So what is secularism then?

A subject close to the O Project’s heart– can religious and non-religious people work together on the secularist project? Giles Fraser accuses the National Secular Society (NSS) in the Church Times of “trickery…with respect to the word ‘secular'”:

I contend that the core meaning of secularism is the belief in the separation of Church and state. Religion, the secularist contends, ought not to have a place in shaping the laws or political realities by which we live.

…The NSS often employs this meaning of secular, especially when it is trying to look grown-up in making representations to government. Thus it says it wants “a society in which all are free to practise their faith, change it or not have one, according to their conscience”. It goes on about the importance of public space being open to all, irrespective of faith.

Yet, not far below the surface, another meaning of secular breaks out. Here, secular is little more than a synonym for virulent anti-religious prejudice. In this guise, the NSS portrays all religion as being about “brainwashing” and “indoctrination”.

…The NSS is either an organisation seeking to defend a neutral public space for everybody — the religious and the non-religious alike — or it is a part of a campaign to eradicate religion from sight. It should make up its mind which one it is. It cannot be both.

I agree that secular is often used to refer to both people that follow non-religious beliefs and the structural separation of the state from religion (or organisations that are not aligned to a religion such as a local authority). I suspect that this is partly because there is not an easier way to describe non-religious people- non-religious is always a mouthful and not entirely clear and atheist, agnostic or humanist aren’t quite inclusive enough. Perhaps more importantly the conflation comes because of late at least, atheists have had most to gain from the separation of church and state (although Protestant Christians historically are the ones that really paved the way) and so organisations like the NSS have played some of the most important roles fighting for secularism.

Anyway, Sunny Hundal (who is referred to in the original piece) quotes Fraser over on Pickled Politics which elicits a response from the NSS’s Terry Sanderson clarifying that the NSS is both atheist and secular:

The NSS’s articles of association affirm that “this is the only life of which we have any knowledge” and that “supernaturalism is the enemy of progress”. I suppose that makes the NSS an atheist organisation, but one that is fighting for a secular society. There are religious groups with similar ambitions – Catholics for a Free Choice, for example, and Ekklesia. Does their religious ethos make their efforts nul and void, too?

…The way to live alongside each other, Catholic with Protestant, Jew with Muslim, Hindu with Sikh, believer with non-believer, is to ensure that none of these categories takes civil power. The state must be blind to religion and non-religion.

…We see religious leaders demanding to be exempt from human rights laws, we see them resisting the march of equality and liberality as they attack the rights of homosexuals, try to roll back the law on abortion, demand yet more money from the government for their schools and welfare projects, as well as the maintenance of their crumbling buildings. We see attempts to restrict free speech from those religious groups that do not like to be criticised or examined too closely. These are not the activities of fringe cults, but of the mainstream churches.

Some people from religious traditions recognise those dangers, too, and are as alarmed as we are. We will work on projects with such groups if our aims are similar. But we surely don’t have to “approve” or “share” their faith any more than they have to abandon their faith in order to work with us.

This, as far as I am aware, a positive new line from the NSS (although it may not be a new one) – for Secularism to ever be understood as something distinct from atheism and perfectly compatible with religion it needs to be seen to be sought by an alliance of different beliefs. Otherwise it will too easily be rubbished as a something purely anti-religious (although of course for many the removal or privilege will be seen as an attack).

Giles Fraser says we use “trickery” with the word secular. But as he will know, there is more than one definition of secularism. Are we to have the “all-inclusive” style of secularism that the Pope wants – the sort where every religion is accommodated equally within the state, or are we to have the complete neutrality that the NSS favours? This is a debate that we need to have, and urgently.

…We can live with religion, so long as it does not try to rule the public spaces that we all must share. We can live together, so long as one of us doesn’t try to boss the other around. A neutral state where we can all participate as citizens is the answer. A secular state doesn’t say you’re special because you believe, nor does it say you are privileged because you don’t believe.

…Many religious people cannot accept that; they insist that their religion is their primary identity. That is where the problems start. And that is when secularism comes into its own.

Yes, the NSS is sometimes vigorous in its criticism of the many irrational elements of religion. Why shouldn’t it be? Its members debate the topic endlessly, and why shouldn’t they?

Indeed it is perfectly right that the NSS can exercise this separate function. What perhaps annoys many people though is that the NSS does not appear to support or even acknowledge some of the positive contibutions of religion. Maybe it is hard politically to do so when challenging injustice and irrationality so ferociously but having imagined a neutral secular state it is not enough to overlook the role of religion as part of civil society or how religious and non religious people can coexist in that secular space (it is naive to expect religion to literally retreat behind closed doors into the private realm). And I do not think the NSS are naive in that way but there is an unwillingness to engage nonetheless:

But that does not mean that we are not pragmatic enough to know that religion is here to stay, and that we have to live with it. And we do. Members of the NSS do not seek to interfere in the private beliefs of individuals, we do not advocate state interference in to workings of the church. Because we are not particularly enamoured of supernaturalism does not mean, as Giles Fraser ridiculously claims, that we want to “eradicate religion from sight”.

…Our name was created in 1866 by our founder Charles Bradlaugh – and we’re stuck with it. We are not primarily an “atheist society”, in the sense that our first purpose is to promote non-belief. No, we are a society of atheists fighting for secularism, just as you might have an organisation of Christians fighting for secularism.

Situations change, and whatever I might think about the name of the organisation or what it is for, we can only change it with the will of the membership. Maybe someone will propose it.

So could we one day have the NSS become the National Secular Atheist Society (I doubt people would give upthe names heritage easily) for sake of clarity and have them be part of a larger Secular Alliance drawn from a number of religions and non-religious beliefs (like the Americans United for Separation of Church and State)?


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