Political Promise

Secularism is about politics, not religion

In Alex Gabriel on August 11, 2010 at 9:04 am

By Alex Gabriel

Writing this Sunday on the Pope’s official visit come autumn, Graeme Morrison  got one thing right. There are those who’ll be found on the picket lines this September who feel totally, utterly and constitutionally opposed to religion; those, in his words, who would like to see Catholicism in particular wiped out. Much debate can be made about that stance, either by those who hold it or reject it, and yet my colleague makes one fatal mistake in his article: by absolutely no stretch of the imagination is this what’s meant by secularism.

Don’t let’s mince words, the Pope is certainly objectionable. But when Peter Tatchell or Terry Sanderson campaign to refuse him entry to the UK, their argument is a humanitarian one based on his behaviour; that his homophobia makes supporting him untenable, for example, or that his contraception policies cause untold HIV-related deaths. As compelling a discourse as this might be, it isn’t secularist in nature, because it suggests a more agreeable pontiff wouldn’t be a problem in the same situation. The problem genuine secularists have with the Pope’s visit isn’t simply that it’s happening, but that the taxpayer is funding it.

When the state puts money into one religion over another, it then begins telling its electorate what to think. In Britain this is particularly the case, with all state school students under 16 bound by law to take part in ‘broadly Christian’ worship every day; only with parental insistence can they be removed from this, and rarely does it actually occur. Similarly, it was Britain’s archaic religious laws that prohibited Tony Blair from practicing Catholicism while in office and which have made up the British population’s mind for it about which religions are okay. The state’s promotion of Protestantism even goes so far as to give the Church of England sole rights to perform legal marriages without a registrar (not to mention 26 seats in the House of Lords, absolutely free).

Back in 2008, the Dalai Lama’s visit wasn’t publicly paid for. Nor was that of an Afghan Muslim delegation this year. Without too much effort, we can read from this that the British state – officially Anglican in the first place – prefers Catholic Christianity to Buddhism or Islam. Far from finding new ground with their Catholic contemporaries, these religious communities are being subordinated, and a government setting any kind of official guideline on what its citizens believe is a government that needs seriously to mind its own business. As flawed as the UK might be, it still benefits from having avoided the worst productions of state-sponsored religion: the binding of Sharia law to the states of Middle Eastern nations, for example, makes infidels of anyone expressing free thought, and the divisiveness of official religion did just as much damage in 20th century Northern Ireland as it had in England centuries before.

The only way to avoid this situation is to separate church and state and prevent the government from endorsing any one religious (or indeed non-religious) position. Far from bashing believers with the rod of the law, this kind of practice enshrines religious freedoms by forcing government to stay out of the debate. Look, for example, at how the US Constitution expressly forbids the establishment of a state religion – the USA, now known for having one of the West’s most Christian populations. If Americans’ religious opinions were regulated by the state in the way they are to a mild degree in Britain and to an alarming degree in the Middle East, it would never have been possible for a thousand different schools of religious thought to thrive as they have in mutual competition.

Might we not take the inclusive option, though, and aim to represent every religion in the way that government acts? In the state of India, it’s expected that all major faith groups’ approval will be sought whenever new laws are about to be passed. As pleasant as it might sound, this is still a decidedly bad state of affairs. Inherently populist, it gives advantage to those religions that have more followers, or else have done over time – just as Islamic theocracy upholds Islam, this kind of policy strengthens its country’s established religion artificially, removing the voices of those whose religious differ. India may have more Muslims than Mormons, but is that a reason to value only the former’s ideals?  Moreover, doing so discourages original thinking by creating an insider-outsider culture.

If we’re going to fund the Pope’s visit this autumn, the only way to be fair about it is to fund any other religious leaders’ as well, right down to the Scientologists and the Jedi Knights. Financially that would be disastrous, and you can’t in any case possibly know about every emerging religion. Banning state monies from going to any one religious cause is the single best way of protecting freedom of thought as well as equality between different faith communities.

As I’ve said, there are reasons to object to the Pope other than his being tax-funded. The important thing is that these aren’t secularist arguments, they’re simply ethical ones, and to say otherwise misrepresents both the concept of secular governance and also the views of those who don’t believe in church-state separation, but simply think Ratzinger is immoral. So while I’m all for making the Pope pay, it’s only the Vatican’s money I’m after, as a secularist.

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  1. Thank you for taking the time to respond Alex.

    At the outset, I would like to clarify that I am not opposed to secularism. Moreover, I do not believe that I conveyed that idea in my original post. My point was more that secularism has almost been hijacked and has simply turned into an anti-religious agenda at all costs.

    For example, prominent secularists such as Polly Toynbee have vigorously attacked religion in recent times. The Atheist Bus Campaign was one such way of demeaning religious faith. Similarly in your own post, I felt that you deliberately rubbished the importance of religious faith with the use of ‘Jedi’. This is the backdrop that I have noted. Secularists should of course champion the cause in which they believe. The total eradication of religion appears to be the current goal (As I explained with the crucifix worn by cabin crew) of the secularist.

    For the record, I am in complete agreement that the Church should fund the Pope’s visit from its own money. As a Catholic though, I feel my own faith has been unfairly attacked from a number of angles. If only the same amount of effort was put into ending the clergy’s presence in the Lords or to remove the anti-Catholic rule for the throne, then perhaps there would not be so much friction.

    Again, I re-iterate that I did not and do misunderstand secularism. Rather, I feel secularists today largely misunderstand their own goals. The strength of secularism is that it challenges upon intellectual grounds, not the demeaning of other beliefs. You only need to look at the US founding fathers to see that.

    I believe the Pope’s visit is a chance for the whole country to understand the value of religious belief in a cynical age.

  2. This was an excellent read. Well done.

  3. Graeme:

    It’s true that many secularists in Britain also oppose religious practices, but the two don’t necessarily come together; you yourself mention religious secularism in the USA. My complaint admittedly is semantic in the main: if anti-Christian campaigners (secularists or no) are the people
    you object to, why tar them with the same brush as secularists? As someone who does like to imagine no religion, I’m happy to make argue with you over its pros and cons – but I’ve had that argument with secularists as well, so I think perhaps you’re in danger of muddying the waters.

    In the case of Nadia Eweida, British Airways uniform regulations had recently been changed to prohibit jewellery. If Christians were allowed an exemption to this simply because their jewellery was important to them, we’d also have to allow any form of accessory that signified an opinion, be it a CND badge or (in your case and mine) a Labour Party pin. When I suggest Christianity should have equal status to other stated opinions – including, yes, the Jedi – you accuse me of rubbishing it, so I can’t help but feel your position privileges your religion.

    (On a personal level as someone with links to the British Humanist Association, I also don’t see how it’s demeaning to state ‘there’s probably no god’. It doesn’t make any derogatory claims about people who disagree, unlike the Bible or most other religious texts. Aren’t those, by the same standard, rather more demeaning?)

  4. Excuse me – to argue with you*.

  5. Those who opposed the visit of the Pope were not “secularists”. They were a mixture of so-called “militant atheists” and people who have legitimate grievances against the Church that militant atheists take advantage of. Secularism is a political arrangement whereby religious authority does not dictate the affairs of the state or is the state like Iran. The fact that there are bishops sitting in the House of Lords does not bother me, in fact I welcome them, perhaps they could give advice to those thieving MPs who took advantage of their expenses account on how to regain their moral uprightness. Most people who support secularism are people with a Faith, actually.

    The Pope is not only the head of the Catholic Church, but also head of state. The likes of Steven Fry may jeer or dismiss the Vatican as not being a state on virtue of him saying so, but the fact of the matter is the Vatican is a state. Therefore it is right and proper that its head of state be received as how heads of state ought to be received. There will always be costs with holding events not just heads of state visits so people should get over it.

    Those who picketed the Pope need to realise that the Catholic Church is not silent or sitting on their hands on issues they protest on. Just because the Catholic Church is intelligent enough not to air their issues to the mass media so that it could be turned into cheap live “stories” i.e. circuses, does not suggest that the Church is engaged in some dubious global conspiracy to silence everyone and not finding ways to self-correct past wrongs and settle grievances. The problem the people who picketed the Pope had was that the Church was not correcting itself and addressing grievances in the way and timetable that they wanted.

  6. ‘Those who opposed the visit of the Pope were not “secularists”’. Untrue: the BHA and NSS both made extremely clear prior to the visit, as did the other members of the Protest the Pope coalition, that their objection was to the state’s monetary involvement. Many of those who joined the march itself had problems with the Church or personally with Joseph Ratzinger, but that wasn’t the stated cause of the event.

    Why should we expect people who entered the House of Lords unelected to have any moral authority over MPs who were voted in? Most candidates whose expenses were worst either lost their seats or resigned beforehand, or else had substantially thinned majorities – a more effective punishment I’d argue than condemnation from unelected parliamentarians. (Not that it has much to do with Christianity’s privileges being unfair.)

    ‘The Pope is not only the head of the Catholic Church, but also [a] head of state.’ Well… no. The Vatican only calls itself a state because it signed the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini in 1929 and had him establish it as a walled enclave within Rome. Even if we accept Mussolini’s laws as valid, the Vatican isn’t a member of the United Nations because it doesn’t fully meet its criteria for statehood: its government doesn’t provide public services (rather, Italy does), it’s financially maintained almost solely by Italian taxes and has no significant foreign trade or economy of its own, and it has no native citizens.

    Even if we *did* recognise the Vatican’s statehood, I think in order to protect religious freedoms as I detail, the rule should be that we fund heads of states’ visits *unless* they’re also heads of religions, rather than the other way around.

    ‘…the Catholic Church is not silent or sitting on [its] hands…’ I direct you to my article, here: http://politicalpromise.co.uk/2010/09/17/the-catholic-church-are-the-greatest-pr-men-in-history/

  7. The numbers correspond to the order of your paragraphs.

    1) I don’t see how my statement you quoted was untrue. If you accept the words and statements from BHA and NSS as they are that is fine. I question its sincerity and credibility. The quote you pulled was my objection of classifying those who picketed and protested as secularists; it was a mixture of people. The protests and picketing I felt was an awkward mixture of people with too wide a spectrum of complaints and grievances lumped together. I think it was badly handled. Militant atheists and they were there, did not care, any opportunity for undermining a religious institution was win win for them.

    The issue of monetary involvement by the UK I believe is the usual cheap shot that so-called militant atheists use to further their agenda of undermining the Church and religion in general. For the non militant atheists concerned of the costs, it’s just part of international relations. The arrival of foreign high profile dignitaries will always have costs and it is diplomatic procedure that the UK as host covers them. Do you charge people when they visit or are invited to your house, use the toilet, walk on the carpet, sit on the sofa, etc etc?

    Please address the Pope properly. You and I are of no relation to the Pope, by addressing the Pope by name(i.e. birth name) so casually in public is, I contend, acts of cynicism and spitefulness. It’s along the lines like President Obama not ‘Yo, Barak’.

    2) I think bishops do have good authority on matters relating to moral uprightness. I think other religious and spiritual figures have that authority too. We will be at a loss to ignore them and remain closed-minded. When I said the bishops were in a good position to advise how those MPs who stole money from tax payers thru the expenses regime could regain their moral uprightness, it was a legitimate and fair suggestion. If you could find more, of the non-religious strand, I will not object.

    No MP involved in the expenses scandal resigned unless Alex your definition of resignation is wait until elections and not seek re-election; to make a quiet and convenient exit.

    3) Your dismissal of the Vatican as being a state is, like Steven Fry, based on personal prejudices. The Vatican is an UN state, but chooses to be an observer. Haiti like many states is reliant on foreign aid to run their public services. There are many states, like Bhutan, lacking in “significant trade”. There will be many examples (i.e. states) that fail to meet the criteria that you set out. I think you are acting prejudicially to disqualify the Vatican because it does not meet 100% all your expectations and criteria. The Vatican has a curious history in its formation as you touched on, but so what, so does Kuwait. Just because a history of a state may look awkward to you does not mean it should be dismissed as not being one. The Vatican is as much a state as Haiti, Bhutan and Kuwait.

    4) I read your article, it is very reactionary and you fail to appreciate the complexity of the Catholic Church. We live in a world where there are many states and non-state actors with unique dispositions and established ways of addressing issues. That is something you need to accept. My quote you pulled out still stands, regardless of your article. There is no evidence or basis to hold that the Vatican or the leading individuals in it are doing absolutely nothing or failing to acknowledge publicly the crisis and the tragedy of it all. It is just the case that they are not doing it the way and speed you want it, and that bothers you.

  8. I just realised that a section of the sentence in 4) belongs in the openning of another response. The thing to be removed is “, it is very reactionary and”. That does not belong there.

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