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Faith and community
3 July 2012

Secularism versus democracy

Can you guess which publication the following came from?

  • "It compromises democracy, it promotes and rewards hypocrisy and doublethink, it reflects a crippling failure of imagination on the part of its proponents and it’s founded on principles that are cynical, unempathetic and deeply un-humanist. It’s called secularism, and I think it stinks." 

Was it, perhaps, the Catholic Herald, the Baptist Times or even the Al-Qa’eda Gazette? Nope, none of those. It was an opinion piece by Richard Smyth for the New Humanist, an organ of the Rationalist Association.

So, why would an outspoken atheist be so opposed to secularism? It’s not because he’s one of those high church unbelievers with a penchant for the Common Book of Prayer, rather it's because he’s a democrat:

  • "The basic premise of secularism is that religion should be kept out of politics… My premise is that people who get things wrong should be kept out of politics. 
  • "How is that to be done? Why, by not voting for them, of course. Not by erecting self-serving and undemocratic Chinese walls between ‘church’ and ‘state’, ‘religion’ and ‘politics’." 

This is a really important point. Like it or not, we live in a plural society – in which different groups and individuals hold different, often conflicting, values. Not so long ago, the response of the liberal left to this state of affairs was to make us celebrate diversity for its own sake. But in more recent years (and especially since 9/11) we’ve seen a different, more intolerant attitude. Instead of allowing culture clashes to be settled at the ballot box (or through other public choice mechanisms ) aggressive secularists would like to exclude certain worldviews from the public square altogether – the democratic equivalent of pre-match fixing.

It’s an attitude that tries to put certain beliefs under a kind of ideological house arrest, saying, for example, that it’s OK to be privately opposed to abortion, but that you shouldn’t try to change the law. Smyth points out that’s there nothing liberal about such an approach:

  • "…it’s an argument that crumbles as soon as you spin it around and take a look at it from the other side. If I believe that human life is sacred, then an abortion is essentially a murder. A woman has no more right to terminate her foetus than a mother has a right to strangle her three-year-old son. And a person who believes this has a moral obligation to prevent it wherever possible." 

In the end, there is no neutral worldview: Removing the religious elements of the British constitution is as ideologically charged as leaving them in. A politician who says nothing about his beliefs is making as big a statement as one who speaks of nothing else. A school syllabus that makes no mention of faith is as freighted with significance as one that does.

In every case, a choice must be made, so let’s make it freely. Richard Smyth puts it this way:

  • "If I were to be the only atheist in a country otherwise full of Christians, I would want and expect the government to be run on Christian principles. I wouldn’t like it, of course – but that’s democracy." 

Indeed it is, thank God.


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