Humanism and secularism - draft chpt for comments (4.5k words)

Friday, January 1, 2010
For OUP VSI Humanism book.

What is secularism?

Humanism involves a commitment to secularism. But what is secularism?

The term “secular” is used in at least two different ways. Sometimes it means little more than “not religious”. Often, when people describe a society as becoming “more secular”, they just mean that it is becoming less religious.

However, the term “secular” also has at least one other meaning. When humanists say they want a “secular society”, they are usually advocating a particular political view about how society should be organized, a view about what the relationship should be between the state and religion.

A secular society, thus understood, is not necessarily a society in which there is little or no public manifestation of religious belief. A secular society could be one in which everyone is deeply religious, in which religious points of view are regularly publicly expressed. A secular society is one in which the state itself takes a neutral view on religion. The state does not align itself with any particular religious, or anti-religious, point of view.

A secular society, in the sense we are discussing now, protects certain freedoms. It protects the freedom of individuals to believe, or not believe, to worship, or not worship. A secular society defends the right of individuals to express religious commitments. But it also protects their right to express views critical of religion.

Characterized in this way, secularism and atheism are clearly very different things. An Islamic or Christian theocracy is obviously not secular, because one particular religion dominates the state. But then an atheist state such as Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China cannot be described as secular either. Both these totalitarian regimes suppressed the freedom to worship and express religious views.

So a secular society is religiously neutral. That is not to say it is neutral about everything, of course. It is not neutral on the importance of protecting certain freedoms. But it is founded on principles framed and justified independently of any particular pro- or anti-religious commitment: principles to which we ought to be able to sign up whether we are religious or not.

Understood in this way, a secular society is one in which religious people can feel just as much at home as can atheists. Indeed, many religious people are political secularists. They value the kind of religious freedoms such a secular society guarantees.

Secularism is sometimes characterized by its opponents as the view we should gag religious voices in public sphere – that the state should actively work to prevent any religious opinions being heard. But that would be a caricature of what I, and indeed most people who advocate secularism, mean by the term. The British Humanist Association (BHA), for example, promotes secularism, but it does not advocate preventing people from publicly expressing religious points of view. The kind of secularism advocated by the BHA actually protects the freedom to express such views. It just denies religious voices should be given a privileged position. But then it denies atheist voices should be given a privileged position too.

Although most Westerners now take their freedom publicly to advocate or criticize religious points of view for granted, this freedom was in many cases hard won, and, across much of the Europe, has existed for only a few hundred years. In the West, the secular society is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

It is also worth remembering that many Western states are not that secular. The British state, does of course guarantee the freedom of its citizens to worship or not worship in whatever way they see fit. But it does give one religion - the Church of England - a privileged position. For example, it allocates twenty-six seats in the House of Lords to Bishops - all men, of course – who can then use their power to attempt to block legislation that has popular, democratic support, such as the bill on assisted dying. The British state also uses taxpayer’s money to fund religious schools, and insists that, subject to a few minor exemptions, in every state-funded school in England and Wales each pupil on each school day must take part in an act of collective worship, usually of a broadly Christian character.

One advantage of a secular society

Why have a secular society? One obvious reason is pragmatic. Secular societies developed in large measure because people recognized that there are dangers in allying states with religions. The histories of many modern states have been plagued by violence caused by competing religious groups trying to wrestle control of the state from each other: Catholic vs. Protestant, Sunni vs. Shia, Hindu vs. Muslim, Jew vs. Muslim. The secular state was eventually recognized as a way of reducing that kind of conflict, through all parties agreeing to live under a religiously neutral state that protected all their freedoms equally, giving favour to none. Secular states provide a framework for peaceful co-existence between religions, and have proved highly successful in this respect.

Threats to the secular state

One way in which the secular character of a society can begin to be eroded is if the religious begin to insist their particular religious views are deserving of special, institutionalized forms of privilege or respect. Here are six recent examples of such claims:

• The state should be affiliated to one particular religion.
• The state should not permit plays, publications, etc. that satirize, or might in some way deeply offend those holding, certain religious beliefs.
• Airlines and schools should not have the power to ban flight attendants or school pupils from wearing religious symbols, if the individual’s religion, or conscience, requires it.
• The state should fund religiously-affiliated schools that are permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of religious belief.
• The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else should not apply to, say, adoption agency workers who are Catholic and who are asked to help gay couples adopt.

In some cases, the particular privilege it is supposed religion should receive already exists.

Many people believe these claims are legitimate. Even some non-religious people have sympathy with at least some of them. But can such claims be justified?

A challenge for anti-secularists

Suppose we cross out the word “religious” in each of the above bulletpoints, and replace it with the word “political”. How plausible do you find the resulting claim?

• The state should be explicitly affiliated to one particular political party.
• The state should not permit plays, publications, etc. that satirize, or might in some way deeply offend those holding, certain political beliefs.
• Airlines and schools should not have the power to ban flight attendants or school pupils from wearing political symbols, if the individual’s political party, or conscience, requires it.
• The state should fund political-party-affiliated schools that are permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of political belief.
• The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else should not apply to, say, adoption agency workers belonging to a racist political party who are asked help racially-mixed couples adopt.

Most of us, including most religious people, now reject all five claims, and with good cause. There are obvious reasons why the state should not align itself with one political party, no matter how benign and well-meaning that party might be. And of course we should be permitted to satirize and mock the political beliefs of others, irrespective of the offence caused – that right is a feature of any healthy democracy.

But then the challenge facing those who make the religious versions of such claims, yet reject the political versions, is to explain why these differing attitudes to the two sets of claims is justified. Why, for example, if the state should not fund political schools discriminating on the basis of political belief, should we expect it to fund religious schools discriminating on the basis of political belief?

This challenge can be sharpened by noting that, very often, religious beliefs are political beliefs. Consider, for example religious beliefs concerning the moral status of the actively homosexual, women’s role in society, stem cell research, abortion, jihad, the State of Israel, and our moral and financial responsibilities towards the less fortunate. Such beliefs are all highly political. Indeed, religious organizations are often political active, forming powerful political lobbies. So why should the addition of a religious dimension to a set of political beliefs entail that those beliefs are then deserving of officially sanctioned privileges they would not otherwise enjoy?

Responses to the challenge

How might those who believe the State should be affiliated to a particular religion, fund religious, schools, and so on, respond to this challenge? If they are not to appear guilty of unfounded prejudice, they need to identify some difference between religious and other political beliefs that justifies this difference in treatment. Let’s look at four differences that might be supposed to provide that justification.

One very obvious difference between religious and other political beliefs is that the former typically involve reference to a supernatural agent or agents. However, this difference, by itself, surely fails explain why, say, religious beliefs should not be satirized. After all, some people believe in supernatural beings such as ghosts and fairies. Yet we don’t suppose such beliefs should not be mocked – quite the opposite. Moreover, there are some religions – such as certain versions of Buddhism – that involve no belief in supernatural agents. Should Buddhism therefore fail to qualify for the privileges or protections afforded other religions? That seems absurd.

A second difference that some may suppose justifies the state treating religious beliefs differently is that religious beliefs are often very passionately held. Indeed, people are prepared to die for their religious beliefs. Might this explain why these beliefs ought, then, to be given a special status? On closer examination, this justification also fails. Non-religious political beliefs may be just as passionately held. People are also prepared to die for them. That is true of many communists, for example. So should the state fund communist schools that discriminate against non-communist? Should the state prevent communist beliefs from being satirized or mocked?

A third difference that some suppose justifies the state treating religious beliefs differently is that they often forms part of a person's identity in a way that other beliefs - including even political beliefs - do not. People self-identify as Christian or Muslim or Jews, and often feel a strong kinship with other Christians Muslims Jews and Hindus that often transcends any differences in race, nationality and so on. Admittedly, this is by no mean true of all religions, but it is true of many. Political movements and parties, by contrast, are rarely woven into a person’s sense of who they essentially are to anything like the same extent (though under certain totalitarian regimes they may be).

There is no doubt that someone brought up to attend regular devotional events, who makes regular pilgrimages abroad, whose devotional community transcends national boundaries, whose clothing and/or jewellery reflects their deep commitment, who gives time each day to related reading, whose home is hung with related icons and portraits, and who perhaps even permanently marks their body with signs of their devotion, is someone for whom that commitment has become an integral part of their sense of who they fundamentally are. But does the identity-determining dimension to their commitment justify the state giving that commitment special treatment? Clearly not if they are committed Manchester United supporters, many of whom check all of the above boxes. But then why should a religious commitment be treated any differently?

It is true, of course that, because some religious people are so passionately committed to their faith, to the point where it has become a part of their sense of who they are, criticism or mockery of that faith is likely to be taken at a deeply personal level. As a result, they may become particularly enraged, perhaps even violent.

Those critical of religious belief, ought, then, to be careful about how they frame their criticisms. They ought not to engage in entirely pointless mockery or insult – in baiting the fervently religious just for the sake of it. Given the predictable results, that would clearly be irresponsible.

However, it does not follow that the state itself ought, then, to ban criticism or mockery of religious belief. Criticism – and also irony, parody, sarcasm and lampooning – still has its place. True, satire sometimes amounts to little more than pointless insult, but can also take the form of great art, presenting us with the truth in a particularly arresting and insightful way (think of the satires of Jonathan Swift, for example).

In any case, banning the mockery of beliefs on the grounds that those holding them are likely to become violent as a result actually encourages people to become violent whenever their beliefs are mocked. The moral drawn will be, “Get sufficiently enraged and aggressive, and the state will then prevent people mocking your beliefs too, whatever they happen to be!” All Swiftian satires will have to be outlawed, unless they happen to be targeted at the beliefs of those of us with milder tempers.

A fourth suggestion as to why religious beliefs ought to be given a special status by the State is that the rights and freedoms we enjoy in modern liberal societies grew our of, and were original justified by, reference to a religious framework and values, and that, unless there is continuing, explicit support for that framework and those values, those rights and liberties are increasingly likely to come under threat. Here, for example, is British Philosopher Prof Roger Trigg expressing this worry in his book Religion in Public Life.

As a matter of historical fact, the standards of Western Society have arisen from a Christian background… the urge to respect different beliefs, and value individual freedom, needs to be nurtured publicly, and if religious views initially produced it, there is a question how long it can survive without their explicit support. [p3-4]

Notice Trigg is not claiming that every liberal society requires a religious underpinning to survive. He is making the more modest claim that those liberal societies that originally had a religious foundation are at risk if that foundation is lost. This is a good reason for keeping the religious foundation in place. Trigg asks:

Why is freedom to be respected, and human equality cherished? These questions have a ready answer in a religious context, since God, it will be held, has made us equal, cares for us equally, and has given us free-will so as to make reasoned choices. Once the religious context is subtracted, the mere existence of rights can seem more precarious. [p73]

This is a common criticism of the modern secular society. Here, for example, is Bishop Michael Nazir Ali,

There are certain basic values to identify in British life which come from a Christian vision. For instance, the dignity of all humans beings is clearly drawn from the Biblical idea that humans beings are made in God’s image. Or it might be the question of equality, or it might be liberty, freedom of expression. All these things are under threat… Unless people know what the springs are that feed our values, the whole thing will dry up…. We may already be living on past capital, where we have some sense of values but don’t know why we have them.

Indeed, Trigg argues that, once this religious foundation is lost, there is a real risk that a society will slide into totalitarianism. It is only if there is a recognition by a state that there is something higher than it – something that can provide a check on its excesses – that the natural tendency of states to drift towards totalitarianism is kept under control.

[M]any would want to see more overt recognition by the State of the authority of God, because only this, it seems, may provide a limitation on the powers of human institutions. (p12)

[O]nce a State repudiates any religious foundation for itself, it recognizes no check on its powers beyond those it is prepared to recognize.(p 125).

So Trigg justifies for allying Western States with Christian churches on the grounds that only this provides a necessary brake on the tendency of such states to drift towards totalitarianism. The justification is ingenious. But does it hold water?

I don’t believe so. First of all, it is by no means obvious that Trigg’s recommendation is supported by the historical evidence. Just over one of my lifetimes ago, much of Europe was overrun by a totalitarian state. How did the Christian churches respond to this growing menace? In many places, church leaders welcomed the arrival of the Nazis. True, there was the occasional protest against the increasingly brutal and violent treatment of Jews. For example, in1936, the Catholic Primate of Poland issued a letter opposing violence against Jews. Here’s an extract:

It is a fact that the Jews are fighting against the Catholic Church, persisting in free-thinking, and are the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevism and subversion. It is a fact that the Jewish influence on morality is pernicious and that their publishing houses disseminate pornography. It is a fact that Jews deceive, levy interest, and are pimps. It is a fact that the religious and ethical influence of the Jewish young people on Polish young people is a negative one.{REF}

This letter, written by the most senior Catholic in Poland, was read from the pulpit of every Polish Catholic Church in 1936. Even while opposing violence against Jews, the letter nevertheless illustrates the sort of contempt in which Jews were held by many Catholics across Europe prior to the Holocaust. The Christian churches very much contributed to the perception that the Jews were a “problem”.

The behaviour of the Catholic Church during the rise of Nazi totalitarianism in Europe was in large measure shameful. The Church signed a concordat with Hitler in 1933 protecting Church interests, such as the right to collect Church taxes, and guaranteeing the protection of Catholic organizations and freedom of religious practice and the teaching of the Catholic religion in schools. After the Nazis broke the agreement, the Church subsequently criticised the regime (most notably in the Papal encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge - “With Great Sorrow” - published in 1937). It is true that some Catholics, and perhaps even the Pope, worked to save Jewish lives, However, even after the war, many within the Catholic Church remained supportive of the Nazis. Indeed a team of Catholics working within the Vatican itself arranged for thousands of Nazis to flee Germany, even providing Adolf Eichmann, architect in chief of the Final Solution, with his fake passport and a route to safety in Argentina.

Lest it be thought I am focussing unfairly on the Catholic Church, I should stress that the established German Protestant churches were also guilty of shameful behaviour. They too had a long history of anti-semitism, and signally failed to offer any resistance to the rise of Nazism. While some prominent Protestants, such as Martin Neimoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resisted the Nazis, note that they had to leave the established churches in order to do so.

But perhaps Nazi Germany was an exception? What of other totalitarian states, such as Fascist Italy? How did the Christian churches respond to the rise of totalitarianism there? Catholicism was recognised as the sole religion of state. What of the rise of fascism in Spain? How did the Catholic Church resist? It didn’t. It supported the murderous General Franco in overthrowing a democratically elected Government.

The Christian churches, do not have a good track record of resisting European totalitarianism. They have often been content to do business with, and even officially sanction and support, totalitarian regimes, at least up until the point where those regimes have started to threaten church interests. Of course, there is one exception to this tendency of Christian churches to work hand-in-glove with totalitarian states, and that is the atheistic Communist totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe, which the Catholic Church has always worked vigorously to overthrow.

We should also remember that, just four of my lifetimes ago, the Catholic Church was itself still arranging for the garrotting by the Spanish State of citizens who failed to believe what the Church told them. The Inquisition worked hand-in-hand with the State to stifle individual freedoms, using the State as its executioner. In that instance, the Catholic Church was not so much a brake on the totalitarian tendencies of a state as a root cause of them.

The suggestion that by affiliating themselves with Christian churches is the best protection European states have against sliding into totalitarianism is not, then, particularly well-supported by the historical evidence. If anything, the warning from history is: don’t rely on the churches to protect us from totalitarianism. As often as not, the churches are part of the problem.

Of course it is important we recognise that there are principles higher than the state. Most of us, religious or not, recognise that this is true of moral principles. What the state decrees is morally right or wrong is not necessarily so. A church could be among those offering moral criticism of the state when it begins to slide in a totalitarian direction. Getting into bed with the state might increase the power and authority of a church to act as a curb on excesses of state power, but at the same time it makes it less likely that any such criticism will be offered. Once church and state have entered into an arrangement of mutual support, each then has a vested interest in protecting the power and authority of the other. Surely a church is most likely to offer such criticism when it is genuinely independent of the State, rather than working hand-in-glove with it.

What of Trigg’s suggestion that our modern liberal values have a religious foundation without which they are likely to be eroded? While it is true that our modern political rights and freedoms were originally often justified in religious terms, that is because, back then, every moral and political position tended to be justified in religious terms. As the authors of the British Humanist Association’s pamphlet The Case For Secularism point out,

Christianity has been the dominant culture, so it is unsurprising that it has supplied the vocabulary of both sides in most significant moral and social divisions. Those who worked for the abolition of the slave trade argued their case in terms of Christian values – and so did the slave-traders. Many of those who sought to improve the atrocious working conditions in factories and mines invoked Christian values – and so did the factory owners and mine owners. Some at least of those who campaigned for greater equality of opportunity, for the extension of the franchise, or for the emancipation of women, or an end to racial discrimination, invoked Christian values, and so did those who defended what they saw as a divinely ordained and unchangeable hierarchy of status and inequality. (p4-5)

Even if, as a matter of historical fact, our modern liberal values were originally argued for on religious grounds, moral and political philosophers have developed a whole range of justifications on which we can also draw, including the pragmatic justification outlined earlier. There is no necessity that our rights and freedoms be justified on religious grounds.

Of course, critics of secularism may insist that these other non-religious justifications just don’t work. However, justifications based on the assumption that the Judeo-Christian God exists look even less credible to the majority of political theorists and philosophers (indeed, a recent poll indicates that only 14.6% of professional philosophers believe in a god or gods).

Moreover, in a country such as the U.K. where a significant and growing number of citizens – a third - are not even Christian, the result of giving our core values a specifically Christian justification is that those values are then more, not less, likely to be ignored or rejected by a significant number of citizens. Surely, if we want everyone to sign up to certain core values, such as human rights, wouldn’t it better if a religiously-neutral justification of those rights were offered instead?


Many, though by no mean all, religious people suppose that, when an airline is permitted to instruct staff not to wear religious symbols, or when Catholic staff of adoption agencies are compelled to offer gay couples the same service they offer others, this constitutes a form of unfair discrimination against those with strong religious convictions. The religious are being unfairly victimized. We are not showing their beliefs proper “respect”. But this is not obviously the case. Not if airlines are similarly permitted to ban staff from wearing (other) political symbols. Not if racist staff of adoption agencies are compelled to offer mixed race couples the same service they offer others. Why should airlines treat religious symbols differently to other political symbols? And, if we don’t allow non-religiously motivated bigots to discriminate unfairly against others, why should we treat religiously motivated bigots any differently?

I have anticipated four possible answers to the question “Why should the state accord religious beliefs privileges it does not extend to other beliefs – such as purely political beliefs?’ None of the answers examined has proved adequate. However, many other answers might be given. This brief overview is designed to illustrate the point that, while it may strike many of us as “just obvious” that religious beliefs do deserve such special treatment, some of the more obvious justifications that might be given for privileging religious belief fail. Indeed, I have yet to find any adequate justification for assigning religious beliefs such a privileged status.