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Militant secularism (1)

May 2012 | by Kieran Beville

Militant secularism (1)

The UK Conservative Party co-chairwoman Baroness Warsi (the first female Muslim cabinet minister in parliament) has expressed the view that Britain is under threat from a rising tide of ‘militant secularisation’.

She warned that religion is being ‘sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere’.
    These sentiments were voiced in a speech at the Vatican on 13 February. They represent a growing fear amongst people of faith, that their religious views are being intentionally attacked. The speech was picked up by Channel 4 News and BBC Newsnight on 15 February.
    Sayeeda Warsi was on a two-day delegation of seven British ministers to the Holy See. This was the first time a serving minister of a foreign government gave an address to the staff and students of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. The visit marked the 30th anniversary of the re-establishment of full diplomatic ties between Britain and the Vatican.

Backlash

Unsurprisingly the British Humanist Association (BHA) described Warsi’s comments as ‘outdated, unwarranted and divisive’. BHA chief executive Andrew Copson said, ‘In an increasingly non-religious and, at the same time, diverse society, we need policies that will emphasise what we have in common as citizens, rather than what divides us’.
    Richard Dawkins was invited into the Newsnight discussion where he made a distinction between secularism and atheism. Dawkins suggested that many religious people favour the separation of church and state and that the founding fathers of America, who were fleeing religious persecution in England, enshrined this principle.
    What does all this mean? One thing is crystal clear — God, religion, secular humanism and atheism are newsworthy topics!
    Ironically, the Muslim peer Warsi said Europe needed to become ‘more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity’. She also said, ‘To create a more just society, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their creeds’, and, ‘In practice, this means individuals not diluting their faiths and nations not denying their religious heritages’.
    But what if the UK’s establishment religion is a diluted and distorted version of Christianity that is liberal, pluralist and essentially nominal? What if a state is Muslim and enshrines the moral code of Islam in Shari’a law? Or what if the dominant religion is Roman Catholicism or Hinduism?
Peculiar allies

A Muslim standing shoulder to shoulder with the pope on this issue is typical of pluralism in contemporary culture. Warsi sees religion per se as a good thing. It does not seem to matter to her which religion, since she sees religion as a positive influence on society and that, in her view, is preferable to secularism. That is why she can adopt a position of co-belligerency with such peculiar allies as Pope Benedict XVI.
    Warsi went on to say, ‘You cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations, any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes’.
    That was an unfortunate allusion, for, in the Republic of Ireland (for example), the spires of Roman Catholic churches are symbolic of a domineering and often abusive power in the social landscape — and the dismantling of that institution would be welcomed by many.
    However, Warsi is correct in her assessment that ‘militant secularisation’ is taking hold of society. She cites various examples, saying, ‘Signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings … states won’t fund faith schools’.
    Her comments came days after the High Court ruled that a Devon town council had acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said at their meetings. There are a growing number of such issues being reported.
    This is not the first time a senior Tory called for a revival of traditional Christian values. In December 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK was a Christian country and ‘should not be afraid to say so’.
    But new research conducted by Ipsos MORI in 2011 for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) suggests that Britons who declare themselves Christian display a low level of belief and practice. Their research was based on 1136 responses to a face-to-face survey, conducted among those who recorded themselves as ‘Christian’ in the 2011 census.
    
Nominalism

Even if one is sceptical about agenda-driven and partisan ‘research’ (and particularly wary about how such statistics are used to further the aims of secular humanists), it does nevertheless give us insights into religious and social attitudes among the UK’s ‘Christians’ in 2011.
    The findings suggest that almost three-quarters of those polled agreed that religion should not influence public policy. It also found that 61 per cent agreed homosexuals should have the same legal rights in all aspects of their lives as heterosexuals. And a further 62 per cent were in favour of a woman’s right to have an abortion within the legal time limit.
    There is nothing surprising here for evangelical Christians, who are all too aware that many people who call themselves Christian are in reality nominal adherents of mainstream denominations.
    Nevertheless, Warsi is certainly correct in her assessment of militant secularism, that ‘at its core and in its instincts, it is deeply intolerant’.
    The media, who are fuelling the polemical fire, neglected to report that Warsi said, ‘Secularism is not intrinsically damaging. My concern is when secularisation is pushed to an extreme, when it requires the complete removal of faith from the public sphere. So I am calling for a more open confidence in faith, where faith has a place at the table, though not an exclusive position’.
    
Ugly attitudes

The discussion is getting overheated and the masks of civility are beginning to slip from the faces of secularists (who like to present themselves as tolerant and liberal), exposing their contempt, in all its ugliness. The strident tone of secularism is undermining its own ability to market its ideas to all of society.
    There is a huge religious constituency in Western society — far outnumbering the cohort of secularists, humanists, freethinkers, agnostics and atheists — and the way secularism is being promulgated in anti-religious terms reinforces the notion that this is a movement seeking to disenfranchise people of faith.
    Yet is it possible for believers to subscribe to the aims and objectives of secularism without compromising spiritual integrity? Certainly, the motives and methods of many secularists seem reactionary, radical and subversive; and as such are unattractive.
    But secularism as originally conceived — to protect religion from government interference and government from religious interference — is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet it has today mutated into an anti-faith movement, with its agenda controlled by aggressive atheists.
    
Religious movements

Those who would like to write the obituary of religion might have to wait a while longer. The supposed demise of religion is wishful thinking on the part of those who want to usher in a new era of secular humanism.
    The God debate is gaining momentum and anyone who wants to understand contemporary culture must first understand the role religion plays in it. There is certainly a process of secularisation underway and it would be foolish to deny this. But it is a myth to think that society is now predominantly secular, or that a large minority of the public are secularised. Those who enthusiastically proclaim that the twenty-first century is the dawn of a new era of secularism are not just premature, but delusional.
    The revival of religion evident in the rise of Christianity in Africa, Latin America and Asia (as well as the rapid expansion of Islam and the growth in minority religions and cults) is in itself the obituary for the idea of global secularisation.
    Nevertheless some societies are growing more secular and this is true of Britain. But secular humanists have a disproportionately strident voice in relation to their membership, and this creates the illusion that they are a critical mass that will soon tip the balance in favour of secularisation.
    
Myth

The idea of global secularisation as an inexorable outcome of progress is a myth that needs to be debunked, because in reality there is a noticeable resurgence in religion in the twenty-first century and those who think religion is an endangered species are mistaken.
    Over the last few decades, Europe underwent a simultaneous process of political fragmentation and unification. Many of the former Soviet Union’s eastern bloc countries asserted independence in the new post-Soviet environment and many of these countries underwent further fragmentation into independent states, which subsequently joined the EU and new strategic alliances.
    This kind of realignment is similar to what is happening in many parts of the world today with religion. There is a process of secularisation underway, but there is also emphatically a resurgence of religion.
    So, how exactly is secularism to be defined? Is society becoming increasingly secular? And is secularism inherently atheistic? These questions will be addressed in next month’s ET.
To be concluded

Kieran Beville