Monday, October 29, 2007

Defending secular society

On Saturday I was involved in a debate on The Resurrection of Religion at the RCA. I defended the secular society. Here are some of the points I made, for what they are worth...

What is a secular society? It is, roughly, one that is neutral between different views about religion.

It protects freedoms: the freedom to believe, or not believe, worship, or not worship.

It is founded on basic principles framed independently of any particular religious, or indeed, atheist, point of view: principles to which we ought to be able to sign up whether we are religious or not.

An Islamic or Christian theocracy is obviously not secular, because one particular religion dominates the state.

But then a totalitarian atheist state, such as Mao’s China, is not secular state either. A secular state does not privilege atheist beliefs.

Because you live in a secular society, your right to believe in a particular God, worship him, etc. is protected from those atheists, and those of differing religious views, that might want to take that freedom from you.

Christians often assume a secular society is an atheist society. "Look at the institutions and principles of this society." they say. "They involve no religion. So it's an atheist society". Not so. After all, the fact that the institutions and principles make no commitment to atheism doesn't make it a religious society, does it?

We are often told that secular societies have "failed" (e.g."Many people today recognise that the experiment of modern secular society has failed." Bishop Joseph Devine “Today many recognise that the experiment of modern secular society has failed." Rev Vincent Nichols). The truth is they have been hugely successful. Of course, they are not all perfect, but secularism is, I think you’ll find, better than the alternatives.

Threats to the secular society


One way in which the secular character of a society can begin to be eroded is if the religious start insisting that their views are deserving of a special concern and "respect". Many of the faithful insist just that. Here are six examples:

1. We should not put on plays that mock, or might in some other way deeply offend, those with religious beliefs.

2. Schools and airlines should have no power to prevent flight attendants and school pupils from wearing religious symbols, if the individual’s religion, or conscience, requires it.

3.Taxpayers money should be used to fund religious schools, that are then permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of religious belief.

4. The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else in the country should not apply to, say, Catholic adoption agencies asked to help gay couples adopt.

5. Radio 4’s Thought for The Day should only allow religious figures to contribute.

6. A religion should automatically be allocated 26, seats in the House of Lords – all men, by the way – which can then be used to help support or block legislation that has popular, democratic support (such as the Bill on assisted dying).


We are told that, if we fail to agree to these claims, we fail to show religious beliefs proper “respect”.

If we agree to these things, we begin to erode the secular character of our society.

I don’t agree with any of these six claims. Why not? Well, because I apply a certain TEST - a test I am recommending you apply too.

Here’s the test. If you agree with some of these claims that religion deserves a special respect, cross out the word “religious” and write in “political” instead. Then see if you still agree.

Take three of those six claims…

1. We should not put on plays that mock, or might in some other way deeply offend, those with political beliefs.

2. Schools and airlines should have no power to prevent flight attendants and school pupils from wearing political symbols, if the individual’s political organization, or conscience, requires it.

4. The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else in the country should not apply to, say, BNP-run adoption agencies asked to help mixed race couples adopt. We should respect the political conscience of BNP-party members.


The challenge I am putting to the anti-secularists is: if you reject the political version of the claim, why suppose the religious version should be considered differently?

REPLY 1: You may say, but religion is different. Unlike political organizations, religions deserve special respect. But why? After all, religious beliefs are often also intensely political. Consider religious views on:
• Women’s role in society
• The moral status of the actively homosexual
• Abortion
• Jihad
• The state of Israel
• Our moral and financial responsibilities to those less fortune than ourselves

Religions also form powerful political lobbies.

REPLY 2: You may say: but religious beliefs are more passionately held. That’s why they deserve special respect.

But political beliefs may be just as passionately held. Indeed, just as for religious beliefs, people are prepared to die for them. In fact I am prepared to die for certain political beliefs. Yet I do not demand legislation preventing others from mocking my beliefs. I don’t demand that others show my political beliefs that sort of “respect”…

We have a peculiar blind spot when to comes to religion. We far too easily accept what we would never accept from a political organization. Yet they are political organizations.

Perhaps there is some difference between religious organizations and (other) political organizations that justifies a difference in treatment in some of the above cases. But if there is, I don't know what it is (though I am aware of other suggestions, e.g. (i) religion forms part of a person's identity in a way that politics doesn't [this suggestion pointed out to me by philosopher Piers Benn], and (ii) religious belief involves personal relationship with someone (i.e. a god, or prophet, etc.) - you wouldn't insult someone's mother so you shouldn't insult their god).

14 comments:

Bob said...

I definitely agree that Thought For The Day should be secular, i.e. opened up to non-religious commentators, because it has such a critical spot in such a mainstream morning show such that its remit should be about offering a range of moral/ethical/social/philosophical perspectives, not just religious perspectives.

However, it is only the critical mainstream-ness of the slot which makes this so, I think. Because it's not contrary to the ideal of a secular society that some radio and TV shows are expressly designed to advocate for religious viewpoints, just as some should be expressly designed to occupy a naturalistic worldview, or indeed to be expressly critical of religion.

anticant said...

The only alternative to a secular society is a theocracy. When you look at the people who would like that, the answer is a resounding "No, thanks!"

jeremy said...

Hi Stephen (and anyone else),

I'd be interested, if you have time, to hear your thoughts on religious folk demanding to be able to wear, say, a Hindu nose-ring, or a Christian cross, etc. - to school.

We recently had a case like that here. (If you're interested, both the two sides of the argument are represented here and here. I'm a bit conflicted. Part of me wants to say, "Fine, unlike the examples you mentioned, this one infringes very little on the rest of us, so the student should have the freedom to do so."

But then, applying your test (which I really liked, by the way) makes me more reluctant to do so. If a school does feel that its discipline or uniform or whatever is undermined by this, then perhaps we shouldn't allow any such displays. After all, we wouldn't hesitate to stop children wearing a Conservative Party sticker on their foreheads.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Jeremy

Yes, I agree. I think consistency demands that if we ban non-religious jewellery and other personal signage, then we ban the religious stuff too.

However, there might be a pragmatic case for allowing just the religious jewellery and signage - namely, that while parents won't much object to the banning of non-religious stuff, some will be incandescent if the religious stuff is removed.

Or, possibly, such a decision might be made democratically, by the parents. Arguably, parents have a democratic right to be less than impartial (at least up to a point).

So you might, to reduce conflict and for an easier life, treat the two cases differently.

But the important thing, then, is to make it clear why the concession is being made. Don't let the religious think they have won some battle of principle: that religion is a special case and deserves special "respect".

And of course, you now face the possibility that local Arsenal supporters will make an equally big fuss about football scarves...

jeremy said...

Hehe - oh no, I wouldn't stand for demonstrative Arsenal support at a school. Only Chelsea fans should be allowed to have the kit in class.

(Thanks for the reply; I think it's a helpful and important distinction you make between the principles and the pragmatism - and not to conflate the two.)

Hugo Hadlow said...

People should have freedom to choose... not to go to that school! It's up to the school whether they want a uniform, and whether they will allow exceptions.

Yes indeed, we need to publicise more this political test of yours, and make it clear that religion does not get special treatment. Principles, not pragmatism, no matter how much they shout. Could we have a separate thread on Radio Four's religious bias?

Double standards are quite interesting: often we don't notice them until a neat analogy. Anthony Browne writes about this in "The Retreat of Reason": why do we find it acceptable to have separate sports competition for men and women, but not blacks and whites? Weird.

Richard Dawkins goes even further, saying the "X-files", where in every episode the supernatural explanation won over the natural one, was as bad as a cop show where every week the black suspect was the one who did it. I'm not sure what to think about that.

Even I don't notice them. Greg Dyke said "I think the BBC is hideously white". What if he had said it was "hideously black"? Another good case at http://www.libertarian.co.uk/news/nr015.htm
"'Yasmin, are you saying that the white majority in this country is so seething with hatred and discontent that it is only restrained by law from rising up and tearing all the ethnic minorities to pieces?' Her answer was yes...
How would it be, if a white person had said that blacks were only kept from raping and looting by fear of the police?"

Should men and women have to compete in the same sports events?

Hugo Hadlow said...

Just remembered another: my school let black kids have very short hair, which is normal, but sent a white kid home for (longer) hair being "too short".

Stephen Law said...

Jeremy

I meant to add something - of course, caving into those who get angry enough for us to want to back down less there's violence etc. (as happened when those Sikh protests about a play looked like getting out of hand) should be an act of last resort, because of course it will encourage them and others to push for more concessions. Once they discover they can get want they want by raising the temperature high enough that their opponents back down, they'll do it more.

Arguably, this is now happening. Christians have seen Muslims and Sikhs get concessions and are now saying "Us too!"

This is a strong further argument for not making any concessions unless there's an overwhelming pragmatic case....

jeremy said...

Couldn't agree more.

Russell Blackford said...

I just discovered your blog - which looks like a great resource. I've been worrying at these church/state separation issues a lot lately, and I don't think there's a completely clean answer to all of them. But I do think it's important to argue as tirelessly as possible for the sharpest, strongest form of separation possible, and also to criticise religion's truth-claims directly.

I certainly agree that religion deserves no special respect. However, as you say, there may be pragmatic situations where we need to make concessions; on the other hand, there may also be pragmatic situations where we may have to give it special disrespect.

Have a look at my blog if you get a chance.

(You won't remember me, but I was one of the zillion people whom you met at signings during your trip to Australia.)

Stephen Law said...

Hello Russell, yes I take your point about disrespect. Looked at your blog, and you do look familiar. Wasn't Sydney, was it?

Russell Blackford said...

Melbourne. :)

Ally said...

Hi Stephen,

I just had to let you know that a person I'm in discussion with at an msn group doesn't get this

What is a secular society? It is, roughly, one that is neutral between different views about religion.

It protects freedoms: the freedom to believe, or not believe, worship, or not worship.

It is founded on basic principles framed independently of any particular religious, or indeed, atheist, point of view: principles to which we ought to be able to sign up whether we are religious or not.

An Islamic or Christian theocracy is obviously not secular, because one particular religion dominates the state.

But then a totalitarian atheist state, such as Mao’s China, is not secular state either. A secular state does not privilege atheist beliefs.

Because you live in a secular society, your right to believe in a particular God, worship him, etc. is protected from those atheists, and those of differing religious views, that might want to take that freedom from you.

Christians often assume a secular society is an atheist society. "Look at the institutions and principles of this society." they say. "They involve no religion. So it's an atheist society". Not so. After all, the fact that the institutions and principles make no commitment to atheism doesn't make it a religious society, does it?

We are often told that secular societies have "failed" (e.g."Many people today recognise that the experiment of modern secular society has failed." Bishop Joseph Devine “Today many recognise that the experiment of modern secular society has failed." Rev Vincent Nichols). The truth is they have been hugely successful. Of course, they are not all perfect, but secularism is, I think you’ll find, better than the alternatives.


I couldn't help but laugh at the reply

Expanded: Law starts off very good, "A society that is neutral between different views about religion. The Protection of freedoms, to believe, not to believe, to worship or not to worship."...... My opinion highly commendable indeed.

The negative association: An Islamic, Christian, Atheist society is not secular. Here Law wants to take away a persons right to think and choose for themselves and tells them what to think. Propaganda at its very best, he gives the people the answer he wants.

He goes on further to say what Christians wrongly assume..... Go figure, this is the same bloke who first stated a secular society gives a person protection of what to believe. Then uses his own twisted and distorted analogy to prove it, therefore giving him an associative Postive.

In General: Which Law should put to his intelligence: Humans tend to blend into the majority around them. Even in a perfect secular society there will be a majority. At the moment in many cases, this majority is religious. Law already has what he wants. Somehow I think he wants to change it to something which suits him better.


You gotta love a christian LMAO

Ally

gsw said...

you wouldn't insult someone's mother so you shouldn't insult their god .. or their favorite author/actor/pop star ... or their political party .. or their rowing team ... or their cat ...

Love me love my dog?
Even when it bites?