What kind of secularity?

By Simon Barrow
October 30, 2007

A discussion is taking place over on the Thinking Anglicans website, following a trenchant article by Giles Fraser in the Church Times: Is secularism neutral on faith or anti-religious?

It's also been running at Pickled Politics, Sunny Hundal's splendid site: http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/1477

In fact the piece is a complaint not about secularism per se (Fraser defends a variant of it), but about certain attitudes of the National Secular Society. You can read it here: http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=46425

"The NSS is either an organisation seeking to defend a neutral public space for everybody — the religious and the non-religious alike — or it is a part of a campaign to eradicate religion from sight. It should make up its mind which one it is", says Giles, citing examples of "anti-religious prejudice".

Terry Sanderson of NSS disagrees, and accuses Giles Fraser of being hysterical. He also denies that there is anything wrong with an anti-Muslim video rant by a comedian affiliated to NSS.

Ekklesia is mentioned in Terry's response, so I thought it appropriate to add my own comment (reproduced below). We have quoted NSS in the past, and agree with them on a number of points. I'm sure that will continue. But we have also challenged attitudes and statements which we regard as unacceptable and unfair - as we do in Christian/religious groups, too. Plus we try to remain open to criticism about our own approach.

But the NSS president, at least, who blankly refuses even an informal meeting, has made it quite clear that he has no time or respect whatsoever for those he calls "religious moderates". Indeed he sees them as simply watered down versions of violent extremists and believes their thought is "drivel".

Quite apart from the fact that this has little to do with the evidence-based reasoning NSS would claim to uphold (along with many 'religious' people, though they seem not to acknowledge this), I know that such views don't represent those of many of the non-religious people I have talked to, including several in NSS.

Anyway, here's what I wrote to Thinking Anglicans http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/002710.html :

"'Ekklesia is a Christian organisation arguing for a secular state. We [National Secular Society] want a different kind of secular state, that's all.' Where, I wonder, is the difference - and is it as inconsequential as this 'that's all' might suggest?

"Ekklesia does not think that religious bodies/representatives should hold state or legislative power or special privileges in public institutions or the tax regime; we agree with NSS on that. But we very much believe in a plural civil society, open to contributions from the religious and non-religious alike. The NSS, as far as I can see, does not. It wishes to exclude religion as far as possible from every sphere of life (not just governance). It recently approvingly quoted Ted Rall as saying "[R]religion has no place in the public life of a democracy. None." So it doesn't just oppose confessional teaching of religion in publicly-funded schools (that is fair and reasonable), but appears to be against education *about* the phenomenon of religion too; it is antipathetic to chaplains in hospitals (including humanist ones) and labels them "parasites"; it is against broadcasting features like Thought for the Day (even if it included non-religious voices, as we have argued it most definitely should); it does not think religious groups should be able to publicise events in libraries alongside other civil society groups; it wishes to outlaw the wearing of religious symbols in public places; it seems to take the Dawkins view that involving children in religious (though presumably not 'secularist') activities is 'child abuse', and so on. I'd be happy to be proved wrong on all these points, of course. For this is, as Giles suggests, an ideologically anti-religious rather than a neutral agenda.

"Terry Sanderson calls Giles' (strongly worded) piece "hysterical". But he does not refute its main contention, and regrettably Terry himself regularly uses extreme rhetoric to attack others. When religious people respond with reason, he regards this, he says, as a sign of weakness and "ridiculous". He has publicly stated that he regards moderate believers per se as sharing “the same beliefs that motivate bombers and theocrats, misogynists and homophobes”, and he says "Rowan Williams’ theology is just as nutty as that of the biblical literalists" - probably not on the basis of a careful assessment of his scholarly output.

"As for Pat Condell, people can - if they have the stomach - watch his nasty performance for themselves on this far-right website http://isupporttheresistance.blogspot.com/2007/05/telling-it-way-it-is.html - He goes out of his way to make it clear that it is Islam as a whole he is attacking, not just an extremist version of it. The video is loaded with bigotry and partial or inaccurate statements. Inter alia Condell says “Muslim women in Britain who cover their faces are mentally ill” and talks of Muslim men who are “primitive pigs whose only achievement in life is to be born with a penis in one hand and a Qur’an in the other”. One may technically argue that this is not racism (it's pure coincidence that the great majority so traduced are non-white, presumably), but to call it "not unreasonable" takes some doing. It is puzzling indeed that NSS says it is "pleased to say" that a man with these views is a member of their organisation.

"I find all this very sad and I wish it was not the case. I hope the NSS thinks again about the tenor of its rhetoric and the content of its campaigning. I have said this to them directly and I know quite a number of non-religious and secularist people who think likewise. Meanwhile, Ekklesia is pleased to work constructively with a range of humanist and secular groups on common concerns. The world does not have to divide between the religious and the non-religious, in spite of the vigorous attempts by vocal minorities on all sides to suggest otherwise. We can seek a better way."

[Nb. there has been a further exchange about this on TA. See also Dave Walker's blog about the NSS's use of a caption from one of his cartoons: http://www.cartoonchurch.com/blog/2007/10/04/the-national-secular-society/ ]

Incidentally, Ekklesia is involved with the Religion & Secularism Network http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5949, and has its own research considerations under the general banner of 'Reconsidering the secular': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/4860

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.