What secularism isn’t…

March 30, 2014

I’ve always been ever so slightly bemused by the term ‘militant secularist’. It is generally used by two groups primarily; those who wish to oppress the rights of the religious and presume secularism is a backdoor for Sharia. And ironically, the religious sects who think secularism is out to destroy their religion. From both sides, it’s an odd attack.

Secularism is particularly easy concept to grasp. It is quite simply the denial of religious supremacy and privilege – through the power of state – over the lives of others. Civil rights and protections come first. Religious belief is not inherently permitted to interfere with this. And so the term ‘militant secularist’ seems to be an attempt at a slur by religious sects unhappy that their institutional privileges – gained through centuries of erecting hideous barriers to equal civil rights – are increasingly under scrutiny. What is it that constitutes a ‘militant secularist’? Someone who militantly wishes the same protections for you, as for they? Baroness Warsi gave us her unique interpretation of the phrase, whilst completely misrepresenting what secularism actually is:

“For me, what I define as a secular fundamentalist is somebody who says that there should be no public space for faith.”

– And so begins my ‘what secularism is not…’ rant. Secularism is not seeking the outlawing of faith-based arguments in the public space. If someone wishes the state to punish those who argue from a position of faith in the public sphere, they aren’t secularists. For example, every argument against same-sex marriage in the Commons in 2013, was based on faith to some degree. This isn’t banned, nor do secularists wish to ban it. We do not advocate the state punishing anyone for arguing a principle according to their beliefs, nor, even, to stand for election according to those beliefs. I am absolutely fine with The Christian Party existing, with The Islamic Party existing, and I’ll always defend their right to exist. Progress and knowledge derives from free debate and inquiry, on a framework protecting all from oppression. Secularism protects free expression, inquiry, and belief for all. What you are not allowed to do, is force others to live according to the dictates of your religious beliefs only. To do so, is by its nature advocating the supremacy of your individual faith over the freedoms of those who do not subscribe to your beliefs. It presumes the superiority of your beliefs. You’re entitled to this belief, you just have no right to enforce the rest of us to accept it.

In 2012, Peter Popham – foreshadowing Warsi two years later – writing for the Independent, published a curious article entitled “No secularism please, we’re British“. A horrid title that presupposes those of us that hold secular principles dear, are not to be considered British. In it, Popham goes on to misrepresent – or simply misunderstand – secularism, and conflate it with a plethora of completely unrelated ideologies and concepts:

“But the fanaticism of the Islamists has provoked an equally intolerant and intemperate reaction from secular and other quarters, with the ban on headscarves in France and on mosque-building in Switzerland and the rabid anti-Islam rhetoric in the Netherlands; while in Britain it has produced a sudden lurch of opinion among our noisiest public intellectuals against any and all religion. All religions are wrong, goes the argument, everyone knows they are wrong, and their time has expired. As Dawkins put it at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, faith is “a virus”; he looked forward, he said, to the “complete death of organised religion” in his lifetime.”

– This brings me to my next point on what secularism isn’t. Secularism is not anti-religious oppression. Indeed, for secularists, the idea of the state punishing people for their choice of clothing is grotesquely anti-secular. Whether the state punishes someone for choosing to wear headscarves, or the state punishes someone for choosing not to wear headscarves, for secularists it is equally as oppressive. It is not secularism. Secularism does not grant certain faiths privileges over others. To deny others the right to worship freely where they choose, and to develop property that they are as entitled as me to develop, denying them purely on the basis of what they choose to believe is an act of supremacy and oppression. This is not secularism.

The second point to take from the quote above, is that Popham apparently sees no difference between the French state banning religious garments, and criticism of religion in Britain in general. The two are entirely different concepts, and both have nothing to do with secularism. The former is the state interfering with the private lives and choices of its citizens through threat of punishment – a clear violation of the separation of church and state principle – whilst the latter is individual expression and critique of religion. Secularism ensures an individual the right to wear whatever she or he chooses, without fear of punishment, as well as ensuring the right of the individual to criticise all ideologies. Thus, Popham conflates secularism, with atheism. This ridiculous conflation ignores the myriad of religious secularists, like the wonderful ‘British Muslims for Secular Democracy’. We atheists do not have a monopoly on secularism.

Popham then goes on to rewrite history, in justifying his anti-secular, pro-religious supremacy position:

“What is staggering about the secularists is their arrogance and the shortness of their memories. The materialist utopianism of the Communists and Nazis is to blame for all the worst atrocities of the past century.
Dawkins may appear to make sense, but it is incredible that we should be ready to pay serious attention to a prophet whose message is the same as those whose schemes led straight to the hells of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge.”

– It is difficult to know where to be begin with this, given the amount of misrepresentations to appear in such a short paragraph. I’m choosing to ignore the ridiculous comparison of Richard Dawkins, to every major dictator of the 20th century, because it’s pathetic. I will address the premise of the argument itself. Here, Popham – again conflating secularism with atheism, and both with anti-religious oppression – is entirely wrong. Secularism ensures equal protection for all, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or belief. No single ideology allowed a privileged position to oppress at will. Here’s the wonderful thing about secularism; you can be a secular Christian, a secular Muslim, a secular Atheist, a secular Communist, a secular Fascist. You’re beliefs still are not permitted a place of privilege above any others. You are equally protected, equally free from oppression. The right of Christians to publicly say that homosexuality is unnatural, the right of Wahhabi Muslims to insist that Sharia is greater than secular democracy, is protected by the same laws that protect my right to blaspheme and mock religion. What secularism doesn’t allow for, is a Nazi-esque extermination of an entire religious sect based on the dictates of one ideology (despite Popham’s claim, I am yet to see Richard Dawkins advocate this). For that, a state requires centuries of religious propaganda:

In Germany in 1543, Martin Luther produced his work “On the Jews and their lies“. In it, Luther calls for Jews to be put to work as slaves, for Jewish schools to be burnt to the ground, that Jewish people are the enemy of all Christianity. Johannes Wallmann writes:

“The assertion that Luther’s expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment have been of major and persistent influence in the centuries after the Reformation, and that there exists a continuity between Protestant anti-Judaism and modern racially oriented antisemitism, is at present wide-spread in the literature; since the Second World War it has understandably become the prevailing opinion.”

– Nazi policy toward Jewish people was not a new thing. It was the conclusion of 2000+ years of hideous Church sponsored anti-semitism. Luther is vicious in his criticisms and his ideas for the future. But it wasn’t just Luther. The Nazi precedent of forcing Jewish people to wear something that makes them identifiable as Jews, and inferior to the Christian population, was not a Nazi precedent at all. It began much earlier. The Nazis simply appropriated it. Pope Paul IV issued Papal bull Cum nimis absurdum in 1555. The bull states:

“Moreover, concerning the matter that Jews should be recognizable everywhere: [to this end] men must wear a hat, women, indeed, some other evident sign, yellow in color, that must not be concealed or covered by any means, and must be tightly affixed.”

– The Bull also insisted that Jews be moved to Jewish ghettos:

“…all Jews are to live in only one [quarter] to which there is only one entrance and from which there is but one exit.”

– To suggest that the concept of separating church from state – ensuring freedom of, and freedom from religion – is responsible for the terrors of the 20th century, is so incredibly short sighted, and requires a complete rewrite of history. Indeed, if you need to rewrite history to make your case; you’ve already failed.

As is usually the case when an argument fails on so many logical standards, Popham predictably then gets insulting:

“… religious faith can do what secularism cannot: open doors on to areas of human experience – compassion, altruism, serenity, even enlightenment – which have no meaning for the secularists.”

– Here, Popham has decided not to conflate atheism with secularism anymore, because it suits his purposes not to. For Popham, secularism is now soulless. Divorced from all ethical standards. A big grey wall blocking human compassion and enlightenment. And so again, here is what secularism is not. Secularism is not and does not claim to be a ‘moral anchor’ (as Hamza Tzortzis likes to call it) to one specific time and place (1st century Palestine, or 7th century Arabia). It makes no moral judgement. It isn’t trying to be a system of morality. This is why it isn’t an atheist concept. It appeals to all concepts. It rightly presupposes that the state has no right to claim religious truth and force uniformity through it. It acknowledges that you do not get to force the principles and beliefs that guide your life, onto me, and vice versa. Equal protection on a line of equality, ensuring that no ideology be granted special privilege. How you frame your individual moral compass, is then up to you. I see no example of state power combined with religious power, that ended in anything but oppression of those that did not fit its dogmatic heavenly vision.

Indeed, over the centuries compassion, altruism, serenity and enlightenment were strangely absent from religious societies (unless you observed the state religion as instructed). Prevalent in non-secular states; forced conversions, state murder for anyone deemed to say something heretical, forced payment to uphold the state faith, rampant homophobia (see Uganda). Most of those, still occur in nations whose institution of state is shackled by faith. For this, Popham has no basis by which to tell me, as a secularist, that compassion, altruism, serenity, and enlightenment have no meaning for me. I decide that, not him. Further, I believe Popham has the same right by which to decide what compassion, altruism, serenity and enlightenment mean for himself, as I do for me, without fear of state interference.

Another description of constitutes a ‘militant secularist’ comes to us via Mo Ansar:

mo8
– If opposing the ritualistic genital mutilation of children is to be considered ‘militant secularist’, I am happy to wear that badge. No one has a right – under any pretext, including ‘religion’ – to mutilate anyone else, especially children. There is no other area of life where this would be considered even slightly acceptable, and it doesn’t get a free pass simply for being shrouded in ‘faith’.

Secularism, coupled with democracy, is the only system that has an inbuilt mechanism by which we progress. Since its inception, we have slowly worked to break down oppressive barriers (most, originally erected by the parties of faith). I cannot imagine that states with an enshrined religion are ever likely to accept they have no right to viciously oppress sexuality. For this, secular democracy is necessary.

Secularism protects us equally. It is a system that allows for the religious to believe and express the violent notion that we non-believers are cursed to spend eternity burning in the unforgiving flames of hell. That is your right to believe and to say. Similarly, I have a right to say that I find that to belief to be horrific, outdated, and worthy of nothing but ridicule and condemnation. I have no right to censor that belief, in much the same way as you have no right to censor my expression.

It is secularism that protects religious minorities. No longer are Catholics permitted to utilise the power of state to oppress Protestants or vice verse. Sunni Muslims are not permitted the power of state to dictate how Shia Muslims observe Islam according to their own conscience, and vice versa. The secular state cares not for whether you believe the Pope to be the authority on Christianity, nor whether Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman were rightful Caliphs. That’s up to the individual believer to decide. Evangelical Christian sects in the 1770s aligned themselves with the secularists in public life, in the hope of enshrining secular protections for all religious denominations. Within a century, the US was filled with a variety of denominations, from Catholics, to Mormons, none having power over others to enforce uniformity through privilege and oppression. The playing field is level. This is secularism.

The prominent arguments against secularism seem to follow the same underlying logic, regardless of how it’s presented. Firstly, the argument tends to be a misunderstanding of secularism as anti-religious oppression. Perhaps this is derived from fear of retribution for centuries of religious oppression. But it isn’t actually true. If indeed a state pursued policies designed to oppress the religious, it would follow that the state lost its secular title the moment the oppressive policies were instituted. Secondly, the arguments – especially from the Christian right in the US, and the more Wahhabi Muslim sects in the Middle East – tend to be nothing more than a child-like refusal to accept that their faith does not inherently deserve a place of privilege to interfere with the liberty of others. The former argument, is often an obvious mask for the latter.

It is perhaps worth remembering that had religion not so horrifically abused state power through grotesque persecution when it had it, there would be no need for ‘secularism’. The concept would almost certainly be considered a natural societal condition. The fact that we need a specific ‘ism’ to protect basic individual rights, speaks volumes of the history of religious oppression that preceded it, and how fast and loose they tended to play with human lives. Today, secularism must be the starting point. No one gets to claim their personal religious belief is more worthy of privilege and supremacy, over any other. A line of neutrality, on a framework of civil rights regardless of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and belief, is the only natural and reasonable position for a state to observe. If you wish to impose your personal religious principles on a population, you need to (not be forced to) accompany it with a reasoned argument. Your personal belief is not an adequate reason in itself. If the argument stands up to scrutiny, then it will stand by itself. If you wish your faith to be granted specific institutional privilege – as with the institution of marriage, for example – you’re going to have to provide a reasoned argument as to why the rest of us should accept your inherent right to a position of superiority, and live according to the dictates of your personal faith. If your argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it would be prudent not to take this as a green light to claim oppression. To do so, comes across as one big child-like tantrum.

Secularism isn’t anti-religious oppression. Secularism isn’t the wish to ban religious folk from the public sphere. Secularism isn’t a system of anchored morality. Secularism isn’t Atheism. In short, secularism isn’t anything that anti-secularists seem to believe that it is.

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