Secularism: What does it mean to you?

The title of this blog post is taken from an article I read yesterday. The Guardian basically asked a few different people what secularism meant to them, and published their responses. To be honest, the article doesn’t encompass a huge range of beliefs (most of the people there seem to be atheist / humanist in outlook), but I think it’s an interesting window into a what a cross-section of people think ‘secularism’ actually is. Especially when the most visible thing about secularism recently is the National Secular Society’s campaigns, most lately against the Church of England’s role at the Cenotaph on remembrance day.

Anyway, I’d just like to pick up on a few comments from the article because I think they’re worth dealing with. In particular, I think many people seem to be confusing secularism with being ‘secularist’: to be secularist means the systematic eradication of any religious influence on public life; whereas secularism as I understand it is about a level playing field between competing views. (See my previous post about secular law for more thoughts on this – in particular I believe a secularist society is a tyrannous society).

Firstly, Will Self said: “That the state shouldn’t be in the business of funding faith schools goes without saying.” Apparently it’s obvious that secularism means that the state shouldn’t fund faith schools. But … given the notion of secularism as a level playing field, is it obvious? What’s the motivation to not fund religious schools? Is it simply by virtue of the fact that they are religious, or is there some actual evidence to show that they are bad for the community? Anecdotally, it seems to me like everyone wants to get their kids into a church school – usually because they’re good schools. Should the state not fund good schools because they’re religious? Isn’t that discrimination? As long as the schools are doing everything that the government demands in terms of curriculum and so on, I don’t really see what the big problem is here.

Next up, Nina Power said this:

Secularism is having the courage to question everything in such a way that no one belief system – religious or otherwise – is permitted to dominate. Secularism is tolerant, critical and open-minded. Above all, secularism means keeping open the possibility that there may not be satisfactory answers to difficult questions, be they scientific, political or existential, that humanity cannot help but ask.

I very much like how she put this – in fact I think hers was my favourite contribution. ‘Secularism’ is not a belief system, it is a way of going about adjudicating between beliefs. In the same way that religious beliefs should not be privileged by virtue of the fact that they are religious, nonreligious beliefs should likewise not be privileged.  Secularism is not trying to impose a monochrome, blanket ‘secular’ belief system on the country (filtering out all the religious beliefs in the process) but instead trying to understand and judge between competing beliefs.

Then, Jim Al-Khalili said:

As a scientist I have a rational conviction that the world is comprehensible, that mysteries are only mysteries because we have yet to figure out the answers. So secularism also means the scientific freedom to question why the world is the way it is and to search for empirically testable and reproducible scientific truths that help me make sense of the universe and my place in it without any of the constraints of religious teaching. It also means the freedom to hold dear all that defines what is most precious about humanity – to value attributes such as morality, empathy and tolerance because they define who I am and not because they are imposed on me by the teachings of a holy book.

I have quite a few issues with this paragraph. Firstly, Jim holds a conviction (not a belief, mind, because it is apparently ‘rational’) that mysteries are just stuff we have to figure out. Secularism means… pursuing the scientific freedom to find them out ‘without any of the constraints of religious teaching’. Huh? It seems to me to be pushing the old “science vs religion” canard again. And a secular society does not guarantee an atheistic or scientific way of thinking, just that those things will be possibilities. One has to wonder why the modern scientific enterprise seemed to flourish within a very Christian context.

Also, on the last sentence – see my previous post on a secular society. The real irony is, I think we only hold that values of ‘morality, empathy and tolerance’ are valuable because of our ‘holy book’ – the historic influence of Christianity on the world. They certainly don’t necessarily spring from an atheistic / humanistic framework – humanism being, of course, just another system of beliefs. But I’m not critiquing humanism here.

Finally, in the contribution which annoyed me the most, Jenni Murray wrote:

We, on the other hand, are stuck with an established Church of England and places in the House of Lords for powerful and influential religious leaders. They’re from institutions that won’t shake hands with a menstruating woman, steadfastly refuse to ordain a female priest or still refer in some quarters to those they have ordained as “pulpit pussy”. Shocking. Religion should be confined to church, chapel, mosque, synagogue and personal choice. No way should bishops or imams or rabbis have the power in parliament, unelected, to influence the way we heathens (or humanists) should live our lives. Assisted dying is a case in point.

‘Pulpit pussy’? I have never heard that phrase before, anywhere I’ve been in the church (and, believe me, over the last few years I’ve seen and heard more about the Church of England than I think I’d care to know). No idea where the menstruating women thing comes from, and I assume she means ‘female bishops’ rather than priests (to be fair, she could be referring to institutions other than the Church of England in which case I’m not exactly sure).

Jenni is advocating here the idea that religion should be an entirely private affair. “You keep your absurd beliefs to yourself, and let us get on with running the country without them.” As I mentioned above, I’ve argued before that you can’t divorce personal religious belief from public morality – there is no such thing as a secular morality. There are only moralities which we need to judge between, hence secularism. Jenni’s view here is secularist, not secularism.

I don’t think it’s surprising that ‘secularism’ has caused so much of a stir in recent years when there are so many different opinions about what it actually is. I’m hoping that, as it becomes more visible, this kind of thing will provoke a discussion in the UK about what we actually mean by a secular country and whether it’s something we actually want – or at least, how exactly we want it. I don’t want the country to become secularist by default without anyone knowing why or what that would entail!


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