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Posted by on Apr 4, 2008 in secular society | 11 comments

Secularism – a simple test

Here’s an essay that repeats some points I made earlier…

By a secular society I mean one in which the state takes a neutral view on religion. A secular society aligns itself with no particular religious, or anti-religious, point of view. A secular society also protects freedoms: the freedom to believe, or not believe, worship, or not worship.
Theists often assume that a secular society must be an atheist society. But, as I’ve characterized secularism here, secularism and atheism are very different concepts.. An Islamic or Christian theocracy is obviously not secular, because one particular religion dominates the state. But then an atheist state, such as Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, is not secular either. A secular state does not privilege atheist beliefs. It is neutral on the issue of religion. It is founded on principles framed independently of any particular religious, or indeed, atheist, commitment: principles to which we ought to be able to sign up whether we are religious or not. Indeed, many religious people are secularists. They value the kind of religious freedoms that such a society guarantees.

Although most of us take these freedoms for granted, they were in many cases hard won, and, across much of the West, have existed for only a few hundred years.

Threats to secularism

One way in which the secular character of a society can begin to be eroded is if the religious start insisting their views are deserving of special, institutionalized forms of privilege or “respect”. Here are six examples of such demands:

• We should not permit plays that mock, or might in some way deeply offend, those with certain religious beliefs.
• Airlines and schools should have no power to ban flight attendants or school pupils from wearing religious symbols, if the individual’s religion, or conscience, requires it.
• Taxpayer’s money should be used to fund religious schools that are then permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of religious belief.
• The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else should not apply to Catholic adoption agencies asked to help gay couples adopt.
• One religion should automatically be allocated 26 seats in the House of Lords – all men – which can be used to help block legislation that has popular, democratic support (such as the Bill on assisted dying).
• Our State should have an explicitly religious affiliation.

A challenge

All of the above claims for special privileges are regularly made in the U.K. In several cases, the privilege already exists. Many believe these claims are legitimate. Some of you may have some sympathy with at least some of them. I shall raise a challenge for those who make these claims. The challenge involves a simple test.

THE TEST: If you agree with some of these claims that religion deserves special institutionalized privilege or respect, cross out the word “religious” and write in “political” instead. Then see if you still agree.

Let’s apply the test to four of these six claims…

• We should not permit plays that mock, or might in some way deeply offend, those with certain political beliefs.
• Airlines and schools should have no power to ban flight attendants or school pupils from wearing political symbols or clothing, if the individual’s political party, or conscience, requires it.
• The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else should not apply to, say, BNP-run adoption agencies asked to help mixed-race couples adopt. We should respect the political conscience of party members.
• Taxpayer’s money should be used to fund political schools that are then permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of their political beliefs.

Let’s focus on that last example for a moment. Suppose political schools start opening up and down the country – a communist school in Middlesborough followed by a neo-con school in Basildon. Suppose these schools:

• select staff and pupils on basis of political beliefs.
• start each day with singing of political anthems.
• insist on daily readings from revered political texts.
• have images of political leaders beaming down from classroom walls.

What would be the public’s reaction? Outrage. These schools would rightly be accused of educationally stunting children by forcing their minds into politically approved moulds. These are the kind of schools you find under totalitarian regimes, such as Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. Such schools are surely unacceptable.

Yet, if we cross out “political” and write “religious”, suddenly, people become much more comfortable with the idea of such schools. Indeed, many think them desirable.

Now the challenge I am putting to anti-secularists is this:

If you reject the political versions of these claims, why suppose the religious versions should be considered differently?

This challenge can be sharpened by noting that, very often, religious beliefs are political beliefs. Consider, for example religious beliefs on women’s role in society, the moral status of the actively homosexual, abortion; stem cell research, jihad, the State of Israel, or our moral and financial responsibilities to those less fortunate than ourselves. These beliefs are all intensely political. Indeed, religious organizations are increasingly political animals. They form powerful political lobbies. But why should the addition of a religious dimension to someone’s political beliefs mean that those particular beliefs are then deserving of a special, institutionalized form of privilege or “respect”? In short: what’s so special about religion?

Responses to the challenge

How might those making these six demands respond to this challenge? They need to come up with some difference between religious and other political beliefs that justifies this difference in treatment. Otherwise, their attitude looks like little more than prejudice.
Let’s now look at four replies.

REPLY 1. Unlike purely political beliefs, religious beliefs involve the supernatural. That is e.g. why they shouldn’t be mocked, and why e.g. crucifixes should never be banned.

But why is this relevant? After all, beliefs in ghosts and fairies also involve the supernatural. Yet we don’t suppose that e.g. those beliefs should not be mocked.

REPLY TWO: Religious beliefs are more passionately held.

But political beliefs may be just as passionately held. Indeed, people are also prepared to die for them. In fact I am prepared to die for certain political beliefs. Yet I don’t demand legislation preventing others from mocking my beliefs.

REPLY THREE: Religion often forms part of a person’s identity in a way that their politics doesn’t. That’s why we should institutionally privilege religious beliefs.

Well, yes, let’s agree that there are those:

• brought up to attend regular devotional events.
• who make pilgrimages abroad.
• whose devotional community transcends national boundaries.
• whose clothing and/or jewellery reflects this commitment.
• who commit time each day to related reading.
• whose homes are hung with e.g. related icons and portraits.
• who have been known, in a few cases, even permanently to mark their bodies with signs their devotion.

But are these features of a community of devotees sufficient to qualify them for the kind of privileges we have been discussing? I think not. After all, Manchester United Supporters would then also qualify, as many of them also check all seven boxes (they regularly attend matches, make pilgrimages abroad for Champions League games, and on occasion even get themselves tattooed with symbols of their devotion).

REPLY FOUR: Unless our State has an explicitly Christian foundation, key liberal values – such as freedom and equality – are likely to come under threat.

This argument is becoming increasingly popular. Here, for example, is British Philosopher Prof Roger Trigg…

“As a matter of historical fact, the standards of Western Society have arisen from a Christian background… the urge to respect different beliefs, and value individual freedom, needs to be nurtured publicly, and if religious views initially produced it, there is a question how long it can survive without their explicit support.”

Trigg believes the Christian foundations of our modern liberal society need to be made explicit, less its liberal values be undermined.

But note, first of all, that there are other, non-religious justifications available for these values (philosophers have developed all sorts of justifications, in fact).

Second, surely, insisting on a specifically Christian justification of our core values in a country where a significant number are no longer even religious, let alone Christian, is more, not less, likely to result in those values being ignored or rejected. Surely, if we want everyone to sign up to certain core values, wouldn’t it better if a religiously-neutral justification were offered instead?


To sum up, I have presented a challenge to those who think religious beliefs should be treated differently to (other) political beliefs – i.e. should receive institutionalized privileges. The challenge is to identify some feature of religious beliefs that justifies this difference in treatment. I myself don’t yet see how this challenge can be met.

Still, even if there is no principled reason for giving religious beliefs special treatment, perhaps there are pragmatic reasons for doing so in certain cases. For example, if a religious group is so incensed by a play that serious violence is likely if production is not halted, perhaps a case can be made for pulling the play. But the important thing, then, is to make it clear why the concession is being made. Don’t let the religious think they have won some battle of principle: that their religion does indeed deserve special “respect”. Caving in to such pressure should be an act of last resort. Once the fervently religious discover they can get what they want by raising the temperature high enough, they’ll do it again.


  1. You’ve missed a key counter-claim: The idea that a neutral view on religion is impossible, i.e. that so-called secularism is, in itself, a privileged religion. Another way of making this claim is that secularism is tantamount to a certain kind of atheism, the kind of atheism that states that God is irrelevant. Irrelevance is a necessary precondition for neutrality: One is neutral about only those things that don’t matter.It’s a subtle argument, and it does hold a little bit of water.The rebuttal is that religious neutrality is not itself a principle, it is the consequence of a positive, more fundamental principle: We are better off restricting our public, legal discourse to those principles to which everyone adheres. Since everyone employs perception and logic to gain knowledge — everyone, theist and atheist alike — drives with her eyes open, discourse predicated on these principles is legitimate in this context. Since everyone disagrees about how to talk about God, discourse about God is not legitimate in this context.

  2. (By “everyone”, I mean of course the overwhelming majority of people.)

  3. It is clear that it is no other than your social and cultural circumstances, and the nurture of your environment that has led you to being so utterly unable to apprehend the nature of religious life and the experience of those practising it. Why for example, the vast majority of people in the world who might read and understand your arguments would reject them utterly in favour of what they see as being infinitely better i.e their practice and experience of religion. This is clearly fact. Of course another inheritance of our sorry social and cultural recent-past is the abhorrent notion that people of cultures other than the Occidental are sub-rational beings who would run to accept the assumptions of Western culture if only we could open their minds up enough to allow the Enlightenment to shine through. The sheer folly of ascribing any superiority to the modern Western civilisation over others is evident, except in terms of the physical, production-orientated, which it has sold its soul to achieve. The ‘Oriental’ civilisations acheived heights of holistic harmony with the natural environment and internal harmony and peace through meditation that the post-Christian world can never acheived, with its gargantuan personal tragedies and egotism, that could only ever manifest themselves in vomitous tracts such as Mein Kampf and the travesties that followed it. The enlightenment has created a situation of unprecedented crisis in the world, from destruction of the environment, barbarism and slaughter on an unheard of scale, to egotism and despair, natural reactions to the insitutionalised negation of the very thing that makes us human. For those indoctrinated from birth into a limitary rationalism to upbraid religious believers for having been born into their faith is ridiculous. A silly argument highlighted by the fact that very significant numbers of people every year in the West are identifying the massive hole in their lives and reverting to the natural human condition of meditation and worship.Secularism is not ‘neutral’ religiously as you imagine it to be. Rather, it is making the state religion agnosticism – and replacing the natural intuition of moral order stemming from a universal harmony, relative being stemming from supreme being, for a de-spiritualised rationlist neurosis as mediator. Mankind will never be happy until it accepts who it is, and that is a relative expression of Absolute Being. Until then, delusions of personal autonomy will keep us locked into a most vicious circle of selfishness and unfulfillment. Anyone who continues to hawk secularism as the answer to our ills after the lesson of the 20th century is in my opinion a dangerous person, and a deluded person. Why have such a limitary conception of the scope of the reality of what being is and can be? Why reject the testimony of normative humanity? The rejection is pure stupidity, and it is leading us to destruction, personally and collectively. You will thank me for my inspiring speech if only you can slap yourself out of your Northern European conditioning for long enough to grasp something of where it is coming from.

  4. Sinan: For those indoctrinated from birth into a limitary rationalism to upbraid religious believers for having been born into their faith is ridiculous.I was indoctrinated from birth into Christianity, so I presume that it’s okay if I upbraid religious believers?Why have such a limitary conception of the scope of the reality of what being is and can be?Well, why do you? Presumably you reject the claims of other religious faiths – but why do you limit yourself in this way? Presumably you believe that they are as entitled to their beliefs as you are entitled to yours – if you despise secularism, do you have an alternative suggestion as to how your entitlements can be reconciled within a modern state? Personally I don’t see any alternative, but perhaps you do.

  5. sinan: … This is clearly fact.Maybe/Maybe not. Lots of things are facts, does not make them right.sinan: Anyone who continues to hawk secularism as the answer to our ills after the lesson of the 20th century is in my opinion a dangerous person, and a deluded person.Why?In what ways has secularism – as defined by Stephen – led to any failures/dangers of the 20th Century?

  6. Hi Stephen,rather uncharacteristically I agree with some of the points you make.I don’t think certain beliefs of any kind should be institutionally priveleged. I would be in favour of disestablishing the church (that is, I would be ideologically in favour of it, in practice I think it might be too difficult to do because it has been that way for centuries, and it would require such an extreme overhaul of politics in this country.) However, the place that I disagree with you is about whether religious discourse is appropriate for public debate.I think that it is a profoundly good thing if religious people are forced to argue for their viewpoints, rather than having a free ride. But, you seem to be suggesting that they keep it private. i think it would be very dishonest of a public figure not to say what they believe simply because their justification is grounded on principles that their listeners do not share.Also, I think your viewpoint demonstrates an idealised picture of politics. It is not simply based on entirely shared principles, and it doesn’t seem possible that this could be achieved.Also, do you propose that people should base their voting on purely ‘secular’ principles, or just debate? Is it wrong for me to vote for something if i cannot justify that position on shared principles?

  7. Hi Kyle – No I don’t mind people expressing a religious point of view or using it to justify their position. That’s a far stricter sort of secularism. Not what I’m arguing for…Of course we may have problems getting everyone to sign up to the same core principles. But, particularly in a society where a large proportion of the public is not religious, it’s important these core principles, while no doubt compatible with many religious beliefs, are not made to rest on them.

  8. Hi BB. I hadn’t missed that counter claim – just hadn’t addressed it!Neutrality doesn’t entail irrelevancy, surely. The State is neutral between political parties. That doesn’t mean it treats them as, or considers them, irrelevant.

  9. Stephen,The state may neutral w.r.t. political parties but it does tend to treat them all in a privileged way (free election broadcasts etc. ) over and above organizations that are not official political parties. Outside the UK I suspect there are more pronounced examples of this bias. Perhaps there is an analogy here in the number of theists finding common cause with anyone else “of faith”?

  10. Balanced article and a balanced view. However, and I speak with little knowledge, what concerns me is how, when you oppose the privilege of ‘religion’ in society, so as to secure secularism’s position, you can be sure that, say you won the day, your balanced position would not degenerate into strident humanism that says ‘all religion should be private and there is no place for it in the public domain’? Or, for some, is the strategy to achieve balanced secularism, then closed minded humanism? “Taxpayer’s money should be used to fund humanist schools that are then permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of their humanist beliefs.” I would find such an outcome deeply worrying.

  11. Hi StephenAren’t you running a classic slippery slope argument here?Compare: “Suppose I do lend you a pound. How do I know that tomorrow it won’t be two pounds, then ten pounds, then hundreds and then thousands?”This kind of argument is weak, unless you can come up with some grounds for supposing the slide is likely to happen.Ditto re the slide from secularism to a sort of intolerant, totalitarian humanism (which I think may be an oxymoron, actually – all depends what you mean by ‘humanism’: what do you mean by it?)

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