It used to be fairly straightforward. Religious people reckoned they could appeal to a higher authority when it came to mapping out the contours of moral rectitude. Atheists, agnostics and secularists generally pooh-poohed this appeal to the imaginary friends of faith on the basis that these friends were, well, imaginary and that whilst religious citizens were welcome to their private fantasies, they had no business visiting them on anyone else. The most obvious outcome from this was a broad division between the religious with their restrictive moralities, squaring up to the heathen with their free-thinking, anything goes liberalism. In other words the liberal-authoritarian axis led pretty consistently from the secular to the religious. A more liberal individual could be pretty well assumed also to be a less religious one.
If things were ever really that simple, I suspect that they certainly aren’t any more. In his article in the Guardian criticising the Bishops et al over the Equality Bill, Terry Sanderson is assuming some moral rectitude of his own. It’s not a rectitude that I personally take any issue with – I agree that any exemption on religious grounds from equality legislation should indeed be proportional – but it seems to me that Sanderson’s appeal is no less based on a sense of moral absolute than that of any religious zealot. His article appears to be driven not by any sense of morality, but simply by the legal demands of the EU Commission. But somehow I doubt it. Suppose, in a future dystopia, the EU Commission gets taken over by people who, backed by the conservative religious right that Sanderson seems to think are making ground in the UK, propose legislation preventing citizens from shopping on Sundays. Would Sanderson then support it just because it was the will of the Commission? Probably not. Secularists should be more honest about the sources of their moral compasses, and not pretend that moral compasses are only an issue for the religious. The Secular Society oppose the Bishops on the Equality Bill because they believe the Bishops to be morally wrong, and that discrimination against gay employees, for example, is wrong, not just that it happens to be unlawful. I agree. It is wrong. Ironically, despite Sanderson’s implication that I must be a right-wing nut-case, my sense that discrimination against gay people is wrong comes from my faith. Where does Sanderson’s come from? Not from democratic consensus, I hope, or he’ll be backing the return of the death penalty. Not from Darwinian natural selection, I hope, or the outlook for disabled people will be bleak indeed. Not from legislative diktat, I hope, or he’ll be supporting those countries with laws permitting the killing of homosexuals.
At least the morality of people of faith is transparently based elsewhere (even if the other place is imaginary), but ultimately that of secularists seems to be based only in their personal sense of right and wrong. Not on biology, not on consensus, not on law, but in their personal opinions. If you want to criticise or take issue with my moral sources, I can tell you where to look, and it’s not inside my own head. If you’re going to be authoritarian, perhaps it’s secularism and not religion that gives you the most licence.