Watching the news of President Morsi’s demise from power in Egypt over the last few weeks has been a reminder of the inherent dangers of allowing a religious fundamentalist regime to take control of a country. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood may have been democratically elected but he was an incompetent ruler who, in a pursuit of imposing a Islamist agenda on the Egyptian people, only managed to turn vast swathes of the population against him, including many who had voted for him in the Presidential election. The tone and tenor of his administration was high-handed: trying to close shops at 10pm because people should be fresh for the morning prayer (Cairo is the city that never sleeps, where there are still traffic jams at 2am, and where Internet usage peaks at 12.45am); prosecuting journalists for insulting the President; calling people who didn’t agree with him “infidels.” Little legislation was passed. During his brief time in power there was constant concern that his Islamist agenda was run at the expense of the Egyptian economy. The Egyptian pound and foreign exchange reserves have both dwindled, inflation is rising and unemployment among those under 24 is now more than 40 per cent. Electricity cuts have become frequent. Queues for petrol have lengthened. Farmers are often not being paid for their wheat and crime has soared—the murder rate has tripled since the revolution.
Like so many other countries run by religious rulers and governments, religious minorities in Egypt, including some Muslims, have lived in genuine fear of attacks and persecution as religious intolerance and lack of protection by Morsi’s government increased. Religious fundamentalism when given the keys to power has proven yet again to be dangerous and destructive.
Occasionally I hear comments that the UK would be a better place if Christians were in power our government was run according to the Christian faith. This might hold some appeal with those who feel that religion and those who subscribe to a faith are being increasingly sidelined as our society becomes progressively secular, but in many regards this would be little different to what we’ve seen in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be highly unlikely that we would see the same levels of persecution, but it would still involve one religious group having control over our nation.
Hypothetically, with our democratic system a ‘Christian’ party could be voted into power, but if a party explicitly states that it represents the Christian faith, then the implication is that all Christians should agree with its policies. However, as we all know, Christians don’t agree on a lot of things and party politics is one of them. Who decides what ‘Christian’ is? If you imagined a situation where a group such as the Church of England’s General Synod (who can’t even agree on women bishops) was running the country, you’d immediately see how calamitous it could be. The added danger is that such a party will be perceived as working towards a theocracy where the government subjects its people to what they believe is God’s will and of course because it is God’s will it can’t be questioned. This is partly why Morsi and his government were such a disaster.
The obvious remedy to the political situation in Egypt is a democratically elected secular government, where no one religious group has overall control. And it makes sense that secular government is best for our country too. The problem comes when we discuss what secular government and secular law entails. This blog has often criticised the worst excesses of secularism that we see being peddled by institutions and secularist groups who seek to remove religion from the public arena. Nick Spencer, the Research Director at Theos think tank explains the conflict between these competing views of secularism:
‘There are two points to make… The first is that any fair minded person will want to live in a society in which there are no second class citizens. Being Christian, Muslim or atheist should make no difference to your civic rights. In as far as secularism is understood as securing this level playing field (and that is a perfectly legitimate definition) it is the right and proper direction of travel, capable of being shared by believer and unbeliever alike.
‘But, point two, a level playing field is not the same as one denuded of religious symbols or identity. Nations have cultures (note the plural) and those cultures are often, indeed usually, steeped in religious belief and commitment. Equality of civic rights does not necessitate bland promises, non-religious coinage, and bare walls.
‘The kind of secularism which enables disgruntled individuals and minority atheistic groups to use the law to override democratic opinions (remember Bideford Town council) or national cultural attachment is deeply problematic, less secularism-as-referee more secularism-as-bully. It is, to continue the sporting metaphor, the kind of secularism in which the secular ceases to be the level pitch on which we play and morphs into a player who insists on controlling the ball at all times because to relinquish it to any other player would be to show “privilege” to them.
‘Sadly, we are witnessing the growth of this second kind of secularism, a kind of lautsi-secularism, meaning the assertion of personal rights over the commitment and concerns of others, usually under the guise of fairness and equality.’
Much of this intolerant secularism derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of the neutrality of secularism. For many secularists, something is secular if it is free from religious influence. This is why atheism and humanism are so closely tied to this vision of secularism. However, law which is free from any religious influence is not law which is neutral between different world-views. If law is free from any religious influence it is because religious world-views have been systematically and deliberately excluded from contributing to that law. Law which is secular in the sense that it seeks to take no moral stances whatsoever, to rely on no contentious claims about the nature of human beings, about morality, or about values, is impossible. There may be ways of seeking to level the playing field but there is no neutral ground.
A secular society which respects all people and treats them with dignity needs a solid moral foundation. In this country much of that moral foundation has been derived from the Christian faith and Biblical teaching. Our last three prime ministers have been well aware of this. Tony Blair, who since his resignation as prime minister has been making up for not ‘Doing God’ whilst he was in office, is clear about the importance of his Christian faith in his life. Gordon Brown, whose father was a Church of Scotland minister, credited his parents with giving him his moral compass. David Cameron, whatever qualifications one might wish to put on his designation of Britain as a ‘Christian country’, was right to acknowledge the profound way in which Christian values have become British values and have become accepted as common sense even by those whose adherence to the Christian God is either weak or non-existent. What we believe to be reasonable turns out to have been profoundly influenced by Christianity’s teachings. The equality of all human beings and the need for society to be justified by reference to its treatment of its weakest members are all assumptions which we accept as reasonable, even as ‘natural’, because they and we are the products of a civilization in which Christianity has had a significant influence.
The best forms of secular governance don’t deny the importance of religion, instead they embrace it for the benefit of all. Secularism that seeks to remove all religious influence from the way a society is run is no better than religious fundamentalism that attempts to impose its values and beliefs on everyone. Such societies are not tolerant, they are tyrannous.
A more detailed discussion on the relationship between Christianity and secular society by David McIlroy who is a practising barrister and Visiting Senior Lecturer in Law at SOAS, University of London can be found on the Theos website.