Why the faithful need secularism

Jeremy Rodell discusses the meaning of ‘secularism,’ among other things. Note: this article first appeared on Sarah Ager’s Interfaith Ramadan blog.

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

What is Secularism?

Let’s start with what secularism means to secularists.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) defines secularism as ‘the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms. State Secularism, where… the state is neutral on matters of religion or belief, guarantees the maximum freedom for all, including religious believers.’

The UK’s National Secular Society (NSS) adds that it’s ‘not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.’

So a secular state does not mean denying the role of Christianity and other religions – for both good and ill – in history and culture. It does not mean that religious people must forego their principles if they enter public life. Perhaps most important of all, it does not mean a society lacking in values. There’s a fairly clear set of liberal, human values shared by the majority in the UK and most other western countries, including freedom of speech, thought and belief; respect for democracy and the rule of law; equality of gender, age and sexual orientation and the view that fairness and compassion are virtues. Many of these values are enshrined in law.

The BHA and the NSS really ought to know what they’re talking about here. Unfortunately, many people, usually people who are not themselves secularists, use ‘secularism’ interchangeably with ‘atheism’ or ‘Humanism’.  The previous Pope even talked of “militant Secularism”, meaning “militant Atheism” (despite the fact that the weapons used by ‘militants’ like Richard Dawkins are writing books and giving lectures, not planting bombs). But you can be religious and secularist. In fact the unequivocally Muslim, anti-Islamist campaigner, Maajid Nawaz, has just become an Honorary Associate of the NSS.

The reason for this confusion is that western countries have only become secular – to varying degrees – after many centuries in which the Church was a major power in society and there were constraints on freedom of thought and expression. Much of that power has been eroded since the Enlightenment, but battles are still going on. For example, 26 unelected bishops remain sitting as of right in the British Parliament, and many state-funded schools can discriminate in their admissions simply on the basis of parental belief. It’s no surprise that the protagonists in these battles are usually churches on one side, and humanists and other atheists on the other. If you’re on the side of the churches, it probably feels that secularism and atheism are the same thing – The Enemy.

That’s a mistake. Not only does it ignore the common ground between Christians and humanists, but it focusses on loss of religious privilege and influence, ignoring the fact that Secularism also guarantees freedom of religion and belief, and the freedom of thought and expression that goes with it. That’s important, given the realities of faith and belief in much of the modern world.

Growth of pluralism

According to the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, 51% of the British population are now “Nones” – people who do not consider themselves as belonging to any religion. It was 31% in 1983. Only 16% are now Anglicans, the Established Church (40% in 1983), 12% non-denominational Christians, such as African Pentecostal (3% in 1983), 9% Catholics (10% in 1983) and 5% Muslims (0.6% in 1983), with Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and other types of Christians making up most of the balance (all under 2%). Within each of these groups there is a lot of diversity: at least 10 different sects comprise the 5% Muslims, and the 0.5% British Jews range from ultra-Orthodox to Liberal. So we’re seeing both a big decline in religiosity and an increase in pluralism. It’s hard to imagine a more plural global city than London.

In many non-western countries, the inter-connectedness of the modern world, and wider awareness of differing beliefs – including Atheism – is also tending to increase pluralism, or at least the desire for pluralism. At the same time, it is increasingly under threat, often because of war and the active spread of an intolerant Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Secularism versus oppression

Secularism is as necessary to protect believers from other believers as it is to protect atheists.

You can currently be put to death simply for the ‘crime’ of atheism in 13 countries, according to the International Humanist andEthical Union’s 2013 Freedom of Thought Report. Saudi Arabia has now passed a law declaring atheists to be terrorists. In Mosul, in northern Iraq, there has been a Christian community for around 1600 years. In 2003 there were 70,000 Christians living there. Now ISIS have taken over and they have all fled. In Burma the government seems to be doing little or nothing to stop extremist nationalist Buddhist groups from massacring Rohinga Muslims. In Pakistan there’s growing evidence of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims by Sunni terrorist groups – the word ‘genocide’ is appearing – and it is illegal for Ahmadiyya Muslims to claim to be Muslim. Often they are simply killed. In Malaysia, Christians have been legally forbidden to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, even though they have been doing so for hundreds of years. In Iran there is institutionalised persecution of Baha’is .

Sadly, there are many other examples where the response to pluralism is oppression. Often it’s entwined with political power, driven by fear of losing power – or simply of change – and lack of confidence that the favoured belief will succeed in a plural environment.

Secularism is the alternative response to pluralism. Ideally it’s complemented by the type of mature democracy that avoids “winner takes all” outcomes such as we saw in Egypt under President Morsi.

The faithful need secularism because it guarantees their freedom, and in some cases their survival. It is the only alternative to oppression in a fast-changing, inter-connected plural world.

 

An atheist Scout leader on the recent promise changes by the Scouts and Guides

Atheist Scout leader Ralph Parlour presents his own personal view on the recent reforms made by the Scout Association and Girlguiding UK.

Scouts take the promise at Brownsea Island, Dorset

Scouts take the promise at Brownsea Island, Dorset. Photo: Tim Ellis.

On the 1st of September 2013 and the 1st January 2014, the British Guide and Scout Associations respectively changed their promises, opening both movements to atheists and humanists.

The promise is a central and important aspect of both movements, and all who wish to become members have to make it. The changes made are quite radical given the religious origins of both movements. Before these changes, all guides, irrespective of their own beliefs (or lack thereof) had to promise to ‘love God,’ and scouts had to promise to ‘do my duty to God.’ Even more importantly, the Scout Association has lifted a formal ban on atheists becoming full leaders. Although the ban was not strictly enforced and many atheists like me were already leaders, it is a relief to no longer have to hide my (non-)belief, or to have to ‘cross my fingers’ when making the promise.

Now instead of saying to ‘love God,’ all Guides now promise ‘to be true to myself and develop my beliefs.’ The Scouts however have taken an alternative approach and instead of completely throwing out the old religious oath, they have introduced a new promise that atheists can choose to say instead. ‘To do my duty to God,’ in the revised promise, has been replaced with ‘To uphold our Scout values.’ It is however the case that the religious oath will continue to be the default, so most new members will continue to take the religious oath, while atheists can request the secular alternative.

The Scout Association’s reforms have been widely supported, even by religious figures. Paul Butler, Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, said that ‘In enabling people of all faiths and none to affirm their beliefs through an additional alternative promise the Scout Movement has demonstrated that it is both possible, and I would argue preferable, to affirm the importance of spiritual life and not to restrict meaning to arbitrary self-definition.’

There has however been some resistance to the changes made by the Guides. The main contention is that, unlike the Scouts there is no option to choose a religious oath. There are several Guide groups that have refused to adopt the new promise and continue using the old, religious one. While I have found no article from any major newspaper or website critical of the changes made by the Scouts, the reforms in the guides have come under considerable criticism, especially from the conservative Right. The Church of England General Synod, on 12th February 2014, passed a resolution saying that ‘girls and women of all ages in the Girlguiding Movement should be able to continue to promise to love God when enrolled,’ and Alsion Ruoff, a member of the Synod, claimed that the change is ‘rank discrimination,’ and that it is part of  the ‘further marginalisation of Christianity in this country.’

Girlguiding UK has offered a concession, saying that Guide troops could, if they choose, have their own religious pre-amble to any swearing in ceremony, and say something like ‘In the presence of God I make my Guide Promise.’ But it is still too early to know whether this concession will be acceptable to critics.

These changes should rightly be seen as a victory for secularism and an advance against superstition. These changes will strengthen both youth movements, the Scouts especially, making them more appropriate to an increasingly secular nation. But while claims of discrimination are obviously spurious (given the favourable treatment of religious institutions, especially the Church of England), the Girl Guides do seem to have been heavy handed in response to groups refusing to adopt the new promise. The First Jesmond Guides for example have been threatened with expulsion from Girlguiding UK if they do not conform.

In an ideal world, not only would the secular promise be the default but there would be no religious promise at all. Despite this, I think it is important to not force people, atheist or theist, to make a promise they are not comfortable with.

Additionally, the relationship between these uniformed youth groups and organised religion is deep, so to sharply turn these groups secular could cause significant harm. Many groups, my own included, meet in a church hall and are not charged for the privilege. Without such an available, and low-cost meeting place, it would be much more difficult to keep the troop afloat financially and I have no doubt that many troops would close without the aid of churches. Both organisations do considerable good, and benefit not only their members but society in general. So an overzealous approach that harms the organisations, even if born of good motives, would be like cutting off the nose to spite the face.

The heavy handed approach taken by Girlguiding UK has damaged the organisation and has alienated some lifelong members. As a lifelong Scouter, I feel that it would be preferable to accommodate some heterodoxy, in order to keep the organisation unified, strong and better able to continue the valuable work they carry out.  All this controversy within the Guides is, ultimately, over one sentence, albeit a very important sentence, so I wouldn’t have thought it too difficult, or too offensive to the sensibilities of secularists, to allow Guides the same choice in promise as the Scouts.


Ralph Parlour is an Atheist Scout leader.