Living in a Secular Society
Margaret Nelson led a discussion at a Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource Forum of Faiths on 16 October 2007. The others speakers were Manwar Ali (Muslim), Robin Herne (Pagan) and Shpetim Alimeta (“thinker” of Albanian origin).
For those who don’t know me, I’m a Secular Humanist. I make that qualification because in the States there are Religious Humanists as well as Secular Humanists.
However, in Great Britain and other countries where there are Humanist organisations that are part of the International Humanist & Ethical Union, Humanism is totally non-religious. It’s an approach to life for people who’ve rejected religious and supernatural explanations for life, the universe and everything, and whose ethical outlook is based on our common humanity and our experience. We have a naturalistic view of life, rather than a supernaturalistic one. Science can’t explain everything but it can and does help us to understand our place in the natural world, and where there aren’t any answers, we prefer to leave a question mark, rather than explain the gap in our knowledge with a religious answer.
Humanists believe that this is the only life we have, and we must make the most of it. We’re generally described as atheists or agnostics, but I prefer to avoid those definitions, as they can be confusing. Suffice it to say that religion is irrelevant to my life, and if asked if I believe in God, I’m with the first openly non-believing MP, Charles Bradlaugh, who’d respond by asking his questioners to define God. Since none of them could agree on this, Bradlaugh said he couldn’t be expected to say whether or not he believed in something they couldn’t explain, and for which there’s no evidence. But that’s not why we’re here.
I’m here to talk about living in a secular society, and why I believe passionately that it’s a good thing. I feel fortunate to live in a democratic secular society, knowing that if I lived in a religious state I wouldn’t enjoy the freedom to live as I please or to speak about what matters to me, for fear of recrimination, harassment, persecution and punishment, even death in some cases. There are still many places where non-believers cannot safely express their disbelief, just as anyone who doesn’t have the right religion, according to a country’s religious rulers, can’t be open about their beliefs.
I know that what we have here isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than the sort of repression, want and hunger than many people suffer around the world. As for seeking answers for our ills in religion; I agree with Polly Toynbee, who’s the new President of the British Humanist Association. She said, “You devalue the good things in life if you really think there’s something better somewhere else. This is all there is, but it’s pretty good. Those that look elsewhere perhaps sometimes don’t look hard enough for what’s best all around them.”
I think this applies to complacency about living in a secular society. Not just complacency, but ignorance too. I like to be clear about what we mean by the words and terms we use, just as the philosophers of antiquity, such as Socrates, insisted on clarity. We can’t discuss a subject properly if everyone has their own definition of a word and they all think they know what everyone else means by it.
The word “secular” is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean consumerism, or entertainment, or activities other than religious activity. It doesn’t mean being “anti-religious”, though some who describe themselves as secularists are anti-religious while many Christians support a secular state; “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”. It doesn’t mean being value-free, in terms of morality or ethical behaviour.
A secular society is one where religion doesn’t dictate political decisions – where the state and religion are separate – and where freedom of religion is possible, as no one religion dominates society.
George Holyoake, the agnostic British writer who coined the term “secularism” in 1846, used it to describe the promotion of a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticising religious belief. Holyoake wrote, “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.” Of course, when Holyoake was promoting secularism, it was unusual to refer to any other religion than Christianity in that sort of context.
In general, secular societies are modern, liberal societies. They may not have become so because of organised secularist movements, but through the gradual erosion of old-fashioned religious authority, the modernisation of government, and the development of ethnic mingling through migration.
Constitutionally secular states are all very different. There is no one-size-fits-all form of secular government, and there can be some confusion about how secularism is interpreted. In general, however, they allow freedom of religion or the freedom not to be religious, which makes them different from repressive totalitarian states, including communist states, that forcibly suppress religious expression.
India’s modern secular democracy was founded in 1947, on independence from British rule. India’s first Prime Minister was a Humanist; Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed passionately that India must be a secular state where religious people had to learn to live in harmony with one another. The Muslims, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, rejected this principle. The hasty partition of India, mismanaged by the British, caused great suffering and bloodshed. There are still religious tensions in India today, but people of different religious backgrounds can and do live and work side by side. There are many Humanist activists in India who are working to achieve Nehru’s aims of mass education and the relief of poverty, against a background of the widening gap between rich and poor and widespread prejudice against the Dalit people – known as the Untouchables.
Section Two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms details the fundamental freedoms everyone in Canada is entitled to, which are legally enforceable. They are freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. However, the Charter hasn’t got it quite right (in my humble opinion) as its preamble includes a reference to God, though this portion hasn’t been accorded legal effect and has been criticised for conflicting with the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed in section two.
The first amendment of the American constitution ensures that the state won’t favour one religion over another, but the country’s secular status is confused. George Bush is fond of referring to his God, who seems to be a sort of unelected co-President, and it’s almost impossible to be elected at all if you’re open about being an atheist. In a research sample of 2000 households, the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology found that the respondents rated atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group they were least willing to allow their children to marry. This form of prejudice is widespread, but one effect of Professor Richard Dawkins’ lecture tours in the States is that an increasing number of people have “come out” as non-believers, risking the criticism and rejection of their families. It appears that America isn’t as Christian as some people would like us to think it is. Similarly, there are brave people who are openly rejecting Islam in many parts of the world, despite the threat of punishment for apostasy. A Council of Ex-Muslims has recently been formed in the UK. People who change their religion risk similar condemnation.
I was going to talk about France and Turkey, but there isn’t enough time, so I’ll just mention the reasons that Britain is referred to as “Christian country”. It was a pagan country in Anglo-Saxon times. St Augustine’s mission was to make it a Catholic country. It remained so until King Henry VIII had a little difficulty with his first wife, his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, who he’d married to secure an alliance with Spain. Catherine failed to produce an heir and Henry lost interest in a Spanish alliance because he fancied Anne Boleyn. Henry’s marital and diplomatic difficulties led to the establishment of the Church of England. Like many male monarchs who were fixated on their wives’ ability to produce male heirs, Henry was, of course, ignorant of the fact that it’s the father’s chromosomes that determine the gender of a baby, but women have traditionally taken the blame for most things.
It’s ironic, considering how the established church was founded, that Edward VIII was forced to abdicate when he wanted to marry an American Divorcee, and that the current heir to the throne had to marry his divorcee in a register office. Not only that, but his talk about being a “defender of faiths“ in a multi-faith country has been ruled out of order by Archbishop Rowan Williams. As things stand, if Charles declares himself a convert to another faith or rejects faith altogether, he can forget about the crown. Some have speculated that Prince Harry isn’t a religious man, after he chose to talk about his mother rather than do a religious reading at the recent memorial event. There are many inside and outside the Church who think it’s time for disestablishment, reflecting the nature of a multi-faith, secular Britain. It’s also time to stop allowing the Church to assume control of every state occasion, Government ceremonial, and many other public celebrations. I thought it was significant that the bereaved and the victims of the 7/7 bombings in London chose to organise and conduct a memorial event in a park that was entirely secular, so it included everyone.
So why is it important to defend the secular nature of our society?
There’s been talk from a minority of introducing Islamic Sharia law in this country, to settle family and neighbourly disputes. It would, say those who advocate its use, be a form of mediation and conciliation service. I say that Sharia law and British law are incompatible, and the form of Sharia law that’s practiced in Muslim countries is essentially unfavourable to women. Human rights and British law come before religious “rights” and the claims of some fundamentalists – you can’t have a state within a state.
There are conflicts between the secular state and ideas like “multiculturalism” and “communities”. Over the last few years, under the premiership of Tony Blair, the Government has sought to appease religious organisations that’ve made increasing demands for recognition by granting them special channels of communication. This has resulted in unelected religious leaders presuming to speak on behalf of British citizens who ostensibly share the same religion, but whose attitudes and values may vary enormously. The Conservatives recently declared that this approach to “consultation” was fraught with difficulties, and that it’s better to consult people directly, not through religious leaders. It is also presumptuous to talk about religious “communities”, when this assumes a commonality that may not exist. Personally, I look forward to the day when the word “community” is only used to describe people who live in a geographical area, such as my village. We have community concerns, such as the provision of affordable housing for local young people. Otherwise, we’re a diverse mix, in terms of attitudes and interests. We don’t expect or want special privileges. Neither should groups based on religion. If a group of any sort – the Women’s Institute, a sports organisation, a residents’ association – wants to campaign on a particular issue, they expect people to sign up, to agree with the aims and objectives. Too often, religious leaders have spoken without any such endorsement, only an assumed authority. As for “multiculturalism“; we must be careful what we mean by that too. The last census allowed you to tick a box that identified you as “mixed” in terms of ethnicity. It’s no longer appropriate to talk about the “black community”, as though everyone with a dark skin shared the same interests, so why should you assume that everyone who describes himself or herself as Christian, say, share the same attitudes and values? The same applies to all the religions.
Faith schools are a bad idea because they’re divisive and segregate children according to their parents’ religion, or professed religion. A majority of British people don’t want them. In Newfoundland, Canada, where they had Catholic and Protestant conflict between schools that sometimes resulted in fights at sporting events, they took all the faith schools back under secular state control about ten years ago. We could do the same here. In the last few weeks, a Newfoundland Conservative politician stood for election on a pro-faith school platform. He lost.
There shouldn’t be any publicly-funded faith schools in a secular society. They were a disaster in Northern Ireland, where parents who wanted their children to go to desegregated schools had to resort to fund-raising to pay for them. As Professor Dawkins wrote in the Observer in December 2001, there are no Catholic babies, or Protestant babies, or Muslim babies, or Hindu babies – they are all just babies. When my son was born, no one said that he was an Atheist baby. We may be strongly influenced by our parents in all manner of things, from bird-watching to book-loving, but reasonable parents do not assume that our children will be bird-watchers or book-lovers, whatever we might hope for.
At the last forum, we spoke briefly about being British. That’s the unifying nature of a secular state – we’re all British. We have to reclaim the term from the isolationists. As British citizens, we all have an interest in maintaining our basic freedoms, including the freedom of religion, and the freedom from religion – in other words, to keep religion and the state completely separate, and prevent anyone from seeking to impose their religious beliefs on anyone else. Like most Humanists, I’m more interested in how people behave than what they believe, unless their beliefs motivate them to behave badly. I’d also like to see religion become a private matter, not a public one.
Religion has no claim to the moral high ground, and it’s insulting to over a third of the UK population who don’t have a religious faith to suggest it does. Whether religious or not, ethical behaviour is important to everyone. We could all live harmoniously in an Open Secular Society.
This forum was at my suggestion, after comments were made at the last forum on Community Cohesion that suggested some contributors didn’t understand secularism. There were far fewer attendees at this forum than the last one, suggesting that most forum members aren’t interested in discussing what a secular society means to them. MN