Saturday, 24 March 2012

When Did ‘Secularism’ Become a Dirty Word?

Cardinal Keith O'Brien is an outspoken critic of what he calls 'aggressive secularism'. But why is this?
So to put it very mildly, secularism has been taking quite a few hits since the start of this year.
Baroness Warsi, Minister without Portfolio kicked things off on February 14th during her visit to the Vatican, stating that “we have got to the stage where aggressive secularism is being imposed by stealth... denying people the right to a religious identity and failing to understand the relationship between religious loyalty and loyalty to the state”[1]. Since then several religious officials have jumped on the bandwagon as well; Reverend Dr Peter Mullen had a wee pop at the concept as well on March 21st, writing on his blog with The Telegraph that “aggressive secularism will be the death of us”[2] before going on to state that all charity comes from Christianity (we can discuss the ridiculousness of this statement another time). More Church of England schools are being opened all across the country, apparently in an attempt to combat “aggressive secularism”[3]. These attacks are not even limited to this year; Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leading figure of Catholicism in Scotland, took the time in his Easter Address for 2011 to attack… can you guess? You got it; “aggressive secularism”[4].
This really does beg two questions, I would say; what the hell is ‘aggressive secularism’, and why the hell do these religious and government figures hate it so? I mean, the way these supposedly educated men and women attack it must be something pretty awful, right?
If we first look at the term ‘secularism’, we can easily find it’s definition; coined first by the British writer George Holyoake (slightly ironic surname, that), secularism at its most basic level is the separation of Church from State and the view that all people of different religions are equal before the law. There is certainly still a lot more to it than that; as with all concepts and ideologies there is always going to be variations and differences between adherents. But as a basic concept, secularism really doesn’t sound that bad, does it? It is about equality, keeping things fair for people of all faiths and none. As the National Secular Society of the UK puts it, “secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike”[5].
Secularism is not something that only atheists and non-believers can adhere to. Yes, a lot of atheists and agnostics are also secularists. Yet there are plenty of religious secularists as well. After all, it is a solid ideal to support; religious freedom and equality for all, the state not having any favourites and the prevention of one particular religious group interfering with the lives of a multi-cultural nation. I’ll quote from those lovely folks at the NSS again; “secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society - in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike”[6].
So what then is this ‘aggressive secularism’ Baroness Warsi, Peter Mullen and Keith O’Brien all want to save Britain from?
To understand this, we must first understand the motivations these three individuals have for wanting to stir up an attack on ‘aggressive secularism’. In the UK we do not have a separation of Church from State, as the Queen is both our Head of State and the Head of the Anglican Church (one of the two state-recognised religions in Britain, the other being the Presbyterian Church of Scotland). For centuries Christianity has reaped the benefits of this system, enjoying the privilege of being at the top of the heap that is the multitude of religions in this country. Don’t believe me? Just look at the attention some of these head-cases get when they throw the rattle out the cradle, as Keith O’Brien did on March 3rd in an article for the Sunday Telegraph.
Seriously, take a bloody look. Homophobic priest rattles off argument against gay marriage than has more holes in it than Sonny Corleone did at the end of The Godfather. Suddenly everyone from fellow religious figures to government officials are issuing statements back at him. Just look at all the attention he garners, look at how his hateful views are legitimised simply because he prances about in a dress and wears a stupid hat. His writings are being published in a national newspaper, for fuck’s sake. This man should be ignored like all the other Bible-bashing nutters, yet because of the position that Christians enjoy in this country this man somehow is given authority on these issues.
Secularism is an attack on this authority. It says that the Church and the State should be separate and that no one religion should enjoy such blatant favouritism.
And suddenly something clicks.
Now you can see why Keith O’Brien and Peter Mullen are so concerned with secularism. It’s a challenge to the position that their two Churches have unfairly enjoyed in this country for so long. It’s why they bandy about phrases such as ‘aggressive secularism’. Because let us cut to the case here; ‘aggressive secularism’ doesn’t mean anything. It’s a buzz-phrase. A slander. A spin. An ‘aggressive secularist’, by the definition that O’Brien, Mullen and other critics give, basically just means anyone willing to stand up and advocate secularism on a public platform. Thus the phrase ‘aggressive secularism’ is nothing more than an ad hominem attack on secularists, to be dismissed like any other logical fallacy. I mean, of course these people are going to see it as ‘aggressive’; they like their seat near the top of the tower and they really do not want to give it up.
So I think it would be great if our dearly beloved religious officials could stop banging on about ‘aggressive secularism’ and screaming what is essentially “HELP! HELP! I’M BEING REPRESSED!” whilst enjoying an unfair position of authority in the UK. And it would be great if politicians such as Baroness Warsi could stop fanning the flames and adding legitimacy to what is, overall, a ridiculous debate.

[6] As above