In the past two weeks, there have been two significant court rulings:
- Local government meetings are for conducting the business you’ve been elected to. They are not prayer meetings. (You can pray with your friends beforehand if you like).
- You can’t turn people away from your hotel because they’re gay.
Both of the above might seem fair enough (especially the latter), but once the media got hold of these stories, they became political interest stories about the persecution of the religious by a “militant secular minority”. This “militant secularism” was called out recently by Sayeeda Warsi as she took a trip to the Vatican and claimed that “Secular fundamentalists are saying that people of faith shouldn’t have a voice in the public sphere.” – a straw man argument if there ever was one.
So what is Secularism? Here’s a section from the National Secular Society’s website:
In a secular democracy all citizens are equal before the law and parliament. No religious or political affiliation gives advantages or disadvantages and religious believers are citizens with the same rights and obligations as anyone else.
Secularism champions human rights above discriminatory religious demands. It upholds equality laws that protect women, LGBT people and minorities. These equality laws ensure that non-believers have the same rights as those who identify with a religious or philosophical belief.
At first glance, fair enough. Until, that is, “the same rights and obligations” clause kicks in. That means no special treatment for you. No “Golden Ticket” to be a racist, a homophobe, to restrict other’s freedoms of expression or to demand special privileges at work.
I suppose it’s human nature to focus on the negative. Don’t forget that minorities are protected, which is why the de facto secularism of the UK recently allowed a visit by the Pope without having him locked up and later burned at the stake. Back in September 2010, when the Pope visited, I wrote:
Cardinal Walter Kasper yesterday claimed the UK was a Third World Country, and criticised the UK’s secularism and alleged persecution of Christians (usually code for refusing to give special favours to Christians). It’s thanks to the UK’s secularism that people are indifferent to the Pope’s visit. It’s thanks to our secularism that nobody is queuing up to burn him at the stake. It’s thanks to our secular tradition that the Pope is able to visit the UK at all.
How’s that for irony?
Perhaps there’s more to all this than just simple human nature.
that an attack on secularism is merely an elaborate scheme to wind the clock back for everybody
What is militancy? Speaking one’s mind? Refusing to respect sacred cows? Demanding respect? Militancy could be all of one things according to dictionary definition. It can also mean violence, and in our mud-slinging political discourse, it is this meaning that is being applied to secularism in the UK: violence backed through state power to oppress the righteous.
So is this talk of Militant Secularism fair or just hyperbole? After all, I haven’t read of violence committed by secularists in the name of secularism before, have you? How many churches or mosques have secularists burned down in the name of Church-State separation?
None, obviously, Secularism has advanced slowly but surely through enlightenment and through legislation, not terrorism.
History provides us with a sobering example of where physical violence formed part of a struggle to win rights for a group that was being wronged. Wronged by the establishment and opposed by the Church of England, and also seen, as the press likes to paint secularists, as an interfering lot of rowdy busybodies.
When Sayeeda Warsi, having returned from a taxpayer-funded trip to the Vatican to extol the virtues of faith, sits down in the House of Lords, she should look to her neighbour. Perhaps he is a Church of England Bishop, whose seat is there by virtue of the fact that he is a member of a particular religious sub-group – one that excludes women.
She should also reflect on her privilege to sit in the House of Lords – a result of a long train of events driven along by true militancy: the Church of England opposed Women’s Suffrage, and the Suffragettes burned down churches.
the Church of England opposed Women’s Suffrage, and the Suffragettes burned down churches.
She doesn’t have to do it right away, of course. There are morning prayers in Parliament, but she could spare a thought during that time to think of our Head of State, who is also the head of the State Church.
Clearly we’re overstating the case to describe secularists as militant when they simply ask for equality, respect and equal enforcement of the law. History and the facts aren’t with Warsi or the press on this.