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
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.
“HELL IN A HAND BASKET” THESIS
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.
THAT WE NEED CHRISTIAN STATE TO PROTECT US FROM TOTALITARIANISM – THAT IT’S OUR BEST PROTECTION AGAINST TOTALITARIANISM - is a very strong claim. But why should we think it true?
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?