Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Protection Of Secularism

It has become a commonplace in recent years for religious leaders, particularly Christian ones, to bemoan and denigrate the supposed rise of secularism within the UK, and many other European countries. Alongside this assertion, there is a general perception amongst many devotees that religion is widely persecuted and marginalised within our society.

The latest example of this came in the opening address of the recent papal visit to Scotland, when Josef Ratzinger made the following comment "Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world."

It seems that these religious leaders, supposedly educated men (and, yes, they pretty much are all men), lack even a basic understanding of the meaning of the concept of secularism, and have a distorted view of the place of religion within society, or that which it should have. Why do they view secularism as such a threat? Is religion, particularly Christianity, really marginalised within our society? Or is it simply that this is the only way they can comprehend the growing rejection of religion in general, and their particular religion, by the majority of our population?

"Secularism is the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.

In one sense, secularism may assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people, within a state that is neutral on matters of belief. In another sense, it refers to the view that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact, unbiased by religious influence."

These are the opening lines of the Wikipedia entry on secularism, and represent, to my mind, a pretty fair definition of secularism as I understand it.

It should be noted what it does not say. Secularism is not anti-religion. It does not advocate the end of religion. It does not deny people's right to religious belief. It does not advocate one belief over another. Indeed, as recognised by the writers of the US constitution, it is the one and only guarantee of religious freedom for all. What it does do is to seek to remove religion from those areas and processes which are common to all, regardless of their religious belief, or lack of it.

The common values and ethics of our society predate monotheistic religion, and possibly all religion, and certainly the specific ones followed today. Indeed, many of the moral laws espoused in the religious texts are repugnant to civilised societies today. Many people live good and exemplary lives without religion, or even any knowledge of it. A secular society safeguards those common values, embodies them in its laws and structures and prevents the imposition of specifically religious values upon those outside of that, or any, religion.

In the upper house of the Westminster parliament in London, 26 Anglican bishops sit, ex-officio, and contribute to the debate of all legislation passing through the parliament. Iran is the only other country in the world where clergy sit, as of right, within the nation's legislature. There are also at least two rabbis sitting in the House of Lords, primarily due to their rabbinical status.

One third of all schools in England and Wales are now faith schools, predominantly Church of England and Catholic, but also including Jewish, Muslim, and other Christian denominations. The first Sikh faith school recently opened too. These schools are allowed to discriminate to varying extents in their admission policies and receive state funding whilst doing so. They teach to the national curriculum, but are allowed to interpret that from a religious perspective. Hence, we see ridiculous situations where science classes are taught by the same teachers who later tell the children that evolution is wrong, and science is inferior to faith and scripture, in their religious classes (see Richard Dawkins recent Channel 4 documentary on faith schools).

They have relative freedom to indoctrinate children with their own belief and value systems, regardless of whether those children come from believing families or not, and in many places families have little other choice of quality schools. This situation is set to become more dominant, as the new government at Westminster seems determined to hand control of more schools to religious groups, including many less mainstream groups. The best education system in the world is that of Finland; it is also one of the most strictly secular.

The Druids of Britain were recently recognised as a religion by official bodies in the UK, and would, if their financial turnover was higher, now have access to the many financial privileges accorded to religion in respect of exemptions from taxes, and also in regard to discrimination and employment laws. Hence, all taxpayers, regardless of belief, subsidise the promulgation of religion within the UK. Non-religious belief groups or philosophical societies are not accorded such status, despite there being little fundamental difference between them, other than an intrinsic belief in the supernatural. Furthermore, there are specific categories of "hate crime" in law in Scotland and England which protect against religious hatred and sectarianism. There is none against the hatred of those with no belief, or who hold other philosophical doctrines.

Does this sound like a government system or society that is essentially or aggressively secular, or which is marginalising religion within the UK?

The religious upheaval accompanying the Civil War and the overthrow of the English monarchy, allowed considerably greater freedoms, but these were still bound in the puritan and protestant mainstream. Those seeking to step outside that mainstream were subject to swift and severe sanctions. A secular society, protecting the freedom of religion, would have been embraced enthusiastically by them, as it would later be across the Atlantic, and would certainly not have been seen as necessarily anti-religious.

Quaker preachers were often pelted with dung, stones and rubbish when they attempted to address crowds. They were subject to imprisonment for their preaching, and many were impoverished or even martyred for their beliefs, and for their refusal to recognise the established church, or to accept the strictures placed upon them. They demanded freedom of religion, and paid a heavy price for doing so.

My own relative, John Kelsall, was sentenced, in 1684, to transportation to the West Indies for Quaker preaching, but died of yellow fever in the barbaric Newgate Gaol in London before he was placed on the ship. This was not uncommon, and some were even executed for preaching Quaker belief and practice. Quakers were often treated appallingly in prison, in considerably worse conditions than the common criminals This was real persecution and marginalisation. Many fled to the safety of the United States, eventually founding the state of Pennsylvania under William Penn's leadership, whose Quaker-inspired constitution was one of the bases of the later US constitution. Others knuckled under, and gave up their belief, at least in public, rather than suffer the continued discrimination.

Quakers were not alone in facing this repression, particularly in the aftermath of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, when all but the established church faced not just religious persecution due to doctrinal concerns, but also faced doubts about their very loyalty to the restored crown, due to their perceived involvement in the regicide of Charles I. Quakers, and other non-conformists, were excluded from receiving higher education and from many professions (law, medicine, politics etc), and were often socially excluded too, resulting in the isolation, exclusion and impoverishment of many Quaker communities. It was this which later lead to the prominent role played by Quakers in the development of chocolate and biscuit manufacture, flour, seed and grain trading, textiles, finance, iron and steel, engineering and science. The discrimination gradually eased over succeeding years with the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 and other later measures, as Quakers and other non-conformists became less vocal and obvious, and as their threat to society and the established church was perceived to have diminished.

Catholics, however, faced far greater discrimination, and it was 1829 before they were granted freedom of worship, though systematic discrimination continued well into the next century. Catholics are still specifically excluded from the succession to the British crown, as is any member of the royal family married to a Catholic. Jews have faced racial and religious persecution for much of the last two millenia, and no less in Britain, at times, than elsewhere. Those seeking to practice the older pagan religions would, if identified, be routinely accused of witchcraft and satanism, and tortured and executed. A secular society would have ended the persecution of these groups, long before that actually happened, and the full weight of such a state would prevent similar oppression from arising again. It is ironic, given our history, that a visiting pope should speak against such protection.

Indeed, it is a measure of the arrogance of some of the Christian denominations, and the Church of England in particular, that they expect the automatic continuation of their primacy, even if they seem largely unaware of its actual extent and context, within our increasingly multicultural society, and that they see the robust criticism of that position, and of their beliefs, as persecution and marginalisation. They seem to view any move to equality of religion, and of non-religion, within our societal structures as a diminution of their rights and a marginalisation of their beliefs. It also points to their ignorance of the very real persecution of the past; much of it undertaken by their own denominations. What these people frequently refer to as persecution is actually offence taken at other people exercising their rights to equality and to freedom of expression. No-one has any right to freedom from offence or criticism, nor is offence or criticism the same as persecution or marginalisation.

It is important to all the citizens of this country that we establish and maintain a truly secular system and structure of civil government in the UK, in order to ensure the freedom of all to practice the religion of their choice, or none, and to do so in the manner of their choosing, subject to equality for all beliefs and the freedom of all from the imposition of any one religion or faith. This does not mean that religion may not be criticised, ridiculed or offended. It means that all the common institutions impacting on our lives should do so impartially, without fear or favour. It means that policy and law should be arrived at rationally, and based on evidence, rather than prejudice and superstition. That is true religious freedom, and true protection of religion. Religious leaders should be embracing secularism, not denigrating it. Secularism protects them, and their followers, from discrimination and hatred, and from the dominance of other religions, or alternative interpretations of them. Tolerance and diversity demand no less.

The current Society of Friends in the UK embodies the true spirit of religious freedom, embracing a great diversity of belief, from the traditional protestant Christian belief of its founders, to Judaic, Buddhist, pantheist, deist, pagan, humanist, naturalistic, agnostic and even atheist beliefs. The ethical values and religious practices shared by members of the Society are independent of any particular faith belief. This is typical of the liberal branch of Quakerism; that which is endemic in Britain and Europe, and practised by a minority of those identifying as Quaker in America and other parts of the world.

1 comment:

  1. Nick Cohen, in light of recent events in Pakistan, makes a cogent case against blasphemy laws.