Democracy & Citizenship
A Humanist point of view – Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource Forum of Faiths
The dictionary definition of democracy is: ‘a system of government or organisation in which the citizens or members choose leaders or make other important decisions by voting; a country in which the citizens choose their government by voting.’ It’s not as simple as that; there are many forms of ‘democracy’, and many self-styled ‘democrats’ who are anything but.
The British and American governments claim they’ve taken democracy to the Iraqi people. There’s been a lot of rhetoric about ‘freedom and democracy’ from George Bush, but freedom from what, or to do what? This new ‘democracy’ is fragile. Interim Prime Minister Allawi is forming a coalition to challenge the Shia candidate, Ibrahim Jaafari, for the role of Prime Minister in the new government. Allawi wants Iraq to remain a secular state, not an Islamic one. If the Shia leadership has its way, Iraq could become a religious state like neighbouring Iran, which is not a democracy. The democratic process could be exploited by those who seek religious dictatorship.
Democracy is under threat here too. Compare the queues at the polling stations in the first free election in South Africa in 1994 and the dismal turnout in most local elections here. Women were given equal voting rights in 1928, yet how many vote now? Democracy’s under threat from apathy, indifference and ignorance, and from a failure on the part of some party politicians to listen. To enjoy living in a democracy, one must participate. Too many people regard politics as boring and irrelevant, so don’t or won’t.
In a true democracy, no special interest group or organisation is allowed special privileges, and there’s a danger of that now, as a General Election looms. The Government is so anxious to regain the Muslim votes that they lost during the Iraq war that they’re making too many promises to religious organisations about things like faith schools, which we oppose. The badly conceived law on incitement to religious hatred is another example of anti-democratic political manoeuvring. Some Humanists, including members of the British Humanist Association, think it can be made to work, with revisions; others, including members of the National Secular Society, are opposed to it.
Humanists are naturally democrats. The founders of the 19th century ethical societies that developed Humanist ideas and principles tended to be politically radical people who were also involved with campaigns for human rights, women’s suffrage, and social change without religion. Today’s Humanists are involved with a variety of campaigning organisations, including Amnesty, The Voluntary Euthanasia Society, and many aid organisations. Because we work as individuals our contributions go unrecognised, while specifically Christian organisations appear to be doing more.
The dictionary definition of a citizen is a native or naturalised member of a state or nation, or an inhabitant of a city or town. The second definition, logically and literally, applies to anyone and everyone who has their primary dwelling in a specified place, irrespective of their origins. But I think we’re here to consider the first definition.
For Humanists, nationalism, like religion, can be a source of conflict. We regard ourselves as members of one race; the human race. As the world becomes more overcrowded and problems are exacerbated by conflict, natural disasters (such as the earthquakes in the Indian Ocean and Turkey), and the effects of global warming, there is greater pressure on space and resources, especially clean water. Many people of the developed world jealously guard their privileges, while avoiding the sort of work that keeps the show on the road – cleaning, caring, food processing, etc. There is deep suspicion of strangers. Ignorance and prejudice are twin obstacles to a rational approach to the challenges we face.
There are Humanists abroad who promote civic citizenship ceremonies for young people. Norwegian youngsters will have completed a course in civic rights and responsibilities before they do this. Under the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, all applicants aged 18 years or over who are accepted for naturalisation or registration as a British Citizen must swear a citizenship oath to the Queen at a citizenship ceremony. There is also talk of introducing such ceremonies for naturalised British young people at 18. Republicans like me would a problem with this, so where does that leave us?
‘Citizenship’ is part of the National Curriculum, but the definition used in this context is broader than the dictionary definitions I’ve referred to; it seems to mean living responsibly and making a useful contribution to society. One website I’ve come across refers to ‘Citizenship – the global dimension’, which must mean being a citizen of this planet, rather than the planet Zog in a galaxy on the other side of the universe. The Key Stage 1 guidelines on citizenship say that children should be taught to recognise what they like and dislike (which I think they already know), what is fair and unfair, and what is right and wrong; to share their opinions on things that matter to them and explain their views; to recognise, name and deal with their feelings in a positive way; to think about themselves, learn from their experiences and recognise what they are good at; and how to set simple goals. It strikes me that this is about forming ethical values, learning self-discipline, and building self-esteem. I don’t understand why it’s called ‘citizenship’. Some schools have already been covering these things through a philosophical enquiry programme. All French schoolchildren study philosophy. Ours should too.
The citizenship rigmarole that immigrants to this country have to go through is about loyalty and a willingness to adapt to British customs and practices. In an open democratic society, social harmony matters. It’s much more difficult to achieve that when any section of society is segregated, or when many stubbornly resist change without good reason, and as long as ‘them and us’ attitudes prevail, we’ll have problems.