It's been a busy week in the UK for the issue of Secularism. On 10th Feb 2012, the high court ruled in favour of NSS (National Secular Society) over the topic of communal prayer during council meetings. Communal prayer was ruled to be unlawful.
This has sparked a colossal level of debate and misinformation pertaining to the principles of secularism.
There appears to be an alarming misunderstanding of what Secularism actually means for both the non-believer and the faithful. This misunderstanding is increasingly exacerbated by comments made by high level members of UK government.
Just today Baroness Warsi, the Conservative co-chairwoman wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph that "Militant Secularisation is a threat to religion".
Secularism in a nutshell is separation of Church and state. This idea aims to ensure religion can not interfere with matters of public services, politics and education, but also serves to protect your right to any belief, without fear of government interference and maintains your right to avoid the beliefs of others being imposed upon you. It is committed to making sure you have the same rights, regardless of your religious or political beliefs, or lack of them.
This appears, especially in the 21st century, the only reasonable way to accommodate all faiths in an ever increasing multicultural Britain. The fairest way to ensure the government does not promote any one religion more prominently, is to simply not promote any religion at all. This level of neutrality would ensure beliefs are not imposed on people, whilst protecting your freedom to belief and worship of whichever deity you think is the one true god. See godchecker.com if you haven’t made up your mind yet.
My main objection is the irritating habit of phrases such as “Militant Secularisation" or “militant atheism”. It has become somewhat of an over defensive trend to afford any criticism of public religious practise, however mild and reasonable, the adjective “Militant”. This is a complete misunderstanding of both the word “Militant” and “Secularism”.
Secularism is a call for neutrality and fairness. This strikes me as reasonable.
I will highlight the two main forms of objection taken to the court ruling in favour of the NSS over the communal prayer row:
"If they don't want to pray, no-one is forcing them, can't they just sit quietly, or leave?"
The communal prayer was placed in an official capacity on the Agenda for a meeting, making it cross the line between personal time, which can be spent however you wish, and official time allocated to business. Asking anyone to observe a religious practise in the workplace is unreasonable. No-one is suggesting anyone who wants to pray, cannot. Secularism protects your right to do so; it asks however that you do it in your own time, without requiring others to participate/observe.
"Isn't this just imposing atheist views in the workplace/society, over Christian ones"?
Absolutely not. Secularism is not a call for state atheism. Secularist are not suggesting communal prayer be replaced with a discussion acknowledging the unlikeness of a creator, with select readings from the works of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. This would be unreasonable. It's merely an assertion that personal beliefs should remain just that, and not seen to be mandated as obligatory in the working environment as was in this instance. If anything, it is a compromise between the atheist position and the faithful, with an emphasis on tolerance.
This is increasingly strange as a recent poll conducted shows a majority of Christians have secular attitudes already, without possibly knowing that outlook can be categorised as secular.
To refer to secularism as militant is hugely irresponsible, and is as nonsensical as “Militant Fairness" or "Militant Neutrality".
Framing secularism in this light does nothing to further the desire and discussion to reach a fair compromise between belief and non-belief, but serves to create an “us” and “them” mentality, misrepresenting the core values and reducing the chances of finding a fair and tolerant common ground.
It is with no small sense of irony that some of the faithful among us have failed to realise that the secular principles which they resist so vehemently are also the only way protect their beliefs in a modern progressive society. Secularism aims to remain fair and neutral to all beliefs, or lack thereof.
To reject the reasonable values of secularism is to assert and impose the indisputable importance of your own beliefs above all others and to claim special privilege for them. This is something that should be resisted and fought at every opportunity in the name of fairness and free speech.