The difference between good and bad secularism – a challenge to secularists

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.

Categories: Atheism, International politics, Morals & ethics

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15 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    Very well said sir. Your closing remarks support the question raised in yesterday’s post on Britain taking a totalitarian tack! Thank you Gillan for the link to the full article, which I too highly recommend.

  2. Dear Gillan, you have done it again. Another superb article on a very difficult yet almost transcendent topic. Quite a number of your articles I forward to Christian friends, some, such as this I forward to atheist/humanist friends (it is interesting that not many of my friends fall between the two camps!).

    If it is any consolation to you, I do not often get a reply or an acknowledgement. Sometimes I wonder, “what is the point?”. So please keep blogging, I find your articles most insightful and helpful.

    John Innes

  3. very well written. the information in this post useful. thanks for sharing.

  4. As an unbeliever, I thought that was a very reasonable piece, which I agree with to quite a degree. You do pick your leaders rather carefully though – notably Clegg and Milliband are both atheists, and arguable are one of the first generation who feel it’s fine to ‘come out’ about that without there being any negative impact on their electability. I suspect we’ll be seeing far more of this as today’s 20 somethings (who seem to be the most openly disbelieving in the UK’s history) come to power.

    So I don’t think that ‘this is an underlyingly Christian country’ argument will necessarily last all that much longer. What, like you, I don’t want to see, is this being used as a petty argument to sweep all the peculiarities that come with religion from our sight.

    I think the legal cases that have been happening shape what non-religious people think of Christianity (and perhaps by extension other faiths). The right to chuck gays out of your guest house just seems hugely mean minded (and not demanded by Christianity as far as I can see) whereas the right to wear a cross at work if it’s not getting in the way or causing other problems seems a reasonable one. I suspect the Christian Legal Centre may have ultimately done Christianity a disservice by characterising their clients as ‘what Christians are like’ — which may in turn make them a fearful enough prospect to make cancelling prayers before a town council meeting seem justified. This is a shame.

    The other thing you don’t mention in your piece is the laughable fight that the National Secular Society has picked in Woking: If they carry on like this, they’ll be getting a reputation as bad as Christian Concern. Quite unbelievably petty.

    • I agree with you that Clegg and Miliband are atheists. I also think in truth so is Blair and Cameron as if they believed they could not have acted as they did and do. Welfare of others for instance warfare against others as well. Not that atheists do not care for welfare of others, or are war minded, just they don not have a book they hold up as a way to live by but disregard it when it suits them. As you say Christian Concern and the National Secular Society are as silly and belligerent as each other doing no good at all for Christians and atheists/secularists alike.

      • I agree that the national Secular Society and Christian Concern give both sides a bad reputation. More often than not, the harder you fight for something the less you win support and come across as reasonable.

        I too would expect to see more politicians being openly agnostic or atheistic as that reflects the demographics of young adults. This country is clearly becoming less Christian, but we can’t deny the way that centuries of Christian influence has shaped and formed this country in many ways. To say otherwise is displaying an ignorance of history.

  5. You make some good points, but I think you cede far too much territory to the people who see the word ‘fundamentalist’ and immediately attribute all the problems of a regime or group to it. Corollary is not the same as causation!

    The West has had good success with democracy — although nowhere near as much as we imagine, since we tend to gloss over our shortcomings as aberrations. However, outside of Europe, North America and Australia/New Zealand, the results have been very mixed, whether fundamentalist regimes are involved or not. Admittedly part of this is a direct result of the West’s willingness to sponsor anything that was not communism during the Cold War, leaving a legacy of political corruption in some very surprising places.

    Much of the failure of democracies, though, is inherent in a misunderstanding of what democracy is — a misunderstanding which is gaining ground in the UK. This has nothing to do with secularism or fundamentalism, but rather with the ground as set out by Aristotle in his Politics. In what we call a democracy (which he calls a polity), the people govern for the good of all. He sets this with a monarchy, where a single ruler governs for the good of all, and an aristocracy, where the noble govern for the good of all, and contrasts it with tyranny, oligarchy and ‘democracy’, where, respectively, a single ruler, a few, and the people govern for their own benefit, at the expense of others.

    This is an approach to democracy which I see increasingly on the doorsteps, in pubs, and even among university students. It is less so among older people, who were brought up with the notion of democratic duty, and more so among professed readers of the Daily Mail and UKIP voters, who actively argue that they personally deserve to see a disproportionate benefit from government, by contrast with deprecated groups (foreigners, the work-shy, those on benefits, asylum seekers, etc).

    I don’t believe that your solution for Egypt — a democratically elected secular government — is sufficient. The government which has just fallen was democratically elected, but it governed in its own interests, and in the interests of its supporters. Without a change in the understanding of politicians about their role in government, I don’t think secularising it would have made a great deal of difference. Its failure and incompetence was because it was too corrupt and too-self interested, not because it was too Islamic.

    • Thanks Martin for these points, which I agree with. Democracy isn’t quite is simple or perfect as we’re often led to believe.

      I didn’t want to go into great detail as to why Morsi’s government failed in so many ways, but you’ve expanded on that well. Its Islamist agenda as you’ve said wasn’t the only reason for it’s incompetence, but it did play a significant part from my reading of the situation.

  6. A very thought provoking piece Gillan. I take the point, although I sincerely hope that a Christian party would make less of a hash of it than Morsi. Having said, distant history shows the damage done to the Apostolic Church in Rome, once Emperor Constantine institutionalised Christianity.
    Perhaps we should start from the other end and ask what Jesus would do? He was never a politician and refrained from taking sides as such, but spoke strongly to values, absolute morality, interpersonal relationships and the Kingdom of Heaven, with God as our ultimate judge. Yet through who He was, He also brought hope to those who believed.
    The essence of His ministry was spelling it out, to anyone who had ears to hear. Many did. Most didn’t, but He never went after anyone! He deferred to each individual’s freedom of choice. Politically this differs fundamentally from the Islamic radicals, whose purpose is enforcement. This is the declared heart of Islamic extremists, in propagating their faith towards world domination.
    Where does this leave us? I cannot see a Christian party ever getting elected, but the fact remains that who we are today, as a nation, is the result of a very long chain of secular governments, whose legal system broadly honoured Christian principles, encouraged by an influential church. We are still nominally a Christian nation, but fast losing our identity and departing from the values on which we have been securely based.
    But at least we still have Christian precedent, with an established church, and this should be respected by those who come to live in our land as a condition of entry. This is not to compromise freedom of beliefs, or to force our own upon anyone. Human rights should be a basic prerequisite across all faiths, inasmuch as we all share the same Creator, irrespective of what we believe. This is not to say that all faiths are the same, or that they share a common God.
    So yes, we need good and fair secular government. But for the sake of our nation, may it be that the party who “does God” the most, will be the one to be democratically elected.

    • So many wise words here Richard, thank you. It is still right for Christians to bring God into the public square including politics. We shouldn’t complain if we don’t like what we see unless we’re willing to get our feet dirty as well as pray, looking to offer something better.

  7. We are a secular country which has had a strong historic christian influence. The benign nature of Christianity has allowed for dissent and a plurality of views so i am struggling with the idea that Clegg and Milliband as Atheists have had to overcome some kind of social barrier in order to become leaders. Its been quite acceptable in the U.K. to be an Atheist.for as long as i can remember. Jesus invites us, its not compulsory to follow him..We don’t need or want a theocracy or special privilege but neither should we keep God behind the temple door.Freedom to speak in the public square is really important.

    • I think currently we have a right mix in this country. Whatever people may think they have a right to express a view in public or knock on someones door and address it if the people consent to in their own home. I think this is a good article but it in some ways neglects the difference between a natural progression in this country away from a faith based ideal in many ways towards a more humanistic attitude to where we get our values and beliefs and a state enforcing secularism in the public square. I personally would welcome the disestablishment of the church of england as i personally think government should be neutral when it comes to religion.

      Indeed the amount of times i have had encounters with supposed loving Christians in the streets makes me realise that despite their nasty bigoted views i am deeply happy to live in a pluralistic society where these views are allowed to be expressed. Also there is a christian party currently operating and it has for a while, it’s just that it doesn’t get many votes at all.


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