Saturday, November 6, 2010

Secularism is not the answer

During a lull in posting (caused by the intrusion of real life, not entirely in a good way) it was nice to continue to get comments on Always Hope. This post in particular drew some interest:

NSS gets in a tizzy again

I was being a bit rude about the National Secular Society and their penchant for whingeing with no particular aim in mind other than to complain about how awful it all is. So it was quite gratifying to get a comment from one very open-minded secularist saying how I was absolutely right. Not presumably, about secularism having nothing useful to contribute to the greater good, but I think he was agreeing that the NSS conducts itself very poorly in the public realm.

Even more intriguing, though, was to get a comment suggesting that secularism is actually the better way for people of faith. This of course is a serious point of view. A "religious secularist" argues, as my commenter did, that the Christian church is closer to its true calling when it is stripped of all trappings of state, and the consequent temptations of power and privilege that go with it. There is a great deal of truth in this. A church that follows the Christ who came not to be served but to serve, and who was crucified for us at the hands of the agents of Government, really shouldn't rejoice in worldly power, as the church in Europe did for so long, and the Church of England continued to do for as long as it could.

A further argument is that a secular state provides protection against the excesses and abuse of religion in ways that will harm the population. This is all sounds quite ideal. But the main problem is that it simply doesn't prove to be true in practice. To take the last argument first: the obvious example of a secular nation is the USA, with its separation of church and state. And yet religion continues to increase its dominance on the American political scene. Recent elections have seen serious candidates who think Obama is a Muslim and those who firmly believe that Darwin's theory of evolution is a godless conspiracy. I don't suggest that the secularised constitution necessarily favours this peculiarly American phenomenon, but what should be clear is that the separation of church and state does not prevent it. The only way to keep religion out of the public sphere is by aggressively suppressing it, as in the Cold War USSR (which is what the NSS would really like to do).

That just leaves the question of whether religion (in this case the Church of England) is best stripped of state power and privilege. The answer, on the whole, has to be yes. Which, on the whole, is what has already happened. This is what makes the NSS's mission, "challenging religious privilege", so utterly silly. What religious privileges exist in this country? People of faith enjoy the protection of the law just as any citizen does, having the right to practice their beliefs and express their views without persecution. This is not privilege. The only remaining privileges I can think of are the presence of Bishops in the House of Lords and the blasphemy law (this is arguable too).

I believe that Christianity should be recognised as the official religion of the UK, as the historic and majority faith of the nation. I think for this reason Christian ministers should say prayers on public occasions, and the Church of England should continue in its role as chaplain to the nation. This does not need to entail any kind of accretion of worldly power. Apart from anything else, the idea that Bishops and clergy have a place in the corridors of power has long gone. If they wish to exert influence, they need to do so as anybody else does, by persuasion and the building of public credibility. But there are two simple principles that will ensure that we don't return to Christendom, even in a non-secular state:

1. The rule of law. Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and Christians can plead no exception to this. Of course they can attempt to influence law-makers, but it is the law, rather than the whole apparatus of state, that needs to remain free of religious control in order to guarantee equity for all people, whether of faith or not. (This is why musings about the inevitability of Sharia law in the UK should not be allowed to pass unchallenged).

2. The right to freedom of religion and speech. A majority Christian population should never mean the oppression of non-Christians. Everyone should be allowed to practice and propagate their beliefs, or lack of them, without hindrance (except on the rare occasions when these threaten the well-being of their fellow citizens).

A society with a Christian ethos, independent courts, and complete freedom of speech. That's a better alternative to enforced secularism. Does it sound familiar, though? That's right, we live there. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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