Defending secularism: Why the secularists get it wrong – and why the religious don’t get it

Published on the website of Radix, the radical centre think tank, 25th June 2019.

Some years ago, the American pastor Jim Wallis wrote a bestselling book about religion in American public life: God’s Politics – why the Right gets it wrong, and why the Left doesn’t get it.

He had a lot of hard truth to tell about the tribal lines down which the debate about religion and society splits in the United States, though his attempt to outline a universalist vision of a Christian politics of inclusion and peace ultimately failed the test when confronted with Saddam Hussein.

In the UK, religion has not become the province of one party alone. Conservative, Labour, Liberal and other parties all draw upon different strains of Christian approaches to faith and works, from the Methodist tent preacher demanding a better world to the unflappable calm of Lambeth Palace and Canterbury. Blake’s “Jerusalem”, the Jarrow March and the Vicar of Dibley – each in their own way represents a strain of what makes up the tapestry on which modern Britain is built.

Each contributes to what could be termed the modern secular concordat, the messy, pragmatic but ultimately successful quest for power to be exercised not by Divine right, but by democratic consent.

We still struggle to understand the meaning of secularism in this context. What the word ‘secularism’ stands for – and what it is not. Like feminism, secularism has done a tremendously bad job of explaining why it is so important. Like feminism, secularism is there to prevent humans from being exploited by other humans. Like feminism, secularism is constantly judged by its excesses and its fringes, rather than by its considerable successes. Like feminism, secularism is constantly traduced, to the sound of axe-grinding.

Secularism, along with liberty, is very much worth defending. It is the hard-won prize of religious toleration after centuries of war. The concept of separation between religion and state authority represented an important innovation in political thinking.

Catholic and Jewish “emancipation” came about because the institutions of state could no longer maintain, with intellectual honesty and a clear ethical basis, that people of different faiths were not entitled to equal rights as citizens. Without the guarantee of religious liberty, tyranny and repression are rarely far away.

That is why the concept of secularism in British democracy functions as an important check on the excesses of the powerful, the privileged and the numerically superior. British secularism has always differed strongly from French laicité, the enforced supremacy of the official, state-sponsored brand of non-religious civic symbolism. More simply, it has functioned as a guarantor of common-law fair play, variety and diversity.

Secularism should not allow itself to be used as a cause. It should not be a campaign to rid all public life of the symbols of faith and tradition. Nor should it become a campaign to deny religious leaders their platforms and to restrict the private practice of religious traditions of any sort, whether harmful or not.

Most of all, it should not become a campaign to caricature and monster even the least objectionable forms of religious education as inherent indoctrination and abuse.

It is perhaps understandable, in present circumstances, that a somewhat militant approach has evolved. Richard Dawkins has established a reputation as a fiercely critical atheist who draws on his credibility as a scientist to lend authority to his attacks on religion.

This is not a new phenomenon; but what has developed as a result is a growing sense that “secularists” have somehow become another faction in an increasingly fractious and partisan conversation. Instead of secularism being the neutral holder of the ring, the sense is of a battle to own the rules of the contest itself.

Nonetheless, the new militancy of some “secularist” groups has not arisen unprovoked. It is unarguable and unhelpful that religious institutions from the Vatican to the kangaroo sharia courts of Bradford have presided over the most egregious cover-ups of abuse and corruption. Religious extremism has, quietly and then with increasing assertiveness, built strongholds inside most of the UK’s faith communities.

Emboldened by the reluctance of officials to criticise even the most unreasonable requests, religious extremists have begun to encroach on the rights of others. Forced marriage, FGM and the exorcising of suspected “witches” have received cover from ill-conceived notions of cultural licence.

Young people brainwashed into Islamism have journeyed to Syria to join jihadi groups. Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith schools have all become battlegrounds over the idea that sex and relationship education (SRE) is somehow about “teaching children to be gay”. In reality, their purpose is to fulfil the real needs of children to understand biology, health and, above all, consent.

The National Secular Society is an organisation that is professional, motivated and deserves a great deal of respect for much of what it does. It is, rightly, a fierce opponent of religiously motivated cover-ups, double-dealing and shady practices.

However, it still persists in campaigning for the banning of circumcision, which it terms “genital cutting”, in the full knowledge that such a ban means the end of normative Jewish and probably also Muslim life in this country. The cause of secularism is being misused in this case; it should not be about making life in Britain unsustainable for large segments of the population. Religious derogations, from non-stunned kosher slaughter and no motorcycle helmets for turban-wearing Sikhs, were not negotiated lightly or with the intent to harm.

The overt commitment to criminalise some normative religious practices plays into the hands of separatists and extremists. In conservative religious communities around the country, a discourse about “the secular agenda” has now become normalised.

“Secularism” is defined by such discourse as implacable hostility to religious observance and lifestyles – and commitment to their elimination. This is wrongheadedness of a spectacular degree.

It allows extremists to build support by stoking fear and a sense of embattled righteousness. They build parallel community services, which can do a great deal of good in the absence of adequate public services in the age of austerity, but are also susceptible to religious pressure on their professional protocols. The reality is that within closed communities, people are at most risk from their own bad actors who benefit from a lack of scrutiny, transparency and oversight. Sunlight really is the best disinfectant.

We should not forget that secularism was developed by religious people to ensure freedom of religion. The religious should be the greatest supporters of a secularist state, which guarantees their liberties. The test of a healthy secularism is whether it does so.

This is why religious groups who seek to challenge harmful and pernicious practices in their communities should be able to raise the banner of secularism. Secularists should stand in solidarity with religious communities, in support of transparency, accountability and oversight.