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
• 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).