By a secular society I mean one in which the state takes a neutral view on religion. A secular society aligns itself with no particular religious, or anti-religious, point of view. A secular society also protects freedoms: the freedom to believe, or not believe, worship, or not worship.
Theists often assume that a secular society must be an atheist society. But, as I’ve characterized secularism here, secularism and atheism are very different concepts.. An Islamic or Christian theocracy is obviously not secular, because one particular religion dominates the state. But then an atheist state, such as Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, is not secular either. A secular state does not privilege atheist beliefs. It is neutral on the issue of religion. It is founded on principles framed independently of any particular religious, or indeed, atheist, commitment: principles to which we ought to be able to sign up whether we are religious or not. Indeed, many religious people are secularists. They value the kind of religious freedoms that such a society guarantees.
Although most of us take these freedoms for granted, they were in many cases hard won, and, across much of the West, have existed for only a few hundred years.
Threats to secularism
One way in which the secular character of a society can begin to be eroded is if the religious start insisting their views are deserving of special, institutionalized forms of privilege or "respect”. Here are six examples of such demands:
• We should not permit plays that mock, or might in some way deeply offend, those with certain religious beliefs.
• Airlines and schools should have no power to ban flight attendants or school pupils from wearing religious symbols, if the individual’s religion, or conscience, requires it.
• Taxpayer’s 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.
• The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else should not apply to Catholic adoption agencies asked to help gay couples adopt.
• One religion should automatically be allocated 26 seats in the House of Lords - all men - which can be used to help block legislation that has popular, democratic support (such as the Bill on assisted dying).
• Our State should have an explicitly religious affiliation.
All of the above claims for special privileges are regularly made in the U.K. In several cases, the privilege already exists. Many believe these claims are legitimate. Some of you may have some sympathy with at least some of them. I shall raise a challenge for those who make these claims. The challenge involves a simple test.
THE TEST: If you agree with some of these claims that religion deserves special institutionalized privilege or respect, cross out the word “religious” and write in “political” instead. Then see if you still agree.
Let’s apply the test to four of these six claims…
• We should not permit plays that mock, or might in some way deeply offend, those with certain political beliefs.
• Airlines and schools should have no power to ban flight attendants or school pupils from wearing political symbols or clothing, if the individual’s political party, or conscience, requires it.
• The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else should not apply to, say, BNP-run adoption agencies asked to help mixed-race couples adopt. We should respect the political conscience of party members.
• Taxpayer’s money should be used to fund political schools that are then permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of their political beliefs.
Let’s focus on that last example for a moment. Suppose political schools start opening up and down the country – a communist school in Middlesborough followed by a neo-con school in Basildon. Suppose these schools:
• select staff and pupils on basis of political beliefs.
• start each day with singing of political anthems.
• insist on daily readings from revered political texts.
• have images of political leaders beaming down from classroom walls.
What would be the public’s reaction? Outrage. These schools would rightly be accused of educationally stunting children by forcing their minds into politically approved moulds. These are the kind of schools you find under totalitarian regimes, such as Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. Such schools are surely unacceptable.
Yet, if we cross out “political” and write “religious”, suddenly, people become much more comfortable with the idea of such schools. Indeed, many think them desirable.
Now the challenge I am putting to anti-secularists is this:
If you reject the political versions of these claims, why suppose the religious versions should be considered differently?
This challenge can be sharpened by noting that, very often, religious beliefs are political beliefs. Consider, for example religious beliefs on women’s role in society, the moral status of the actively homosexual, abortion; stem cell research, jihad, the State of Israel, or our moral and financial responsibilities to those less fortunate than ourselves. These beliefs are all intensely political. Indeed, religious organizations are increasingly political animals. They form powerful political lobbies. But why should the addition of a religious dimension to someone’s political beliefs mean that those particular beliefs are then deserving of a special, institutionalized form of privilege or “respect”? In short: what’s so special about religion?
Responses to the challenge
How might those making these six demands respond to this challenge? They need to come up with some difference between religious and other political beliefs that justifies this difference in treatment. Otherwise, their attitude looks like little more than prejudice.
Let’s now look at four replies.
REPLY 1. Unlike purely political beliefs, religious beliefs involve the supernatural. That is e.g. why they shouldn’t be mocked, and why e.g. crucifixes should never be banned.
But why is this relevant? After all, beliefs in ghosts and fairies also involve the supernatural. Yet we don’t suppose that e.g. those beliefs should not be mocked.
REPLY TWO: Religious beliefs are more passionately held.
But political beliefs may be just as passionately held. Indeed, people are also prepared to die for them. In fact I am prepared to die for certain political beliefs. Yet I don’t demand legislation preventing others from mocking my beliefs.
REPLY THREE: Religion often forms part of a person's identity in a way that their politics doesn't. That’s why we should institutionally privilege religious beliefs.
Well, yes, let’s agree that there are those:
• brought up to attend regular devotional events.
• who make pilgrimages abroad.
• whose devotional community transcends national boundaries.
• whose clothing and/or jewellery reflects this commitment.
• who commit time each day to related reading.
• whose homes are hung with e.g. related icons and portraits.
• who have been known, in a few cases, even permanently to mark their bodies with signs their devotion.
But are these features of a community of devotees sufficient to qualify them for the kind of privileges we have been discussing? I think not. After all, Manchester United Supporters would then also qualify, as many of them also check all seven boxes (they regularly attend matches, make pilgrimages abroad for Champions League games, and on occasion even get themselves tattooed with symbols of their devotion).
REPLY FOUR: Unless our State has an explicitly Christian foundation, key liberal values - such as freedom and equality - are likely to come under threat.
This argument is becoming increasingly popular. Here, for example, is British Philosopher Prof Roger Trigg…
“As a matter of historical fact, the standards of Western Society have arisen from a Christian background… the urge to respect different beliefs, and value individual freedom, needs to be nurtured publicly, and if religious views initially produced it, there is a question how long it can survive without their explicit support.”
Trigg believes the Christian foundations of our modern liberal society need to be made explicit, less its liberal values be undermined.
But note, first of all, that there are other, non-religious justifications available for these values (philosophers have developed all sorts of justifications, in fact).
Second, surely, insisting on a specifically Christian justification of our core values in a country where a significant number are no longer even religious, let alone Christian, is more, not less, likely to result in those values being ignored or rejected. Surely, if we want everyone to sign up to certain core values, wouldn’t it better if a religiously-neutral justification were offered instead?
To sum up, I have presented a challenge to those who think religious beliefs should be treated differently to (other) political beliefs - i.e. should receive institutionalized privileges. The challenge is to identify some feature of religious beliefs that justifies this difference in treatment. I myself don’t yet see how this challenge can be met.
Still, even if there is no principled reason for giving religious beliefs special treatment, perhaps there are pragmatic reasons for doing so in certain cases. For example, if a religious group is so incensed by a play that serious violence is likely if production is not halted, perhaps a case can be made for pulling the play. 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 their religion does indeed deserve special "respect". Caving in to such pressure should be an act of last resort. Once the fervently religious discover they can get what they want by raising the temperature high enough, they'll do it again.