Secularism, faith, and the public square

The Pope has raised almost as many hackles with his fulminations against “aggressive secularism” as he has with his alleged covering up of the paedophile activities of some of his priests. We have here an almost perfect example of how the same objective reality can be seen totally differently when surveyed from opposite perspectives. The secularists claim that religious faith has a privileged position in the public square that it doesn’t deserve. Christian groups (since by religion secularists almost always mean the Christian religion when they talk about Britain – unless they are thinking about arranged marriages or burkas) on the other hand talk about discrimination against them and the use of the state to enforce the secularist agenda. So how can these diametrically opposed conclusions be drawn from the same data?

I think the answer is simpler than we might imagine. Is is merely a consequence of the direction of travel between two hegemonies. The hegemony of religion (and in the West, exclusively of Christianity for the past 1,700 years or so) was so absolute for so long, that its retreat in the modern world has been precipitate even though it’s taken the best part of 300 years. Now, although the hegemony of science-based secularism is firmly established, it still suffers from the nervousness and anxiety that characterises movements that are not entirely confident of their victory. So secularists are hypersensitive to any flicker of life from the ancien régime. Conversely, the bastions of Christian tradition (and no bastion is more bastion-like than the papacy) look with horror on how quickly their grip on their erstwhile hegemony has been prised from their grasp. So they, in turn, are ever-ready to snarl and snap at the forces that they feel have robbed them of their birth-right.

But, inevitably, neither of these jaundiced positions does justice to reality. And neither of them is based on a proper submission to the evidence. Secularism cannot properly sustain its contention that only secularists can reason, whilst the religious cannot use the idea of revelation to dismiss secularism. We will get nowhere if both sides view the tensions between them as some gigantic game of whist in which their own side has the ace of trumps. Religion’s least valuable gift to society was the idea that, ultimately, their sense of receiving divine revelation is unarguable. Secularism will repeat that mistake if they try to argue that “any grown-up and reasonable person” would reject religious faith, and that those who haven’t are therefore both childish and stupid.

What we need is a public square which is less concerned with domination, and more concerned with adding to the sum of human wisdom. Whatever secularists may claim, faith has brought with it important notions of the absolute worth of human beings, and pointed out the dangers of secularism’s more utilitarian tendencies. Equally, faith has also brought with it terrifying reminders of other kinds of absolutism. If the public square can be a genuine arena for exchange, challenge, and respectful debate, then neither secularism nor faith need fear each other’s contributions. On the other hand, we all share a responsibility for ensuring that the public square does not degenerate into a bear pit. Both Pope Benedict and Richard Dawkins might ask themselves whether they are helping or hindering the discharge of that responsibility.


3 thoughts on “Secularism, faith, and the public square

  1. I’m pretty clear that secularism applies to all religions. In much the same way as the words of the Pope are often taken to indicate the views of all Christians, the words of Dawkins et al are taken to indicate the words of all atheists (and indeed secularists) in both cases this is wrong.

    I’m not sure secularism is on the march, it seems to be going backwards in the US and in the UK my impression is similar. Blair’s ostentatious doing God by “not doing God” and Brown’s “son of the manse” thing gave me the impression that religion is more deeply embedded than under previous governments in my memory and Nick Clegg’s profession of atheism is still considered to be noteworthy.

    • To be clear, my reference to Richard Dawkins and the Pope was to locate them both at an unhelpful position in their respective ideologies, not to suggest they were legitimate spokespeople for all their fellow-travellers as it were.

      Secularism’s dominance, it seems to me, is not so much expressed in things such as politicians’ personal beliefs, but in most people’s lack of interest in matters outside money and materialist possessions. That isn’t to say that they may not hold irrational beliefs of one kind or another. But one of secularism’s misguided equations is that between “faith” and “irrationality”. I’m as opposed as any secularist to nonsense about crystals, or infinitely diluted medicines, or astrology. Except I see all those things as a part of secular society anyway!

  2. I guess the issue here is not making a distinction between secularism and atheism. I see these two things as being quite separate but I suspect secularism very naturally follows atheism. I should be clear here that to me secularism simply means that church and state are completely separate, and that the state is blind to faith or lack thereof. Although religious secularists no doubt can exist there isn’t much sign of them.

    As for atheism, I’ve decided that arguing about evolution/creation or young earth/old earth is pretty pointless, since in the UK they’re relatively minor viewpoints, and all I’m bothered about is that young earth creationism shouldn’t be taught as science.

    I think most people do care about things outside money and material possessions, they care about their families and other people but in the absence of religion there is no clear way to demonstrate this.

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