Reconsidering the secular - project

Ekklesia Staff


An ongoing research, reporting and action project with a number of overlapping elements, including cooperation with academic and civic bodies. The aim is to work in conversation with others towards the development of an inclusive vision of secularity in the public square - one based on dialogue and free expression; a proper distinction between religious and public authorities; and maintaining a fair civic arena for the widest range of public actors, both religious and non-religious. [Fully revised January 2010; next revision due May 2011.]

Secularism has been variously defined as 'promoting neutrality/fairness in the public square', 'separating governance from religion', 'managing a society of diverse beliefs', 'a regime of religious regulation', 'opposition to religious or spiritual influences' and 'eliminating religion from politics and society'. The first three are what could be described as 'pluralist' conceptions, the latter three 'eliminative'.

Yet self-proclaimed proponents and opponents of secularity are often unclear about the distinction between these competing meanings, their relation to different claims about post/secularization (the shift from primarily associational faith-based societies to technical post- or a-religious ones), and the possibility of new horizons and approaches.

It is our conviction that conscious attempts are needed to engage thinking people of both non-religious and varying religious persuasions in considering models of secular/religious life which may be received as an invitation rather than a threat, as plural rather than monolithic, as inclusive rather than exclusive, and which move from 'thin' to 'thick' descriptions of "the good" as part of a rigorous but respectful conversation between different traditions of reasoning.

At present there is a grave danger that these issues are being mired in simplistic media arguments and "the politics of competitive grievance" on all sides. Dogmatic campaigning groups are both deepening and exploiting disagreements.

There is therefore a growing need to take the debate about the role of beliefs (religious and non-religious) within 'secular life' in a positive, practical and more nuanced direction. This should include a solid theological / philosophical / sociological input, and a re-examination of the place of distinctive 'communities of conviction' within the wider public sphere.

Ekklesia is currently engaged cooperatively with others in:

(1) the development of a broad-based examination of different models of secularity and religious engagement for a diverse society
(2) discussion papers on open religion/ secularity, and critical and appreciative theological appraisals of the secular within the Christian tradition (see Rethinking religion in an open society, 2008 and Christianity versus 'the church of power', 2009)
(3) continuing support for, and participation in, academic research on reappraising secularist ideas and institutional arrangements in Western Europe (AHCR/ESCRC Religion and society workshops; Religion and Secularism Network, Religion & Society Seminar at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Relations Public Policy Unit, etc.)
(4) speaking and writing engagements concerned with the changing location and role of faith in relation to governance and public services (Equalities and Human Rights Commission, All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, Canterbury and District Inter-Faith Action, Leicester Secular Society, Fabian Society, etc.)
(5) The redrafting and re-issue of Redeeming Religion in the Public Square (Simon Barrow, Ekklesia, July 2006), which elaborates on issues raised by Jonathan Bartley's Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster, 2006).
(6) Exchanges with humanist and secular societies, inter-faith networks, and church organisations about common/divergent concerns in this area.

Latest related articles:

US faith and secular leaders issue joint statement on law and religion (13 January 2010); Standing up for freedom of dress - Symon Hill (9 January 2009); New UK research shows significant decline in institutional Christianity (17 December 2009); Faith schools and community cohesion (Simon Barrow, 26 November 2009); The 'Thought for the Day' debate (research, Lizzie Clifford, 6 November 2009); BBC urged by Lords to take humanism and non-belief seriously (5 November 2009); 'How churches can be part of the solution' - section three of The state of independents: alternative politics (research - Simon Barrow, 4 June 2009 ); Contrasting church attitudes on human rights (research - Savitri Hensman, 1 November 2009); Faith's relationship to power (18 October 2009); Databank of independent evidence on faith schools (research - 22 September 2009); Religion, belief and non-discrimination (research paper, February 2009); The Equality Bill and church responses to it (research, Savitri Hensman, 1 May 2009); Mixed picture emerges on British attitudes to religion in public life (24 Feb 2009); Europe does religion without the politics, suggests research (6 February 2009); Cold water, buses and shared humanity (28 October 2008); Reassessing Turkey's faith and secularism battle (22 September 2008); Rethinking religion in an open society (Simon Barrow, February 2008); Why does government want to court the churches? (Jonathan Bartley).

Related Ekklesia categories:

Equality Bill; Pluralism; Secularism; Free speech; Inter-faith; Atheism; Tolerance; Secular; Christendom and post-Christendom (news and analysis); Health chaplaincy (religious and non-religious); Human rights (news and analysis); National Secular Society (NSS); British Humanist Association (BHA); atheism (and responses); humanist.

Background from Ekklesia:

Open secularism meets open religion (speech by Simon Barrow at the Royal Society of Arts), Facing up to fundamentalism (research paper, SB), A new discourse on race and faith politics (statement of New Generation Network), Redeeming Religion in the Public Square (research paper, SB), Faith and Politics After Christendom (book, Jonathan Bartley), Rethinking hate speech, blasphemy and free expression (policy paper, SB), Toward the abolition of the nation state? (Richard Franklin, with Sarum College), God and the politicians (response paper, SB). Ekklesia and the 'secularism versus religion' argument, The Religion and Secularism Network (November 2007).

Other bodies / resources:

The Immanent Frame: secularism, religion and the public sphere; International Society for the Sociology of Religion; Religion and Secularism Network; A Secular Age - Charles Taylor; Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC); God in a Secular Society (ESRC); Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech - Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood; Wardman Wire - Secularism; Deconstructing the secular - Garver on Milbank; International Humanist and Humanist Union (IHEU); O Project; British Humanist Association; Inter Faith Network; National Secular Society; Religion Dispatches; openDemocracy - secularism; Secularization theory (academic); Accord Coalition - reform of faith schools; Cutting Edge Consortium; IRENIC (Scotland); Convention on Modern Liberty (religion in society).

A helpful watchword:

“[If] people’s beliefs – secular or religious – make them belligerent, intolerant and unkind about other people’s [beliefs], they are not ‘skilful’. If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honour the stranger, then they are good, helpful and sound.” - Karen Armstrong

Latest update: January 2010. (first published, 2007-07-16 01:49:5, updated four times)

To contribute, contact Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow (simonDOTbarrowATekklesiaDOTcoDOTuk)