This is the text of a speech at an RSA lecture meeting in response to a new booklet from the Humanist Philosophers' Group, The Case for Secularism: A Neutral State in an Open Society.
As the director of a Christian think tank that wants to help re-shape an often cantankerous debate about religion in public life towards something that can be a source of hope rather than conflict, I warmly welcome the British Humanist Association’s thoughtfully constructed ‘case for secularism’.
I read it to be a vibrant argument for what I’d term ‘open secularity’. Not a polity based on anti-religious premises, but one which seeks forms of governance and public institutions which are open to all, irrespective of belief, and which do not favour any one group of adherents.
There is a common human interest in an open society, in spite of all that divides us. As Martin Luther King – a figure owned both by believers and non-believers – once starkly reminded us: we will either learn to live together or we will have to face the threat of dying together. It is as serious as that.
An open society requires representative and participatory forms of governance that can be held accountable to standards of fairness and justice. ‘A neutral state’, the term used on the cover of this pamphlet, might be a summary of that. But we should not be held back by the difficulty any of us have in truly claiming ‘neutrality’ (a problem the authors acknowledge). And the notion of the state is, of course, by no means unproblematic in a complex and globalising world.
What we can agree on, I hope, is that we are not where we need to be in Britain. Ekklesia, in cooperation with those of other convictions (both religious and non-religious) has made a strong theological case within the churches against an Established faith, unelected bishops in an unelected House of Lords, selection by faith in public schooling, and special tax breaks or exemptions from equalities for religious organisations involved in service provision.
Our argument, coming from a dissenting tradition, is that such privileges harm and distort the egalitarian core of Christianity, a message that has to a large extent been marginalised by 1700 years of Christendom – various forms of the alliance of religion and governance which serve to prop up status quos of different kinds, but which do few favours for ordinary people, especially those pushed to the margins.
Indeed, Jesus, who is called the founder of Christianity (though whether he intended that is an interesting debate in scholarly circles) was himself killed by an alliance of a certain kind of religious authority and the state, so you would have thought that Christians, of all people, have good reason to be wary of cosy alignments between the two.
A key issue in all this is the boundary between ‘public’ and ‘private’, which is part of the survey of this valuable pamphlet. It is the development of civil society which I believe can move this discussion on from unfeasible attempts to pigeonhole people or activities in one place or the other. Put very briefly, religious believers are involved in public forms of life and speak in ways that are both distinct from, but also overlap with, non-religious forms of speech. All this can (and should) be acknowledged and welcomed.
As The Case for Secularism says, there is common ground to be found in working for peace and justice, the struggle against poverty, oppression and discrimination, the case for environmental protection, and so on.
“All that a secular society requires”, it declares, “is that [religious persons] be willing to work alongside others who do not share their faith, and that their own religion should be given no special privileges and special status.”
That is also the argument, I would say, of many thousands of people of faith, who exist not in monolithic entities called ‘religions’, but as part of traditions which are, in fact, extended arguments, in much the same way that non-religious traditions of thought and action are.
In Ekklesia, our job is to persuade the fearful in the churches and elsewhere that letting go of privilege is not a threat, but an opportunity to discover a better way of living authentically (that is, for us, Christianly) alongside others. For that we need a better public conversation too, and I am grateful to the British Humanist Association’s philosopher’s group for contributing to that growing possibility.
Oh, and by the way – can we hear voices like this on Thought for the Day please, BBC?
The speakers at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce event were David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy of Science, Kings College London, Simon Barrow, Co-Director of Ekklesia and Indarjit Singh, Director of the Network of Sikh organisations. The chair was Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and broadcaster.
The Case for Secularism can be ordered from the BHA by telephone on 020 7079 3580 at a cost of £5 inc UK postage.