Secularism

Why Secularism?

I’ve been talking about my preference for Secularism over Theocracy over at Pickled Politics.

Shelina at Spirit21 says:

David T, you’re not going to like this question, but we need to have it discussed. You say:

But here’s the point. Secularism is good. Islamism is bad.

Who decided that?

Here’s my off-the-cuff answer. I’m sure you can do better.

In the West, the people decided that. Much of the history of European society, since the Enlightenment, has been a move towards democracy, equality and respect for fundamental human rights; against autocracy, hierarchy, and religious power.

This is not to say that religion has no place in the lives of people in a secular society. It does. In fact, faith prospers in secular societies. Secularism is not about opposing religion. It is about rejecting the temporal authority of a particular religion over those who not subscribe to that religion.

It is possible that you’ve mistaken “secularism” for “athiesm”. If so, we’re not necessarily in disagreement.

There are a number of problems with non-secular systems of government, but the top three are as follows.

First, God has not given us a rulebook for running a society. Certainly, theocrats think that God has: but the incompetence, corruption and misery that characterises the regimes which they run suggest that they’re wrong about this. Moreover, a politics which uses religious texts as the starting point and touchstone when trying to solve contemporary problems suffers from terrible sclerosis and lack of flexibility.

Secondly, theocratic societies tend to intrude unreasonably into the private lives of citizens. Much as some people like the certainty and security of living in an authoritarian regime, most people tend to cherish their autonomy.

Thirdly, people are schizmatic. Even people who favour theocracy tend to disagree with each other about what God wants them to do: and are likely to object to the enactment by other groups of theocrats of their understanding of God’s will. You’ll have this problem in even a predominantly monocultural society: but in a multicultural and pluralist society, the problem presented by theocracy is huge.

That said, I don’t object to theocrats participating in pluralist democracies. They should do so. It is educative for them to do so, and encourages compromise. The less flexible they are, the more likely they are to fail, lose popularity and ultimately power. Theocrats sometimes engage with democracy in the hope that they’ll achieve their goals gradually. That does worry me: but at least it is being done in the open and can be challenged and organised against.

Some people mistake secularism for opposition to religion. Partly, that mistake is the fault of some secularists who are hostile to religion generally, as part of their reaction against religious authority. However, religious people should be in favour of secularism.

The discussion – from Shelina’s point of view – comes out of her reaction to the Government’s boycott of the Hamas/MB organised IslamExpo, which she thinks was an opportunity to “engage with forty thousand Muslims who want to create and settle into a comfortable peaceful British Islam”. She’s also unimpressed by what she takes to be Blears’ line – although I think she misunderstands it – that Muslims ‘should not be political’.

Secularism doesn’t mean that religious people should not be involved in politics, or that religious philosophical or ethical beliefs should not inform such a person’s political activity. That would be foolish, unworkable, and counterproductive.

However a religious person who was a secularist, would not want to see their religious beliefs enacted, and in particular would object to them being enforced, coercively.

The big problem, however, is that people mistake secularism for opposition to religion. Partly, that mistake is the fault of some secularists who are hostile to religion generally, as part of their reaction against religious authority. However, religious people should be in favour of secularism.

The discussion – from Shelina’s point of view – comes out of her reaction to the Government’s boycott of the Hamas/MB organised IslamExpo. She’s also unimpressed by what she takes to be Blears’ line – although I think she misunderstands it – that Muslims ‘should not be political’.

Secularism doesn’t mean that religious people should not be involved in politics, or that religious philosophical or ethical beliefs should not inform such a person’s political activity. That would be foolish, unworkable, and counterproductive.

However a religious person who was a secularist, would not want to see their religious beliefs enacted, and in particular would object to them being enforced, coercively.

What do you think?

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