. Religion. Whatever the case Religion is always part of conflict, a reason, a justiication. God wants me to do this. He is on my side etc… Have a look at http://www.nobeliefs.com/Hitler1.htm

      Look back at the history of the 20th century and secularism in some shape or form has its sticky hands all over most of the violence. Explain to me why that’s not true. Historically, prior to the 20th century (or thereabouts) there wasn’t really a difference between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’. You might as well blame wars on politics instead of religion.

      So because the Jews were a religious group… it’s all their fault?!!! It’s true that Hitler used the language of Christianity but he was in no way recognisably a Christian (One thing which he did, for example, is set up his own church – the Reich Church – and on the altar was a copy of Mein Kamf and a sword. That’s … pagan, if anything; it’s not Christian. Found an interesting article with more info).

      “Not that that even matters anyway – people can be violent little ***** I don’t think religion or atheism can stop that.”

      I agree that people are the problem. You and me are the problem, in fact, we all are. If atheism can’t stop that, what’s the point of it? I think Christianity can and does change people – not to say it makes people perfect! There are a couple of people who are / were at college with me who used to be drug dealers before becoming Christians and turning their life around. I wonder how many atheist conversion stories there are.

      “The answer is that nature, evolution, society has brought us to this point. What is your answer? Original sin, some horny red man?! Come on give me a break.”

      I think every human being rejects God, yes. Someone once said “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith”, which I think is pretty close to the truth.

      If I understand correctly you seem to be saying (1) bad behaviour is normal; (2) we know what right behaviour is somehow. Those two things seem contradictory to me. If we know what right behaviour is, why do we behave wrongly? The Christian answer is that there *is* something wrong with us, we value ourselves over others, we put ourselves on the throne which God should be on. As I see it, all atheists can do is shrug their shoulders and say it’s “natural”.

      Any morality which comes from society I think is deeply troubling, partly because of the lessons we’ve learned from Nazi Germany (society seemed to buy into what Hitler wanted to do… were they simply mistaken/misguided, or actually objectively *wrong*?), and partly because there are other societies around the world which have different morals. What’s better about *our* morality than, say, Taliban morality? If you’re an atheist, you have to say they’re both “natural”. How do you judge between them?

      The point I’m trying to get at is that what you say is basically moral relativism. And I think no-one is actually a moral relativist, even if they might claim to be. Would racism ever be right, for example, if society permitted it? And if you think it’s not right, can you explain how you come to that conclusion from within your atheist views?

      “Also you mention the MP expenses scandal – ok ace card (haha) – pedos in the church – neither are helping my moral compass.”

      Actually, as I said before, Christians are not perfect. Christians do, however, believe in forgiveness – something which isn’t really possible in atheism. (I wonder how many atheists have done something like this, for example). Everybody – including you and me – do wrong things. We are *all* rotten apples, which is what I was getting at by talking about the MPs (and the paedo priests as well). The fact that there are ‘sinners’ in the church is exactly the point.

      “I lol ed at atheist delusions as it is so cringe worthy and so typical of religious people getting the message wrong – that title says everything.”

      Don’t judge a book by its cover (or title). David Bentley Hart is a very intelligent and well-read guy who seems to have actually read a history book or two (unlike most of the so-called ‘new atheists’). Yes, the title is provocative, and it’s getting at Richard Dawkins, but he genuinely believes that these atheists are misreading history – they are actually the ones deluding themselves.

      Sorry, I seem to have written an essay in response to you. These things aren’t easy to discuss in a few words!

      • Don’t have time for a proper reply, but just for the record, noooo I do not blame the Jews! I was just pointing out that if religion wasn’t there who would he have hated? Anyway…

        • Of course, sorry Darren, that was a cheap shot! But – I think it’s wrong to say Hitler wouldn’t have hated anyone if it wasn’t for religion – after all eliminating the Jews was only part of what he wanted to do.

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