Secularist? But how? You’re religious!

by Elias Blum

To those who want to try to stir up ‘culture wars’ between religion and secularism, I appear to be a double-agent, treacherous to both camps. When other Christians discover that I am a secularist, they wonder how that could possibly be: am I a goat-sacrificing baby-eater? (Answer: I’m not). Likewise, fellow-secularists are often surprised by my religious leanings – how could I possibly believe in magic sky-fairies? (Answer: I don’t – that’s not how I understand God at all).

This confusion over my apparent double-life stems from a misconception. Secularism is not a religious position. It is, above all, a legal-political or constitutional position, that believes in the separation of religion from the state, freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and no religious discrimination or privileges. It has nothing to do with whether one is religious or not. One can be Christian and secularist, just as one can be pagan and secularist, Jewish and secularist, Hindu and secularist, Muslim and secularist, or atheist and secularist. Indeed, the great advantage of secularism is that it enables a state including Christians, pagans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and atheists, to manage the temporal affairs in which we all share – justice, schools, roads, healthcare, the economy –  in a peaceful, inclusive and egalitarian way.

There are many reasons why I support secularism. Some of these happen to be theological reasons, related to my understanding of the nature, order and purposes of the church, and some of them happen to be civic, political reasons. I cannot discuss all these reasons here, although I might get around to covering different aspects of secularism in future posts. For now, I just want to address just one reason: that the absence of secularism can easily lead to the corrupt co-optation of religion by the State, and the subsequent degeneration of the church from a liberating prophetic voice at the margins of society to a powerful tool of hierarchical social control at the centre.

It was at a church service in an army camp just outside of Basra during the Iraq war that I realised that the institutional religion of the UK (‘monarcho-military-anglicanism’, for want of a better name) was just a tool of control used to justify imperialism and authoritarianism. It suddenly appeared to me as a mockery of everything that Christianity should be and should stand for. I wanted absolutely no part in it. (That was an interesting day of self-discovery, I can tell you!)

And this is a major reason why I am against that ‘national churches’, religious establishments, privileges, blasphemy laws, bishops in Parliament, and all that nonsense. These things needed only to prop-up a corrupt and compromised religious establishment, that has more to do with the monarchy and the military system than with Jesus.

Jesus’ church needs no such propping-up from the state; it asks only for freedom – the ordinary, equal freedoms of an open society that all citizens can enjoy.