Ed Miliband happens to be an atheist. If he became Prime Minister I wouldn’t want him to assert the moral or intellectual superiority of atheism, even though I’m an atheist myself. I see myself as a secularist, but fully agree with Norman Geras that secularism should not equate to intolerance or suppression of religion.
But secularists intolerant of religion are not in fact secularists, or they are secularists only in name. For it is central to the very concept of secularism that people are all free to pursue their chosen and different faiths, or else no faith at all if this is their preference, within the broader understanding that religion – whether a particular religion or religion in general – has no privileged place in political and civil life. The state is held to be neutral with respect to religious and irreligious belief; and all metaphysical commitments of that ilk are equally to be tolerated, subject to the usual constraint that religious practices harmful to others may be prohibited by law.
Although David Cameron tried to soothe the feelings of those of other faiths, and even of atheists, I found his comments extremely unwelcome. He said:
Those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgment on the behaviour of others, fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality, or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code.
Yes, secularism can be characterised as a neutral position – but that doesn’t mean that secularists are morally neutral. Being an atheist, or a secularist, has no impact on one’s ability or willingness to pass judgement on others.
He also says:
Faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality.
There are Christians who don’t live by a moral code.
And there are atheists and agnostics who do.
But for people who do have a faith, their faith can be a helpful prod in the right direction.
His final assertion is, I am sure, true for some. And faith has also inspired wonderful literature, music, painting and architecture. But it is also the case that for some people their faith seems to give them a most unhelpful prod in completely the wrong direction. Cameron invokes the Bible as a kind of manifesto for women’s emancipation, democracy and the abolition of slavery – but it has been used to promote precisely the opposite positions too.