Monday, 20 September 2010

Secularism - friend or foe?

Stephen, from The Problem with Religion, posted this comment on my last post about the Pope's visit.

"There is a widely held belief, particularly on the part of those with a religious inclination, that ‘secularism’ is a terrible enemy and that ‘faith’ and belief will make for a better society. Yet, as I keep boring people by saying, when the churches were fuller and Bible better known in the days of the pre-welfare state, society was NOT utopian – far from it. Indeed, our modern, secular society is far, far more egalitarian, caring, fairer and equitable than when religion was in a position of considerable social power. Hence care is needed when harping on about the Pope’s message; it seems evident to me that the Pope is, like many of our religiously inclined brethren, creating a past that never existed... But isn’t that the role of religion or any ideology?"
I have to admit that, although I would like to live in a society where faith is valued and respected as part of our diversity, I would hate to live in a theocracy, or a society where any religious institution had enormous sway. If the society we live in is guilty of "aggression" in its secularism, I am convinced it is preferable to any society that is "aggressive" in its religiosity.
I don't like the mix of religion and power, that is why at the end of my last post I said that I do not particularly see God as occupying church-as-institution (including the Church of England!)but as occupying the human heart. Perhaps this is somewhat naive, but then I frequently think that the institutions of religion just get God so wrong - so possibly it is more to do with arrogance!
If you are a christian, are you one who also prefers to live in a secular ( but faith valuing) society? And is such a society a contradiction in terms?


  1. Thanks for this.

    I must confess, when I re-read what I had written I would have liked to have tweaked it a little. I think care is needed with regard to secularism. Secularisation is evident in our society and seems almost a natural progression of modern society. Secularism is something else entirely and is a concerted attempt to remove religion from public life. The most stark examples in the West is France. In ‘Religious America, Secular Europe?’ Berger (I think – this is off the top of my head) makes an interesting comment on how there have been different understandings of the Enlightenment. In France the Enlightenment gave way to a ‘freedom from belief’; whereas in the US there is an emphasis on the ‘freedom to believe’ (unless you’re planning on opening an Islamic centre in Lower Manhattan...). Britain, and especially England, sits somewhere in the middle.

    For my part, I would certainly not like to see religion have any significant influence on law making and civil government. Secular, liberal democracy seems the best means of governing diverse, pluralistic societies and (ironically) is probably the best means of protecting religious freedom. Once you begin tinkering with religion in government you then begin deciding what is a religion and what is not (one of the (Christian) new religious movements I am researching at present can’t alter the chapel of the ex-convent it has bought because it is not a legally recognised Christian denomination – if it were (Anglican or Baptist etc.) it could change the Grade II listed building to suit its needs; hence government, even now, does prescribe what is a religion and what is not!).

    If I were sick, I go to my doctor, because I know that in the main, scientific empiricism has produced a system of medicine that works for the majority of illness that it is presented with. Few of us – even the most devout – would resort to prayer or the laying on of hands. Many rationalise this by saying God gave doctors the skill (a cop out in my opinion, but that is another matter). Yet when it comes to government there is considerable pressure at the moment from many religious groups to presume they have some ‘right’ or ability to govern or to say what is the best means of governing a society. If the same empiricism the religiously inclined are (in the main) happy to accept in the realms of medicine were applied to government then no one in their right minds would let Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus etc. have any real political power because time and time again they have demonstrated that religion and government don’t mix.

    First and foremost it has to be remembered religion is NOT egalitarian. In recent years – indeed from the Enlightenment onwards – religion and Christianity in particular has muddied the waters between Enlightenment values of individual liberty and the rights of the individual and religious doctrine. How many Christian organisations witter on about human rights (except for poufs) with little reference to Scripture etc.? Perhaps with good reason because, as is evident in the societies of our near Northern European neighbours, secular, liberal democracy, based on Enlightenment principals appears to come up with the goods, as far as more wholesome societies are concerned. Overtly religious societies have a tendency to greater corruption, inequality and violence. Ironic, but there we are. It was not until the post-war period in Britain that there was anything like an equal society (and we still have a way to go!). 1,400 or so years of Christian rule had not produced this – so evidently something else did! Ramble, ramble, ramble... What I am really trying to say is that religion has its place, but that however much Pope Benedict and his supporters bemoan secularism – its seems to have produced far more wholesome societies than centuries of Christian and Papal rule!

    Great care is needed to protect the rights of religion, but it has demonstrated again and again, it is not a means by which a society can be successfully governed.

  2. I think Stephen's point is interesting. I am in favour of disestablishment & a secular state. I don't like the so-called "religious right", but I think the word "secular" is often hijacked to mean more than a society where religious authorities have no privileges or entitlements.
    I think the state should respect faiths but obviously look out for the interests of everyone.I would just like a fair government of principle. However special interest groups often are given far more influence than they should.(I write as the secularist's paradise of Sweden have voted in large numbers for the extremely nasty Swedish Democrats.... I would have thought progressive secular states would have evolved beyond that stage!)

  3. "If the society we live in is guilty of "aggression" in its secularism, I am convinced it is preferable to any society that is "aggressive" in its religiosity."

    Excellent point. I shall have to think more about it. Thank you.

  4. To me this whole question the relationship between secularization and religion is terribly complex. Certainly there are nearly as many secularisms as there are religions: some of them have been quite totalitarian and some quite benevolent. So much rests on national character, the temper of the times, political fashion, etc. It is clear to me one can't speak of secularism as of a unified school of thought about polity.

    There is also to consider the manner in which western secular states, particularly the U.S., have manipulated, and sometimes fostered religious extremism for their own ends, both at home and abroad.

    I do not observe that there has been less state sponsored brutality since the ascendance of the secular state; it has simply been redirected and reconfigured to suit our contemporary distortions of conscience.