Christians and ‘aggressive secularism’

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
20 Oct 2010

A mountain of publicity followed the remarks made by Pope Benedict during his September 2010 trip to Britain, when he suggested that we had become prey to “aggressive forms of secularism”. As on many issues to do with the papal visit, opinion immediately divided on this, both within and beyond Christian circles.

So where does the truth lie? How do we negotiate the tensions between belief and non-belief in a country which has become ever more diverse in recent years?

There are many socially conservative Christians today who feel that their faith is given a hard time in public life, and who (perhaps even more tellingly) fear the loss of status and influence of historic religion within the institutions of state and the corridors of power. They found considerable resonance in the Pope’s words.

Some vocal campaign groups even speak of discrimination or persecution against UK Christians, usually referring to equalities legislation requiring non-discrimination in the provision of goods and services, and to a number of small but high-profile court cases involving religious symbols and employment issues – the great majority of which have not supported the grievances they are meant to exemplify.

On the other hand, there are many people who feel that given the low proportion of active Christian adherents in Britain (clearly distinguishable from the majority who claim a cultural association with the faith but do not practice it), institutional Christianity claims far too much respect, power and authority from the real majority who live their lives without it.

They point towards the anomalies of an established Church, unelected bishops in the Lords, financial and tax benefits, opt-outs from equality legislation, legal permission for taxpayer-funded church schools to select on the basis of religion, and the contracting out of welfare services to faith groups without adequate protection for service users, as examples of unwarranted and unjust privilege.

Often disputes of this kind are presented in the media as a clash between two huge and undifferentiated blocks of opinion wantonly labelled ‘secularism’ and ‘religion’. In fact, stances vary enormously within and between those camps. Religion comes in all shapes and sizes, and so does secular philosophy – from those who seek a ‘level playing field’ for all, irrespective of belief, to those take a more ‘eliminative’ approach.

Both religious and anti-religious ideologues have been quick to pick up on, and exploit, this supposed divide. But that does little to help us sort out the confusions we are having to live with in a country which has a strong Christian cultural and social inheritance, but which can no longer claim to be ‘Christian’ in a majority sense – if it ever could (or should have).

For me the key issue here is theological. Being followers of Christ is not and never can be about national or tribal identity or allegiance. Rather, it means a way of life that consciously transcends such limits by seeking the peace, joy, justice and hope of a divine kingdom beyond boundaries; one which, as theologian Walter Wink once put it, is best characterised as “a domination-free order”.

As Stanley Hauerwas said recently: “Most of Christianity in recent times – since Constantine, in fact – thought it needed to rule. I represent what I like to call the non-Constantinian, ‘peasant’ view of Christianity. I just want to know who's ruling me and how I can survive them!”

From this perspective, the problem is not so much ‘aggressive secularism’ (though there can be plenty of aggression in the way people of all beliefs and none put across their views!) as an unquestioning acceptance on all sides that belief is something that must inevitably either be imposed on others or else locked away in a purely ‘private’ sphere.

This is a very dangerous dichotomy upon which to base our public conversations about religiosity and secularity, because it seriously misrepresents what it at stake, and creates a false ‘choice’ between two oppressive settlements. We need a genuine alternative. Life-stances based on both belief and non-belief will inevitably shape participation in the public realm, but their place and opportunity in organisational form should be within civil society, not vying for governance over others on a restricted, ideological basis.

Putting it personally: my faith is not and cannot be private. But nor do I wish to use the force of law to impose it. I actively oppose state religion, special privileges for Christians, discriminatory faith schooling, and religious opt-outs from equal treatment of others – not because I am a ‘secularist’ in some narrow sense, but because such things go against foundational Christian beliefs. Christ came not to impose a separate sphere called ‘religion’, but to call us to radical, voluntary transformation – personally and socially. And the basis of that transformation is communion (mutual indwelling), not separation or dominion.

As a non-conformist, biblical Christian, my conviction is that the message of the Gospel is spread by good example (martyria, witness) never by compulsion. Public testimony is about peacemaking, forgiveness, faithfulness, unconditional care for others, sharing our resources and living 'holy lives' – that is, lives dedicated to nurturing good wherever it is found and opposing the degradation of God-given life.

Some years ago, while on study leave in the US, I heard a Mennonite pastor talk about being caught between two vociferous lobby groups. One was trying to erect large tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments outside public buildings. The other was trying to have them removed as a violation of the separation of church and state. One lot cried ‘aggressive secularism’, the other ‘aggressive religion’.

“Either trying to impose those commandments or simply seeking to remove them misses the point entirely from our viewpoint,” said the young Anabaptist. (I am paraphrasing.) “The question for Christians is, ‘how shall we live towards our neighbours and before God?’ You do not honour those texts by forcing them on others. You make sense of them for people through the practical example of being a community that has chosen not to kill, not to steal, not to cheat, not to dishonour others. Then we might be able to find ways of handling our differences better.”

She’s absolutely right. Christians need to be more hopeful, not more defensive or aggrieved. Getting worked up about ‘aggressive secularism’ only adds to the sum total of aggression. It does not produce room for difference within the saeculum, and above all it does not generate “room to be people” (Jose Miguez Bonino) in a Christian and human sense.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. An abbreviated version of this article appeared recently in The Baptist Times.

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