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Jonathan Chaplin misses his secular target

In today's Face to Faith in the Guardian, Jonathan Chaplin says:

Many secular humanists argue as if faith-based ideas should play no role in democratic discourse, religion should be privatized and the public square secularised. They make three main points. None of them stand up.

His piece is a very nice illustration of an ambiguity anti-secularists regularly play on, and which I've noted before.

I know of only two secular humanist thinkers that believe that the expression of religious points of view should not be permitted in the public sphere (say "God is great" in public, or give a religious justification for opposing abortion, and they think someone should immediately start shoving socks in your mouth). This is a tiny minority of secular humanists. It is certainly not the view of this country's main secular humanist organization: the BHA. Call this strong secularism.

On the other hand, pretty much every secular humanist believes that the state, and state-institutions, should be religiously neutral, favouring neither atheism nor theism. The state should protect equally the individual's right publicly to express religious and non-religious points of view. This is the view of the BHA. Call this weak secularism. Many religious people are weak secularists.

Now carefully read Chaplin quote above. Which form of secularism is he attacking - strong or weak? It's not terribly clear, is it? The expressions employed here: "religion privatized" and "public square secularized", could be interpreted in such as way as to fit either form of secularism (whenever you see these expressions, be wary!).

In fact Chaplin's arguments only work against strong secularism, yet he says that what he is attacking is the view of "many" secular humanists.

Chaplin's view is typical of a certain sort of a religious person. They constantly tell each other what secularists think. But they constantly get it wrong. Few secularists are strong secularists. Chaplin is attacking a straw man.

Chaplin is misrepresenting many weak secularists, caricaturing their position as that of strong secularism, which, in truth, hardly anyone holds (though Chaplin probably does not do this knowingly - like Roger Trigg and Andrew Brown, he has simply bought into, and is now perpetuating, a religious myth about what it is that most or many "secularists" believe).

POST SCRIPT: What most secularists actually want is a level playing field, where the state gives religious beliefs equal status alongside other moral, political and other beliefs, not a privileged status, as is the case now. Why should adding a religious dimension to someone's political beliefs mean that their schools get state funded, their Church gets seats in the House of Lords, their religious symbols get special protection, their discrimination against homosexuals, women, etc should be made exempt from equal opportunities etc. legislation? Because they have no good answer to these questions, anti-(weak)secularists rely on caricaturing and misrepresenting their opponents instead.

POST POST SCRIPT: Interestingly, I just discovered Chaplin understands the distinction made here very well, as he actually explains it in this piece. The kind of secularism Chaplin is opposed to, it turns out, is (i) where the State allies itself to e.g. atheism, or (ii) where the state, "while upholding private religious liberty...strives to keep the influence of religious faith out of public debate and public institutions". He says the National Secular Society takes the latter view. But I can't see where they commit themselves to this. The NSS charter and principles don't seem to commit them to it. Of course the NSS will try to limit religious influence by arguing against religious positions in public debate. But that is not to say it thinks the state should start stuffing socks in people's mouths if they give religious arguments in public debate. On the contrary: the NSS defends individual freedom of speech. So again, Chaplin seems off target (though to be fair the NSS's position is to some extent ambiguous - e.g. on one page Muriel Frazer does suggest religious individuals should be permitted to argue religiously, but religious organizations speaking for them is not on. Quite what this means in practice I am not sure).

Chaplin makes it clear he is a weak secularist, in fact. Perhaps, rather than attacking "many" secular humanists, he should say he endorses the secularism espoused by the British Humanist Association (he should read their leaflet on secularism).


Unknown said…
Thank you for clarifying that. One reads pieces like Chaplin's and thinks, "I'm pretty sure that's wrong, though I don't know exactly why." The ideas are strangely slippery. One thing that helps, when you can remember it, is to consider the simple, primitive, pleasure-or-pain level of people's experience. The religious, in insisting that their religion is essential to moral action, commit themselves to coercion of the insufficiently faithful, which means inflicting pain. This is the real difference between the two approaches. Secularism is all about preventing the necessity of coercive norms; religion is all coercive norms.
Steven Carr said…
When Desmond Tutu called for the abolition of apartheid legislation because every human being is "made in the image of God", I don't recall secularists scratching their head in puzzlement.

I did. How does 'all human beings are made in the image of God' contradict the way the Bible clearly states that France was made for the French to live in, Zululand for the Zulus etc?

The answer is simple. It doesn't.

Acts 17:26
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.

The churches in South Africa knew that apartheid was instituted by God. The Bible supported them,and people like Tutu simply ignored the part of the Bible they did not like.

They could not refute Acts 17:26, so they simply shut up about it.

But Chaplin wants faith-based policies to be used in politics.

This means telling apartheid-supporters that they are correct when they cited the Bible to support apartheid, as faith-based politics is what Chaplin is all about.
Steven Carr said…
There are more sophisticated versions, but all of them fail to see that faith is not an alternative to reasoning but its precondition. All chains of reasoning get going on the basis of presuppositions which cannot themselves be proved rationally.


You can never prove rationally that 'I am right because the creator of the Universe tells me what is right'.

But we should keep out of power people who want to tell other people what to do , because they believe the creator of the Universe tells them they are right to tell other people what to do.

Tony Blair is a very religious person which is why he is accountable to God for the Iraq war, when I thought he was accountable to Parliament.
anticant said…
The usual type of straw man argument! What secularists want is a political state of affairs where there is a level playing field for the expression of all religious and non-religious viewpoints, and where churches and other religious organisations are regarded as voluntary associations which are responsible for their own self-financing and don't expect to receive hand-outs from the State to further their beliefs.

There is nothing wrong with religious people wanting more influence in society - as we all do - but it is wrong, and socially divisive, for taxpayers' money to be spent on promoting their ideas through the public funding of 'faith schools', NHS hospital chaplains, and so forth. They should put their own money where their mouths are, and not expect to be subsidised by those who don't share their convictions.
Don Scott said…
You are ignoring the cultural realities of the situation. Yes, at the moment it is not illegal to be Christian and politically outspoken but you will denounced as a "fascist" or a "theocrat" for doing so and forced out of public debate.

Consider the attacks on religious liberty in many European nations which are perpetrated by the authorities of our secular theocracies and "antifascist" lunatics.
Steven Carr said…
Indeed ,if you say you are religious you will be forced out of public debate and declared a fascist.

But what about the situation on this planet?

Should politicians consider themselves accountable to God for their actions?

Or should they consider themselves accountable to the people?
Stephen Law said…

That's just Christian paranoia, surely.

you say: "It's not illegal to be Christian and politically outspoken"

as if that is what some want. So who wants it to be? Can you supply even one example of someone who takes this view?

"...but you will denounced as a "fascist" or a "theocrat" for doing so and forced out of public debate."

Well, if you express fascist views you will be denounced, as such, yes. But e.g. Ekklesia are Christian and politically outspoken and no one calls them fascists.

Who is saying Christians should be gagged? Which Christians have been forced out of public debate, and by whom? No one that I'm aware. It's just a myth.
Steven Carr said…
Let us not forget that , in the real world, atheists are routinely lumped in with Hitler and Stalin.

Despite this, some politicians have the courage to declare themselves atheists, although they know that theists will play the Hitler and Stalin card without blinking.
Don Scott said…
Christopher Hitchens has, for example, praised the Jacobin and Bolshevik persecution of Christians.

Expressing Christian viewpoints on moral and political issues such as homosexuality, feminism, abortion etc. will have one denounced as a "fascist" by the politically correct brigade. Christians are treated as second class citizens because of secularism.

"Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it."

- G.K. Chesterton
Hannah Nichol said…
I think that there is a distinction between criticising "Christian viewpoints", and Christians themselves, the former, being naturally VERY important in terms of how these viewpoints may impact on ethics and politics, and the latter of course ridiculous.

I don't think there is any point worrying about the said "politically correct brigade" - in life, so long as you can reasonably justify something, you have nothing to worry about, so it isn't worth whinging or worrying about.

Also, I can't say that in my experience I have witnessed any Christians being treated as "second class citizens". (And I know hell of a lot of Christians)! The best Christian friends I have are quite happy to openly discuss and debate their viewpoints, on a purely philosophical level, and no offence is taken either way. I don't see that you are touching on a serious issue - we live in a country of free speech, and when issues are discussed properly with good consideration, logical backing, and no personal grudges, I don't see that the problems could arise that you describe.
Stephen Law said…

Some people dismiss some religious points of view as "fascist". So what. Others dismiss criticsm of religion as originating with the "politically correct brigade". Name calling is irrelevant to the issue at hand.

Which is: what is the evidence that there is currently a widespread secular movement that wants a ban on religious points of view being expressed in the public sphere.

Can you name, say, even five people that have clearly and unambiguously expressed that view?

That there is such a movement is, so far as I can see, a myth.

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