Why is the concept of “secular” so hard to understand?

If I was a comedian, I’d make comedy gold out of this: A Muslim, from a country with an established Protestant church goes to the Vatican – an dictatorial theocratic state – to complain about “Militant Secularism”:

My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.

Militant secularisation. That brings to mind secularists bombing parliament in protest against bishops sitting in the House of Lords by right, as the genuinely militant Fawkes did centuries earlier for more religious reasons. Or perhaps secularists bombing religious schools to demand that all schools be secular. Yet, whilst secularists generally hold the view that Bishops should not, by right of being Bishops, hold a seat in the House of Lords; no one is suggesting we campaign with bombs and guns for that outcome. Similarly, whilst secularists would, in general, argue that sectarian religious faith schools should not receive state-funding, no one is suggesting blowing up school buses or schools to make the point.

We’re not (by and large) even arguing that a Bishop may not hold a seat in the House of Lords – simply that they should not hold one purely by virtue of being a Bishop. Similarly, unless we were to campaign against private schools in general (which would be independent of any issue of secularism per se), few if any secularists would demand the abolition of private faith schools : simply the public funding of them (although we might demand a minimum standard of education, as that is the child’s right: I’m looking at you, creationists). This is the militant secularism that has Baroness Warsi so concerned: people are arguing for a secular state through nothing more than the force of their argument, and their actions at the ballot box. Engaging in the political process is apparently all it takes to be militant.

This continuing tarring of the term ‘secular’ to “militant” or “aggressive” secularism by the regligious is absurd and farcical. When one considers Britain and Europe’s historical treatment of defining countries by their allegiance to religious sects, one is considering a history of brutality and bloodshed. Wars being fought over whether we were a Roman Catholic country that should suppress Protestants, or a Protestant country suppressing Roman Catholics. It’s a history of the faith of the people dictated by the faith of the monarch. It’s quite clear that during those periods the religion that you professed could be of extreme import to the comfort and security of your very life.

The simple fact is that the only reason the Pope was able to recently visit and decry secularists as “evil”, and the only reason that Baroness Warsi is able to hold a seat in the House of Lords as a Muslim is because society progressed beyond it’s religious background, and started on a slow and painful journey to a secular state: the weakening of the power of the Church to demand that the people profess the right faith in order to hold public office. And social progress has started to go hand-in-hand with this secular progress in the institutions of government. Much of the social progress that has been made with regard to LGBT equality, and with regards to women’s equality has happened solely because the Churches have lost their once iron grip on the machinations of Parliament. It is notable that – almost exclusively – the hold-outs to gay marriage, just to give one example, is the Church and the religious, and their reasoning is solely religious. I know that Baroness Warsi and the Pope both share the same bigoted, ignorant, and religious views on gay marriage, and LGBT rights: maybe that’s why they’re so upset.

The religious should be careful what they wish for. Secularism is simply the concept that the state takes no stance on religious belief, or the lack there of. It states that it is not the business of the state to tell people that they should pray, when they should pray or to which god they should pray to, if any. It is not the business of the state to say that this faith school will be supported by the public purse, but that one doesn’t: the schools the state pays to run should be secular.

This in no way suggests that the state should abolish religion, or that the religious should have no say in political discourse, and to suggest otherwise is farcical. The secular state properly guarantees the right to religious expression, but you operate within the same boundaries as everyone else. You operate within the law, as everyone else. But if you have an objection to gay marriage, if you have an objection to lesbian marriage, if you have an objection to trangendered people being able to live their lives free of fear and intimidation, if you believe that women should be denied a promotion, or denied emergency contraceptive because of the religious beliefs of her employer or clinician, or chemist; if you believe these things then you need to find an argument that is secular: I wish you no luck in finding it, because I find those things deplorable, but no one is stopping you from trying.

That’s it. It’s really very simple.

2 Responses to Why is the concept of “secular” so hard to understand?

  1. flashmaggie says:

    Precisely.

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