Opinion: Secularism is a friend to Religion, not its enemy

Baroness Warsi’s recent comments about secularism showed her ignorance about how it can be religion’s greatest friend, and should always be. Secularism, at its heart, represents a separation between religion and the state, which benefits both the atheist and the believer.

For atheists, secularism gives us assurance that religion will not be an officially supported part of our government system. That we will have no direct religious influence over our Government, no bishops in the House of Lords, and no official religion. Of course, we can’t stop people being elected who have religious beliefs, and their beliefs will affect their votes and opinions, but to not have religion ingrained in our government system is the ideal to which we aspire.

For religious people, secularism gives them the freedom to practise their religion, and worship their God[s] as they like, by the simple premise of leaving people alone to live their private lives as they choose. How can we as secularists demand that religion play no part in our government, but then turn around and say that our government should play a part in our religions?

Prayer is not intrinsically wrong, and praying before a meeting is your choice. If people wish to pray before a meeting, what business is this of miner or another atheist? Perhaps you wish to go to the chamber early and have some quiet contemplation time; perhaps a private prayer in your party’s office, perhaps an empty side room could be used. If the Government decreed that it was illegal to privately pray at any point, I would hope that secularists up and down the country would be up in arms.

Much more importantly, we are right not to allow peoples religions or belief structures to excuse them from not following our laws. Atheists who do not like homosexuals break the law when they don’t allow them to stay at their hotels. Christians should break the same laws and expect no exceptions. Atheists who are not permitted to wear any visible jewellery in their employment should follow those rules, and should not expect that religious colleagues get special exception because their God demands the wearing of jewellery of whatever type.

But these well-known and well-publicised cases don’t mean that we want active discrimination against religious people – which would break the central tenant of secularism. At heart, all Liberals should be secular – they should expect the Government not to interfere in the private lives of its citizens, including their religions – and the religious should not expect exceptions from laws because their particular God tells them it’s necessary.

So I promise, on the first day that the Government passes a law banning private prayer, stopping people printing Bibles or Korans, or making it difficult for people to get to their Churches, Mosques or wherever they want to go on whatever day of the week they want to pray, I’ll be there at your side protesting, and I mean that. And all true secularists up and down the country will be there too.

* Andreas Christodoulou is the Treasurer of the Northampton Liberal Democrats, works as an auditor in Leicester, and writes here in a purely personal capacity

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36 Comments

  • Secularism can be the best friend of a religious individual but it’s never the friend of organised religion that tries to exercise control.

  • @Tommy: And this is the real issue that some religious conservatives have with secularism. Its not that it is intolerant or any of that other nonsense. It’s that it is diametrically opposed to a key plank in the religious conservative’s ideology: to essentially force a church or religious ideology on a people through the coercive power of the state. This is Baroness Warsi’s true ambition, and that is why she is so terrified of “militant secularism”(?)

  • John Carlisle 21st Feb '12 - 10:06am

    MPG can you define religious conservative and militant secularist? And the evidence for Baronness Warsi’s terror of the latter?

  • @mpg I am curious to know how you have discerned Warsi’s “true ambition”. What did she do or say which convinced you that deep down she wants to use the “coercive power of the state” to “force” a religion on people? What an absurd ad hominem claim you’re making.

    While I agree with the broad thrust of this article, I question the assumption that a clear distinction can be made between ‘private’ and ‘public’. No-one I know who has deeply held values and beliefs can easily seperate that from a supposedly ‘neutral’ public persona, and nor would I want to compel them to do so. That would be to ask them to be dishonest. Perhaps anyone who thinks religious belief is a question of some abstract God(s) telling people what to do/wear/say should make friends with some Christians, Muslims or other religious folk and not rely on a school RE lesson caricature. The Christians I know – including several who hold quite ‘conservative’ views on things – are not crazed irrational nutters, even if I disagree with a lot of what they believe. They are ordinary citizens who bring a set of beliefs and values to bear on both their public and private lives, just like I do as a political liberal. As a secularist I will continue to support their right to do so, and not just their right to do what they want in their own ‘private’ lives. The important point is that everyone is honest and open about their reasoning, even if that means I have to make a greater effort to understand where religious people are coming from rather than lazily demand they use my terminology.

  • Malcolm Todd 21st Feb '12 - 10:36am

    @John Carlisle
    I think the latter question is easily answered here. (Whether this qualifies as ‘terror’ is a subjective judgement but it doesn’t seem a wildly misplaced description.)

  • Being tolerant of religions does not mean being tolerant of ruthless indoctrination or the promotion of superstitious nonsense in the arenas of science and politics.

  • George Kendall “Can secularism resolve this image problem? I’m not sure it can. Perhaps it needs to find another word to describe itself, and surrender the word secularism to people who have a strong antipathy to religion.”

    As we’re discussing the separation of religious practice from the State, can I suggest a word with a long and distinguished history – Disestablishmentarianism :)

  • George -Unfortunately, many of those who publicly describe themselves as religious seem unable to discuss these issues without making continual side swipes such as “there can be no morality without religion” or “without a creator evolution means that there is no purpose in human life” or “without a creator evolution means we should all just be nasty to each other in order to grab maximum advantage for ourselves”.

    Some religious people do seem to have an image problem let alone a lack of self belief/belief in human worth!

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Feb '12 - 1:01pm

    Some of this sounds bit like the line “homosexuals can do what they like, so long as they keep it in private behind closed doors”. Is not the point of gay liberation that being gay is an intrinsic property of oneself, and that if it is one should not be forced into constantly having to draw a distinction between the public and the private? I think this is at the heart of the concern some who practise a religion have about “aggressive secularism” – they feel it is stopping them from “being themselves”, that they are being forced to erect an artificial divide in their personalities, that they are constantly having to be on the watch in case some aspect of their private religious personality comes out in public, and if it does some angry secularist is going to jump on them and accuse them of “forcing religion down my throat”.

    I agree with George Kendall that secularists do not help their side of the argument by resorting to snide put-down remarks, and yet when trying to be reasonable they often seem to find it hard to suppress that urge. There are tones of this in what Andreas has written, the most obvious being “because their God demands the wearing of jewellery of whatever type”. This is a put-down – no-one in the argument over whether a Christian could wear a small cross is saying “God tells me I must”, so to suggest that was the line is to miss the point and in doing so to be insulting to those who have felt offended by this issue. The issue is really over whether someone who is a Christian should be forced to hide that completely in public, wearing a small cross became a symbol of that. If someone who wishes to wear some small public sign of being gay were told to remove it, the likelihood is that they would stick to their grounds and refuse it if they supposed that the real reason for the request was homophobia, and they might suppose that if the argument about it involved put-down remarks.

    It seems to me our society is a secularist one, with those remaining aspects which people like Andreas complain about just quaint survivals from days past when there was still a real religious influence. Personally I very much like odd little quaint things that have survived from the past, even though if starting again I would want them put in, and so long as they don’t cause anyone harm. I dislike those who seem intent on smashing up anything old-fashioned and quaint, wanting to build a brave new world in which we forget all our history. If we were writing the constitution now, I wouldn’t say lets put Bishops in the second chamber, and if Bishops in the Lords now were really impeding democratic will, I’d say get rid of them. But as they seem to be mostly harmless, I can’t see it as a big thing to get worked up about. Similarly with prayers before council meetings – a quaint survival of the times when it could be assumed most people would have some sort of religious belief which would involve saying prayers. I doubt these prayers involve any sort of sectarian rant, I rather suspect they are not much more than saying “good luck”, one can say that without really believing there’s a fairy listening who would bestow the good luck. If it’s a traditional way of recognising the solemnity of a democratic meeting and encouraging those involved to consider the common good and to behave courteously towards each other, then it is good – we need such things.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Feb '12 - 1:03pm


    even though if starting again I would want them put in

    Insert “not” before “want” there …

  • Andreas Christodoulou 21st Feb '12 - 1:35pm

    The fact that atheists are annoying does not mean that people should be permitted to not follow rules and laws because God tells them to, and it doesn’t mean that Governments should interfere with peoples religious lives.

    That’s the crux of the matter. People can argue wording, complain about Dawkins-style rhetoric but that’s it.Should we be able to gain exceptions from following rules and laws because our religious beliefs tell us to break them? No. Should we all be able to practise our religions, print our holy texts, and believe in our Gods? Yes.

  • @John Carlisle & Ben:
    I am defining a religious conservative as someone who wants to place religion in general, or a particular religion, or a particular church, at the heart of public life as a necessity for the good society, and is prepared to use the State to that end. Read American political thinker, Dinesh D’Souza’s, “Letters To A Young Conservative” for an erudite account of such thinking (or watch him talk about the book here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vUU6KZmze4).

    Ben
    I am saying that coercion is when one uses the power of the State to an end against the will of minority/majority of people (as I understand it, far from an extraordinary definition). An example is faith schools. Faith schools in general, and some in particular, are controversial to many of us (I heard that polls show people are generally not in favour of them). But that doesn’t stop us having to subsidise them with our taxes. Nine out of the sixteen primary schools in my area are faith schools, requiring religious affiliation. Now, imagine if nine out of those schools preferred say, Afro-Caribbean children, on the basis that cultural homogeneity makes an ideal learning environment. I think, rightly, we would decry this as race selection of a public good that should be open to all. The religious conservative would probably agree too. But they seek a special exemption for religion from any other social activity or group identity. They seek a place at the heart of society, given to them by the organs of state. Not through adherence by individuals alone.

    What I wrote is actually fairly uncontroversial to many religious conservatives, (Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips are explicit in their rejection of secularism). The idea of religion as NECESSARY for the good society, held by the religious conservative, and those who want to use the State to this end, is popular in many circles. It is this that Baroness Warsi is really arguing for. When she makes appeals to the religious tradition of this country, the need for unifying values (not sure she says this but many religious conservatives do), and the benefits of religion on a people, she is telling you exactly what she means. It is not a fear of secularism’s intolerance(?), but it’s removal of a key policy goal of those convinced of religion’s necessity.

    PS. On her “terror” of secularisation. Please correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that the gist of her entire attack on secularisation. A ‘fear’ of its growing dominance in Britain?

    PPS. I am religious myself, BTW. But I am also a secularist. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  • Oranjepan – a House of House, presided over by Pete Tong, to oversee changes to the Dance Music Oeuvre.

  • I am a devout Christian, and believe entirely in a secular society. For those Christians who argue against this I would point out that Jesus never forced a single person to follow him, he was put to death by the Romans at the request of the Religious Authorities.

    As I have said on other threads on this site I do not believe that Bishops should have voting rights in the HOL. I believe that they, and other interest groups, should have some type of associate membership, where they can speak, but not vote on matters that affect them.

    As a good example, I have no problem with a Bishop making the case against Gay marriage (something I believe should not only be allowed but celebrated in both religious and secular ceremonies). I do have a problem with them having a vote on the issue. I would also think that a balanced debate would include other interest groups such as Stonewall. But once the debate is over it should be secular (and preferably elected) lawmakers that decide.

    I do not feel there should be any barrier to Atheists or republicans serving in our councils, parliaments etc. Therefore oaths, prayers etc need to be outside of the main business of the day. This allows traditions to be maintained and nobody to be offended. If you’re Christian and want to attend prayers get to work half an hour earlier, do not seek to make others share your worship….

  • @Oranjepan
    Recommend you read Austin Dacey’s “The Secular Conscience”. Think you’ll find it a good guide for secularism and personal beliefs.

  • @Steve Way: +1.

  • rev simon wilson 21st Feb '12 - 5:01pm

    I agree wih much of what Andreas argues here and in many of the responses in particular those from George and Matthew. Likewise, I identify with Steve Way- as a Christian who also believes in a secular political society with no overt privilege demanded or protected.

    As an Anglican Priest, I have been privileged to lead prayers at council meetings but feel somewhat uncomfortable doing so when these take place as part of the formal proceedings. I do take the opportunity to thank all councillors for their public service and ask for God’s blessing upon that work.

  • @ Paul

    “George -Unfortunately, many of those who publicly describe themselves as religious seem unable to discuss these issues without making continual side swipes such as “there can be no morality without religion” or “without a creator evolution means that there is no purpose in human life” or “without a creator evolution means we should all just be nasty to each other in order to grab maximum advantage for ourselves”.

    Isn’t this a bit of an Aunt Sally, set up so you can knock it down? can you evidence this? I certainly don’t see many people who describe themselves as religious making these sideswipes – and very few in this site.

  • @Oranjepan
    You wrote in an earlier comment that secularism demands that personal beliefs be “left at the door” when it comes to political issues. In Dacey’s book, if you recall, he argued for persuasively that that is incorrect, and suggested that personal beliefs MUST inform secular decisions. Don’t forget the book is subtitled: “Why Beliefs Belong in Public Life”!

  • Nick (not Clegg) 22nd Feb '12 - 11:55am

    It seems to me that religion often thrives under persecution. Paradoxically, therefore, an open society in which theists are free to practice their religions while atheists and agnostics are equally free to express their scepticism is not to the liking of the more authoritarian members of certain faiths. Perhaps at the root of recent attacks on “militant and aggressive secularism” is the attempt to create a perception of persecution to rally the faithful: hence hysterical headlines such as “Christianity Under Attack” and “Christianity on the Rack”. What the religious community fears most is being ignored: hence the more revealing (and more honest?) expressions of the fear that religion is being “marginalised”.

    If there is a conflict between secularists and faith groups it is surely that secularists would like to further this process of “marginalisation” while some religious folk would like to reverse it and to see religion take a more central role in the life of the nation.

    Certain aspects of the present government’s programme, it seems to me, are opening the way for faith groups to take a more prominent role than they have for some time in the running of schools and the provision of social services. (Declaring an interest, this is one of the aspects of the current government’s programme which I like the least and which persuaded me to lapse my membership). Is it just possible that the recent chorus of complaints that religion is under attack from “militant and aggressive secularists” and “being marginalised ” (i.e. ignored) ( “attacked and ignored at the same time?!?) are part of a pre-emptive strike against a rear-guard action from secularists who have no wish to see faith groups increasing their influence in these areas?

  • John Carlisle 22nd Feb '12 - 11:59am

    This is a bit late as the last comment was 4 hours ago; but in case someone is still tapping in. . .It sounds like the secularists here are rescuing the discourse from the militant atheists, whose intellectual, usually “scientific” rebuttals of Christianity in particular means that we Christians are very tentative about discussing, not our faith, but the bible. After all, Charles Dickens told his children that the New Testament was the best book written (or something to that effect). In India I have enjoyed discussions on the buses and trains about the Gita. My newsagent and I have discussed the Khoran quite openly, and Buddhism is especially discussable. But, we flinch from the bible, and that is a tragedy as, especially the life and words of Jesus are so uplifting and full of practical wisdom. I wish this would change.

  • @Nick(not Clegg): you’re touching on something I was trying to bring attention to with my earlier comments.

  • @Geoffrey Payne: Not just liberalism. But secularism also stems from the Christian tradition. That is the irony of it all.

  • @Geoffrey Payne: I thin Stalin wasn’t a secularist at all. He believed in state-enforced atheism. As was once mentioned to me: “State atheism has an even worse record than state theism. Secularism, on the other hand, has a glowing history”.

  • George Kendall 22nd Feb '12 - 6:13pm

    @mpg: “Not just liberalism. But secularism also stems from the Christian tradition. That is the irony of it all.”
    And, another irony: The US constitution is avowedly secularist, yet the religious input into its politics is far greater than in the UK.

    @mpg “State atheism has an even worse record than state theism. Secularism, on the other hand, has a glowing history”
    That’s a great quote. I may use it some time.

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