Reflecting on 'A Manifesto for Secularism'

By Savi Hensman
October 15, 2014

A Manifesto for Secularism was recently launched at a conference in London. While the aim, to counter the religious right, is positive, I have reservations about some aspects.

A serious threat is indeed posed by groups and movements which use religion as a cover for hostility to democracy and human rights, including for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The Manifesto rightly seeks to put the problem in its historical context.

It begins, “Our era is marked by the rise of the religious-Right – not because of a ‘religious revival’ but rather due to the rise of far-Right political movements and states using religion for political supremacy. This rise is a direct consequence of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism and the social policies of communalism and cultural relativism."

It then states, “Universalism, secularism and citizenship rights have been abandoned and segregation of societies and ‘communities’ based on ethnicity, religion and culture have become the norm.”

Some caution is needed here. Members of a majority whose own culture is treated as a ‘universal’ norm often fail to understand why their minority neighbours may band together to maintain a sense of their identity and combat discrimination.

Such bonding can be healthy as long as so-called ‘community leaders’ do not exert undue power and members connect with a wider range of people, sometimes through other culture-related communities such as parent-and-toddler groups.

Simply to counter loneliness and fragmentation, cultural communities can play a useful part if their ethos is positive. For example football clubs are not always hotbeds of fighting and name-calling: they also help people to make friends, have fun, support local charities and so forth.

The Manifesto goes on to list some of the religious right – “Islamic State (formerly ISIS), the Saudi regime, Hindutva (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) in India, the Christian-Right in the US and Europe, Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka, Haredim in Israel” and others. It points out that “people in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and the Diaspora have been the first victims but also on the frontlines of resistance.”

There are five demands:
1. Complete separation of religion from the state. Secularism is a fundamental right.
2. Separation of religion from public policy, including the educational system, health care and scientific research.
3. Abolition of religious laws in the family, civil and criminal codes. An end to discrimination against and persecution of LGBT, religious minorities, women, freethinkers, ex-Muslims and others.
4. Freedom of religion and atheism and freedom to criticise religions. Belief as a private affair.
5. Equality between women and men and citizenship rights for all.

While I fully agree that no group should be privileged or disadvantaged on grounds of their faith, or lack of it, and civil society should uphold equality for all, some of the demands are ambiguous and potentially contradictory.

If religious freedom is protected, for instance, how can members of faith groups or indeed humanists be prevented from bringing their beliefs to bear on matters of public policy? And what does it mean to ensure that belief is purely “a private affair”?

For instance, does this imply that employers should refuse to take any account of staff members' wish to observe religious holidays such as Christmas or Eid, even if this causes no real problems in maintaining essential services to the public? If so, this seems unnecessarily oppressive.

In addition, if freedom of expression is important, how can faith-based groups or institutions be prevented from lobbying against laws they regard as destructive, based on their vision of society, even if the wider public or state ultimately overrules their views?

To take two US examples, I cannot see how – without trampling basic rights – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference could have been prevented from campaigning against racial segregation or, more recently, the United Church of Christ going to court in North Carolina to overturn the ban on marriage of same-sex couples.

What is more, to counter the appeal of the religious right, progressive people of faith can play an important part in showing the falsity of oppressive organisations’ claims to embody positive spiritual values.

There is also a need to counter quasi-religious reverence for nation-states or market forces where these trample on human rights. Here, too, for some people faith-based beliefs and practices may be important in helping them persist in striving for a better world.

Secularists need not be atheists or agnostics – for instance many Asian people of faith (myself included) might describe themselves as such. To counter the religious right effectively, broad alliances are important.

* Read the Manifesto for Secularism here: http://www.petertatchellfoundation.org/religion/manifesto-secularism-aga...


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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