Speaking out for the secularist scapegoat
I used to think that words would never hurt me, but when an old friend called me an “aggressive secularist” the other day, she really got my back up.
Ever since Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the UK in September 2010, that catchphrase has become a convenient insult to fling at anyone who speaks out against the privileges of religion, and the abuses carried out in its name. When she went on to call me a “militant atheist” and accused humanism of being a “sham religion”, I had to walk away before I said something I might have regretted. As a celebrant of the Humanist Society of Scotland, I spend my days conducting funerals, marrying people, or naming their children, generally not in that order. Until recently, I was the society’s media officer, and in that role I spent a lot of time on radio talk shows trying to explain what the word secularism meant – usually to people who’d already made up their minds, and weren’t open to persuasion.
As I understood it, secularism meant two things: a separation of church and state, and a guarantee of freedom of belief. I thought that’s what it meant to everyone, but it seems I was wrong.
Over the last few years, the meaning of secularism has shifted from denoting neutrality in regard to religion to hostility towards it.
If you type the word “secularism” into an internet search engine, the first definition you’ll find – and the second, and the third – is that secularism is “a doctrine that rejects religion, and religious considerations”, and “the view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education”.
This corruption of language is a matter of more than merely linguistic concern. The idea that the religious should be free to express their views is as fundamental to secularism as the notion that public and political institutions should be neutral, but that distinction appears to have been lost. Why has this happened? It’s partly due to the deliberate distortion of language, but I think we secularists have to take some of the blame.
Let’s go back to the papal visit. Benedict had barely left the aircraft steps before launching into a withering denunciation of “aggressive secularism”, likening it to Nazism, and rueing the damage that “the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life” had done in the last century.
I believe the pope deliberately misused the word “secularism” to describe valueless, amoral consumerism, but it worked. Not only did Benedict temporarily succeed in moving attention away from the scandal of priestly sex abuse, he created a scapegoat – the “aggressive secularist”.
One or two voices have been raised in protest. As AC Grayling said: “How can you be a militant atheist? It’s like sleeping furiously. It’s just wrong”, while Nik Cohen pointed out that “British atheists are not killing believers, nor are we closing churches or preventing the faithful from practising their faith. We are merely arguing, as full citizens of a democratic society are entitled to do, about the laws that should govern our country”.
They made their point well, but we secularists are losing the war of words, and I use that word deliberately.
News thrives on conflict, and where there is none, the media often creates it. Take the recent debate on evolution between the original militant atheist, Richard Dawkins, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It took place in February, in front of a packed house in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and it was broadcast over the internet, to an audience of thousands.
The papers trailed it with headlines like “High Noon in Oxford”, and “Dawkins & Williams in Oxford Argument”, but those of us who saw it witnessed a scrupulously polite conversation, in which Dawkins described himself as an agnostic and a cultural Anglican, while Rowan Williams praised Dawkins’s writing and said he’d once quoted him in a Christmas sermon.
“Bishop and Atheist get on like House On Fire” is a headline we’ll never see, and this genial conversation between philosophers will quickly be forgotten. It doesn’t conform to the rules of the game, or confirm the prejudices of the audience.
What bright-eyed zealots of all faiths and none fail to remember is that unlike Tony Blair, the British really “don’t do God”. Until 11 September 2001, and the rise of Islam, we didn’t speak much about religion in this country, and for most people it was a bit like the monarchy: largely irrelevant, but somehow part of the fabric of society.
As Dawkins’s recent poll suggests, the great British public has rather hazy ideas of what being a Christian means, but they’re strangely protective towards the church to which they never go, and whose doctrines they no longer believe. So when secularists bang on about banning prayers in council meetings, getting bishops out of the House of Lords and Humanists onto Thought For The Day, they find us every bit as irritating as the would-be martyrs from Christian Voice who complain about persecution every time human rights trump religious bigotry in the courtroom.
There’s only so much we can achieve by criticising people with whom we disagree. We need to make the positive case for secularism, which is that it’s the best way of bringing people of all faiths and none together. Humanists must speak out when bad things are done in the name of secularism, or risk losing not just the meaning of the word, but also the dream of a more equal, tolerant world.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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