From Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society
Since I became President of the National Secular Society, I have been aware that some religious people, who know me only through this public persona, regard me as some kind of hateful monster who is trying to kill their faith. People who know me personally, on the other hand, think I am an old softy, who is as anxious to please as an aged golden retriever waddling to fetch a stick.
Being aware of this dual perception, and how easy it is to misunderstand other people’s motives, I try not to jump immediately to the conclusion that those who criticise the NSS (sometimes very fiercely) are automatically crazy people who don’t deserve to be listened to.
I give them the benefit of the doubt, and if ever I get to meet them – which I do from time to time in broadcasting studios or on debating platforms – I usually find them personable, charming and friendly. They, too, have a public persona and are obliged to summarise their ideas in sound-bites for the media, without much qualification. In those circumstances, it is easy to sound hard and unrelenting. When we get to talk, and expand our ideas and explain them, there is usually at least some area of agreement between us.
So, let’s get this right – we’re engaged in a battle of ideas, not of people. We all know what happens when people don’t talk and discuss – they become suspicious of each other and they fight.
So, my New Year’s resolution is to talk, debate, discuss, explore and listen; to continue to struggle for a secular structure for society, but in a reasonable and rational way.
Secularism is about living together in peace and harmony, without exploitation and without coercion. It isn’t primarily about attacking religion or religious believers. Although we may have a lot of sympathy with the rationalism of Dawkins and Hitchens, we realise that the argument about the truth or otherwise of religion is separate from the struggle for secularism.
Whatever we may feel about religion – and I know that many NSS members have very strong anti-religious instincts – we have to be pragmatic and understand that religion is not going away. So, secularism tries to create a shared space where no-one can dominate. The veracity or otherwise of religious belief is a legitimate argument, but not one that is central to the creation of a secular society.
Secularism is about listening to other people’s point of view, but sometimes agreeing to differ. It goes like this: you do what you want (within the law) in your space (temple, mosque, church, home), and we’ll do what we want in our space (likewise within the law), and we’ll agree not to interfere with each other while within those spaces.
But in the space that we have to share – the public square as it has been called – there can only be democracy. The direction and shape of our society and culture must be agreed between us, believer and non-believer alike, not imposed by divine right or by superior strength. In that way, we all participate. We don’t always get what we want, but at least we have the opportunity to lobby to change things by argument and persuasion, rather than by force and fiat.
But now, as the holiday approaches, and the time comes for reunions with family and friends, for the exchange of presents and for the sharing of good food and drink, we can live in peace with each other, at least for these few days. The churches are open for those who want them, and so are the boozers. Christmas carols will be sung and Monopoly played. Telly will be watched and snoozes taken. For those lucky enough to be in the warmth of good company, there will be a central feast and the sound of children enjoying what is, essentially, their special time.
Our friends from Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu backgrounds will be able to share in the excitement and enjoy the holiday, too. The mischievous forces that try to make life difficult for them should be challenged, but over the holiday time, we can try to put aside those human-made differences and just let it be. Let’s leave the point-scoring and the arguing until next year.
Despite the claims of some, this mid-winter holiday does not uniquely belong to one section of the community. Indeed, there is no reason why atheists can’t enjoy it with a clear conscience. I certainly will and I sincerely hope you will, too.
So, whatever your religion (or lack of it) and whatever your circumstances, I wish you a very happy Christmas – as well as a peaceful solstice time and a jolly holly-day.