One problem with discussions about secularism is that religion keeps getting in the way. Secularism has come for a great deal of bashing recently, some of it hyperbolic and some of it slightly more reasoned. Symptomatic of almost all the contributions to the debate, however, has been a great deal of confusion about what secularism actually is. Partly this is because we most often see public debates about the nature of secularism tangentially, in relation to flashpoint issues such as abortion laws, state-funded faith schools, equality law, or debates about the place of Bishops in the House of Lords. Partly, however, it is because secularism itself can have many meanings and there is no completely shared understanding of it.
In the context of an increasingly diverse society, we desperately need to develop a shared understanding of what secularism might mean in modern Britain and why it is a political value to which we can all aspire. The Case for Secularism: a neutral state in an open society, launched yesterday at the Royal Society of Arts in London addresses these issues. It has been written by the Humanist Philosophers’ Group and the BHA, but its arguments should appeal to all, regardless of our religious or humanist beliefs.
The philosophers making the case for secularism build their case on facts. It is a fact that Britain today is a diverse society and not at all homogenous in terms of religious or non-religious beliefs. This simple fact means that any state with such a diverse population can never be exclusively the preserve of any one religion. It follows that a state, to avoid oppressing any of its citizens must, in fact, be neutral as between the different religions or non-religious worldviews held by its citizens.
It is at this point that many will claim that there is no such thing as neutrality – any state must be built on values of some sort, they may say, and if a state is not built on religious values, it will be built on humanist ones, and the religious will in fact be exclued. Neutrality, they will say, is impossible. However, there are such things as shared civic values and this is part of the case built in the pamphlet which augments this with a raft of further arguments that make it clear that secularism is a positive political value around which we can all unite: humanist or Muslim, Christian or Hindu, certainly not the interventionism that some perceive in Turkey, and in fact accommodates the desire of many of those who are motivated by religion.
You can buy the pamphlet yourself for the very reasonable price of £5!