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Notes for my debate with Trigg today...

Here are my notes from my 10 minute talk on secualrism today in the Great Hall at Chrsitchurch. I was debating with Prof Roger Trigg. Thanks to all who came - was very well attended!

What is a secular society?

NEUTRALITY. By a secular society I mean a society 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.

FREEDOMS. A secular society also protects freedoms: the freedom to believe, or not believe, to worship, or not worship.

Note that an atheist state, such as Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, is not a secular state. A secular state does not privilege atheist beliefs. It is neutral on the issue of which, if any, religion is true.

AGREED NEUTRAL PRINCIPLES. Most importantly, a secular society is founded on principles framed independently of any particular religious, or atheist, commitment: principles to which we can sign up whether we are religious or not.

Very many religious people are secularists. They value the kind of religious freedoms that such a society guarantees.

Secularism, as most secularists understand the term, is not the view that we should gag religious voices in public sphere – prevent religious opinions being heard. That would be a caricature of what I, and I think most people in this room, mean by “secular”.

Secularism protects our freedom to express religious views in the public sphere. It just refuses to give religious voices a privileged position.

Why have a secular society?

PRAGMATIC. One reason is pragmatic. Secular societies developed in large measure because people recognized the dangers in allying states with particular religions. History has been plagued by horrors caused by competing religious groups trying to wrestle control of states from each other: Catholic and Protestant, Sunni and Shia, Hindu and Muslim. The secular, liberal state was seen as a way of finally bringing that kind of conflict to an end, by all parties agreeing to live under a religiously neutral body that protects all their freedoms equally.

FAIRNESS. Another reason might be fairness. Notice that religious beliefs are also often highly political, potentially having a major impact on society:

Take religious views on:

The role of women
The state of Israel
Our duties to those less fortunate than ourselves
Medical research

These are all intensely political points of view. Now why should the addition of a religious dimension to certain political beliefs mean that they should be given a privileged role, or deserve special institutionalized forms of power and respect?

• 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.

All of the above claims for special privileges are regularly made. I shall raise a challenge for those who make these claims.

A SIMPLE TEST: If you agree with some of these claims that religion deserves special institutionalized forms of privilege or respect, cross out the word “religious” and write in “political” instead. Then see if you still agree.

So the challenge I am putting to anti-secularists is this:

If you reject the political versions of these claims, why do you suppose the religious versions should be considered differently?

Why does sprinkling a little religious fairy dust on a set of political beliefs mean they should now be given more respect, or even more weight, than other people’s political beliefs?

Unless the anti-secularists can come up with a good answer to this question: they will rightly stand accused of unfairness.


One of the most popular answers to this challenge is this: religious belief is important for maintaining the social fabric.

Religion, religion provides our moral compass. Lose that compass. We’re heading for hell in a hand basket.

Prof. Roger Trigg, my opponent today, actually defends a very strong version of this “hell in a hand basket” thesis.

According to Roger, the Christian religion provides the moral foundation of our modern liberal values. Without it, those values may well collapse. Indeed, the Christian faith must actually be woven into the fabric of our State if we are not to risk losing our freedoms and sliding into totalitarianism.


Let’s actually look at the history of totalitarianism is Europe…

Just over one of my lifetimes ago, much of Europe was indeed overrun by Nazi totalitarianism. How did the Christian Churches respond to the growing Nazi menace?

The first German Chancellor after the war, himself a Catholic, said:

I believe that if the bishops had publicly taken a stance from the pulpit a lot could have been avoided. That didn’t happen and there is no excuse for it.

Not very effective in Germany.

What about staunchly Catholic Poland? Surely opposition from the pulpit would have been clear there? In1936, the Catholic Primate of Poland did indeed issued a letter to be read from every pulpit in the country. In it he said:

It is a fact that the Jews are fighting against the Catholic Church, persisting in free-thinking, and are the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevism and subversion. It is a fact that the Jewish influence on morality is pernicious and that their publishing houses disseminate pornography. It is a fact that Jews deceive, levy interest, and are pimps. It is a fact that the religious and ethical influence of the Jewish young people on Polish young people is a negative one.

The Catholic Church was hardly a staunch opponent in Poland either. Rather sympathetic, in fact.

Indeed, it was the Vatican, we now know, that arranged for thousands of Nazis to flee justice after the war. It was the Vatican that provided Adolf Eichmann, chief architect of the Final Solution, with his fake passport.

What of Fascist Italy? How did the Church resist totalitarianism there? By doing a deal with Mussolini in which Catholicism was recognised as the sole religion of state.

What of the rise of fascism in Spain? How did the Catholic Church fight the totalitarianism of General Franco? By supporting Franco’s overthrow of the democratically elected Government.

Let’s look a little further back in European history. Just four of my lifetimes ago the Catholic Church was itself arranging for the garrotting by the Spanish State of European citizens who failed to believe what the Pope told them. Last victim a school teacher in 1824. The Holy Inquisition worked hand-in-hand with the State to stifle freedom, and used the State as its executioner. As I say, just four of my lifetimes ago.

SOME RESISTANCE…On those occasions when they have resisted totalitarianism, they have resisted atheist totalitarian states, i.e. communist states. Otherwise, the Churches have put up very little, if any, resistance, often supporting the totalitarians.

So if anything, the warning from history is: don’t rely on the Church to protect you from totalitarianism. More often than not, the Church is actually part of the problem.

Is CHRISTIANITY THE ONLY JUSTIFICATION AVAILABLE? Do we need it to underpin and justify our basic freedoms? No.

Ask most political theorists and they will tell you that there are many justifications that have been developed, and that would religious justifications are actually some of the least credible on offer!

THERE IS A REAL DANGER IN ROGER’S VIEW, I THINK. THE DANGER OF MARGINALIZING… A significant and growing number of our citizens – about a third - are not even Christian. If you make the justification of our freedoms and laws explicitly Christian, you then leave a third of our population with no reason to agree to them. For our growing non-Christian population of youngsters, these freedoms and laws will seem increasingly irrelevant. Surely, if we want everyone to sign up to certain core values, wouldn’t it better if a religiously-neutral justification were offered instead?


Stephen, I love the way you pose the question: Why does sprinkling a little religious fairy dust on a set of political beliefs mean they should now be given more respect, or even more weight, than other people’s political beliefs?

How did Trigg respond to that?
Tony Lloyd said…
I remember Roger Trigg from doing a course in philosophy whilst studying politics at Warwick. I found it very difficult concentrating as I had a girlfriend studying history of art and Roger Trigg:

Looked just like a younger version of:
Sally said…
"A significant and growing number of our citizens – about a third - are not even Christian"

I'm never sure what the terms mean when statements like this are made. I'd have thought that if "Christian" meant "follower of Christ", then the proportion would be much, much higher than a third?
Stephen Law said…
muddy funster - this is quite informative..
Stephen Law said…
Atheist Missionary - I don't think he did respond to that. Unless I missed it. Possibly someone can correct me...
M. Tully said…

"Is CHRISTIANITY THE ONLY JUSTIFICATION AVAILABLE? Do we need it to underpin and justify our basic freedoms?"

I don't think any where in Christianity are democratic freedoms ever advocated.

Where in the Christian bible does it discuss the universal franchise, habeas corpus, freedom of conscience (good luck with that one), due process of law, etc., etc.

While Christianity today may have incorporated the above due to human cultural advances, they certainly can't claim them as "core doctrine."
M. Tully said…
Hell in a Hand basket?

Empirically refuted!

Please see

Can Trigg, with a straight face, mean to imply that Christian controlled governments have been the paragon of stable democratic societies?

Has he ever heard about the Dark Ages?

What is his PHD in? Denialism?
Paul P. Mealing said…
I agree with all of your arguments, especially your response to religion and totalitarianism.

I'm unsure why children wearing religious symbols at school is an issue. One of our 'conservative' politicians tried to make it an issue here, but good sense prevailed and no one took her (the politician) seriously. I actually wrote her a letter and asked why create a problem where one doesn't exist? She didn't reply. In particular she wanted to ban girls wearing a hijab (scarf).

It reminded me of conservatives wanting to ban boys wearing long hair when I was an adolescent. I see it in the same light, and so do most other secular people I know.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
In light of my dissent, I should say I agree with nearly all of your arguments.

Stephen Law said…
Thanks Paul

well I probably wouldn't object to rel symbols in fact, but largely because it is no big deal and would probably create tensions unnecessarily. I am merely making a point of principle: if we tolerate one sort of symbol, why not the other?
anticant said…
There's no such thing as non-political religion. Religion cannot avoid being political, because if you believe in the doctrines of your faith you will naturally wish to make society at large conform to them.

It was interesting that the first question put to the designate Archbishop of Westminster on Channel Four news last night was about the Catholic Church's attitudes to homosexuality and the use of condoms. His predictable reply was that everything would be better if everybody followed the Church's teachings.

btw there is an online petition on the No. 10 website against a peerage being bestowed on Cardinal Murphy O'Connor. I hope that everyone who agrees with Stephen will sign it!
Stephen Law said…
Anticant - got a link for that?
wombat said…
Pail - Re Religious symbols at school as opposed to long hair.

It really ought to be simply an issue of whether or not jewelry of certain types is allowed as part of school uniform. So either its a question of brand identity or safety (no really dangly stuff that can get ripped etc). I think the point is that non-religious violations of uniform code get dealt with but if you can claim its part of your religion then an outcry results.
Pretty much the same goes for the corporate setting with the addition that the uniform condition is specified when you take the job whereas at least some school children are there through no choice of their own.

Following on from the suggestion of substituting political for religious symbol can I offer another substitution when considering religious clothing - the gimp mask.
anticant said…
As a good democrat I have no objection to people wearing what they want to, so long as it does not breach the rules of organisations they have chosen to join.

But when the public demonstration of religious allegiance through dress amounts to a political statement, that is an entirely different matter. After all, the wearing of political uniforms in public was prohibited by the 1936 Public Order Act in order to curb the Mosleyite Blackshirts.

I understand that in the NHS some female adherents of a certain religion try to breach hygiene standards by refusing to bare their arms in order to "scrub up". Surely this is totally unacceptable.
Anonymous said…
Anent religion and politics (and education):

"Prayer in Schools

...Does prayer really help? Would it make a difference if offered in school? Perhaps we should try it? Perhaps we should learn from others who have tried it?

...Here is a prayer that was recited before every class at one time:

"Almighty God, dear heavenly Father. In Thy name now, in pious spirit, begin our instruction. Enlighten us, teach us all truth, strenthen us in all that is good, lead us not into temptation, deliver
us from all evil in order that, as good
human beings, we may faithfully perform our duties and
thereby, in time and eternity, be made truly happy. Amen

...Did the prayer help? Would a similar school prayer help in America?

...These were the words of divine supplication that secondary school students were required to recite in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Did it help them? Did it teach tolerance and love? Did it promote virtue or morals? Did the culture that enforced prayer in school rise or fall?

...Think about what happened despite that prayer and think about how hollow such examples of faith are...

Source: July, August 1995 issue of Liberty: A Magazine of Religious Freedom, published by the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.

My source: Stephen Roberts
georgesdelatour said…

There's an article by Tom Holland here ( It makes a point which has occurred to me, and which you might like to address. Here is an extract:

"Both the ideals to which western secularists adhere, and the problems with which they wrestle, owe an incalculable debt to the prescripts – or rather the lack of them – of Christianity. The west remains what it has always been: the heir of Jesus’s refusal to map out how an earthly polity should best be organised.
This is what makes the central conceit of British multiculturalism – the notion that it can provide a neutral space in which all religions can be equal – so problematic for many Muslims. The belief that faith should be a private matter, divorced from the dimension of the political, may be one with which most Christians nowadays can feel comfortable; but it is fundamentally contrary to the teachings of the Islamic god. Nor is this a problem that can readily be finessed away."

Holland makes an important point about the modern secularism which you advocate and which I support; that it is a culturally situated product of a specifically post-Christian society. The Jesus of Christianity says "my kingdom is not of this world", and "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" - implicitly separating Church and State. This is the antithesis of Islam, which takes its year zero from Muhammad's founding of an Islamic state in Medina in 622 AD.

In his preaching Jesus consistently calls for impractical things which could never form the basis of any workable system of earthly government or law. When the rich ask how much they must give to the poor, he doesn't offer a practical formulation like the Zakat; he always tells them to give everything, and even that isn't enough. There are plenty of other examples. Give no thought for the morrow. Love your neighbour as much as you love yourself. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. No imaginable polity could codify a workable legal or political system from such pronouncements. But Sharia Law is - right or wrong - intensely practical and workaday. I dislike Sharia Law on moral grounds, but it's implementation - unlike the teachings of Jesus - is not inherently impossible.

Is Holland right? If so, how does it change the argument?

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