Some Quick Thoughts On Secularism

by Elias Blum

The fact that I often* spend my Sundays walking out of churches in disgust at their bigotry, power-plays, money-grubbing, manipulation, and dishonest, shallow, brittle teaching, means I am well aware of all the negative sides of religion.

But the blanket dismissal of all ‘religion’, as advocated by some in the Hitchens / Dawkins camp, seems unhelpful. Religion is such a complex and multi-faceted subject, so integral to much of human life, ethics, aesthetics and culture. As in any other sphere of human activity, the line between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of religion is jagged and blurred. To cast it all out is to be so blinded by the bad of religion that the good is obscured.

Perhaps it is useful, when discussing the role of religion in society, to make a distinction between the institutional ‘separation of church and state’ and the operational ‘separation of religion and politics’.

As far as the connection between church and state is concerned, I agree with the the secularist position. I’m in favour of a secular state: religious freedom for all, religious privileges for none. These principles are specified in the National Secular Society’s ‘Secular Charter’, as follows:

a) There is no established state religion.

b) There is one law for all and its application is not hindered or replaced by religious codes or processes.

c) Individuals are neither disadvantaged nor discriminated against because of their religion or belief, or lack thereof.

d) Freedom of expression is not restricted by religious considerations.

e) Neither the state, nor any emanation of the state, expresses religious beliefs or preferences.

f) Religion plays no role in state-funded education, whether through religious affiliation, organised worship, religious instruction, pupil selection or employment discrimination.

g) The state does not engage in, fund or promote religious activities or practices.

h) Public and publicly-funded service provision does not discriminate on grounds of religion or belief.

i) There is no privileged position in society or advantage in law for any individual or group by virtue of their religion or belief, or lack thereof.

j) The state does not intervene in the setting of religious doctrine or the running of religious organisations.

I agree with all that. I find the privileged position of the established churches in England and Scotland difficult to accept in principle (even if it has, over time, become relatively unobtrusive in practice). I have serious objections to the state funding of religious schools, in part because they help perpetuate sectarian divisions in our society.

Moreover, the church and state have different roles to fulfil, and different means of fulfilling those roles. The state is an association of all citizens for their temporal good, regardless of their religion; the church is a gathered body called to live out and carry on the redeeming work of Christ, regardless of their citizenship. The state governs by laws backed, ultimately, by force; the church influences by exhortation backed by practical help and moral example. When one steps into the domain of the other, the result is always to breed corruption, tyranny and hypocrisy.

I’m not so sure, though, about the separation of religion from politics. I see Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in a communion cup, and Faith, Hope and Love on a protest march against austerity. To me, they are so interlaced as to be almost inseparable. My politics are highly religious and my religion very political.

Recognising this, I support the right of religiously motivated people to carry that motivation into their public life. But, when doing so, the “Obama test” should apply. This means that public arguments must be made only on secular, civic and rational grounds, without making any appeals to the purported authority of religious claims, and without demanding special privileges for religious groups.

So when I argue that money spent on imperialist wars would be better spent on providing decent financial support for the disabled, or that instead of bailing out bankers we should have forgiven debts, or that we have a real duty of care to the environment, or that homosexual couples should not face discrimination in their right to marry, I might internally be motivated by a sense of “that’s what the gospel means to me”, but I must translate this into secular, civic, humanistic, terms that do not rely on religious ideas for their validity or their acceptance by fellow-citizens.

If we are to avoid poisoning our politics with divisive and distracting ‘culture wars’, and if we are to confront the problems of resource depletion, climate change, poverty, violence, war, alienation, injustice, and all the rest of it, then the religious left and the secular left will have to work together in all areas where co-operation is possible. Different ultimate ends and motivations have to be set aside in order to unite around common policies, and arguments will have to be made in broadly accessible, non-exclusive terms, that can build the widest possible coalition of support.

Yet this insistence on the application of secular reason to questions of public policy is more than just a pragmatic response to pluralism. It is also laudable for its own sake. As Obama says, a progressive religion shouldn’t belittle or divide. It should edify and unite. It is the duty of the church – the gathered movement of all those who follow the Way of Jesus – to be ‘salt and light’ for everyone; not to convince or convert them, but to help and serve them.

Secularism is therefore a point of religious principle. It says that we do not need to convert our neighbour in order to love them.  It means we must get out of the defensive, tribal ‘Christian bunker’, where some have made a lot of futile noise fighting over irrelevant, petty and divisive things, such as being able to wear a cross at work, or deny hotel rooms to gay couples. Instead, we should embrace a larger, more liberating, vision of our contribution to public life, where we lay aside differences of religion to work for the common good of all our fellow citizens.

* OK, not that often. But I have walked out of various churches on a few occasions over the years, generally in response to blatant money-grubbing, clerical empire building, or hate speech from the pulpit.