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Monday, November 14, 2005

What's Right and What's Wrong with Secularism


Secularism Found Wanting? Posted by Picasa

There can be no doubt that aspects of secularism in western liberal democracies have proven their worth in the development of a civil society able to sustain various freedoms both personal and academic and to foster economic development. Other features of secularism have been less conducive to human flourishing and these touch on its relations with value bearing faith systems and cultures standing in antithesis to its most basic tenet ... that no ideology or faith shall command the attention of the public square.

Of course, secularism has tried to steer society by its own moral compass ... a loosely defined collection of various human rights. However, human rights, speak of entitlements, not ultimate meanings and daily responsibilities. Secularism cannot deliver such values and beliefs by its very nature. So, in places where secularism is pursued aggressively so as to relegate faith to the private and, therefore, marginal sphere, the reaction against such privation has caused protest and conflict. States can no longer afford to be amoral or to base ethical responses on populist appeal.

The riots in French cities (and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Europe) have been variously blamed on the social and cultural alienation, economic injustice, racism and the refusal of the French to track ethnic disadvantage on the grounds that all citizens are equal. Clearly some citizens are more equal than others. The Far Right of course has derived great political capital from all of this ... itself stoking the fires of racism and then blaming it on others. What seems to have slipped past most peoples' attention, however, is the rejection of secular western liberal democracy by faith groups who see the secularist ideology as creating and enforcing a godless society. There can be no compromise between an atheist who seeks to build such a society and the believer who seeks to dismantle it; which is why there must be another way of doing things that doesn't pit one group against its diametrical opposite.

Tolerance is good but not good enough. Tolerance is equivalent to saying that peace is merely the absence of war; whereas in fact, peace is a positive thing. Peace needs building; it requires action. Similarly, a civil society which accepts that it can receive and learn from faith groups whilst retaining its refusal to prefer one religious tradition to another must be the way forward. It's sad that in the UK it took the London bombings of 7th July 2005 to bring forward this agenda. Aggressive secularists and religious fundamentalists alike have not welcomed such pluralist rehabilitation of faith in the public domain. No matter; it must proceed if we are to avoid the excesses of violence which arise when people feel that deeply cherished beliefs and values are not being publicly received but rather relegated to the margins of society where they remain, essentially, ineffectual.

If such pluralist engagement is to be credible, however, one platform of secularism must surely be both right and respected. No individual religious tradition should receive preferential treatment from the State. The implications are clear. The Church of England must be disestablished and the monarchy must be allowed to embrace any faith, not exclusively the Anglican one. At one time an objection might be lodged that this would foster secularism and the decline of Christianity. The situation now, I believe has turned round 180 degrees. Only by such a move can religion receive the public respect it deserves, from any quarter. All faiths now need to come in "from the cold" before the temperature on the street gets too hot ... as we have seen in Paris and elsewhere this last month.

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