Friday 23 March 2007

On 'aggressive secularism'

You know that feeling of disappointment when a writer you usually admire says something that makes you want to throw the book, newspaper or whatever across the room? It happened to me twice last week – and for similar reasons. Last week’s edition of the Tablet (the UK-based Catholic weekly) carried an otherwise insightful piece - on the possible undercurrents of anti-semitism in recent media coverage of the travails of Lord Levy - by Clifford Longley - one of the few speakers on Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ I can listen to without the usual lurch for the ‘off’ button. Then, in the closing paragraph, he goes and spoils it (for me) by writing:

These examples occur against a more general background. Modern British secularism seems to be changing its shape, from tolerance of diversity to imposed uniformity. Is Britain to be a plural society of many faiths and none, treated equally under the law, or is it to be a ‘naked public square’ from which all religions, and the different models of humanity they represent, are all equally to be banished and despised? It is the question of the moment.

This notion that we’re entering a new era of secularist uniformity is fast becoming a commonplace amongst religious commentators, even quite liberal ones (whereas in the past it was the preserve of conservative Vatican spokesmen and representatives of the evangelical right). My second example from last week drew on similar assumptions. It was in a review article by church historian Eamon Duffy in the latest New York Review of Books. Again, Duffy is a writer I admire – both for his historical works and his essays on contemporary religious issues. However, in the course of an urbane discussion of the impact of Christianity on the history of the book, Duffy says of the books he’s reviewing:

…they provide a reminder – salutary and timely, from a European perspective, in an increasingly aggressive secularist climate – of how much Jewish and Christian thought patterns have contributed to shaping some of the most fundamental assumptions and directions of Western culture.

Like ‘liberal fundamentalism’ and ‘Enlightenment fundamentalism’, 'aggressive secularism’ has recently become one of those phrases that trip easily from the pens and keyboards of religious commentators. But where’s the evidence for this new era of aggressive, conformist secularism? These terms seemed to gain media currency last Christmas, when there was a brief tabloid hoo-hah about politically correct local councils banning Christian festivities, but most of that turned out to be the stuff of urban myth. More recently, there have been brief spats about faith schools and gay adoption. But we remain a country where everyone is free to practise their religion of choice, where there is government funding and support for faith schools, and bishops sit in the House of Lords.

Surely if there’s been any ‘aggression’ or ‘fundamentalism’ it’s been among some religious believers - in demonstrations and threats against theatrical productions or against the publishers of cartoons satirising religion. In response to this, some secularists have perhaps become more vocal in defence of freedoms they took forgranted but now perceive as under threat – but what’s aggressive, conformist or fundamentalist about defending free speech or the separation of church and state?

I don’t write this as an avowed atheist or secularist – except that I believe in the Enlightenment view of religion as a private matter and in a secular, pluralistic public sphere. Although I would describe myself as a liberal humanist, I come from a believing background (of which more another time) and am interested in issues of faith and spirituality (why else would I be reading the Tablet?). Indeed, one of the reasons I started this blog was to explore the interface between sacred and secular. It’s as a sympathetic outsider that I find myself put out by liberal Christians’ apparently newfound hostility to ‘secularism’. It raises barriers which shut me out and make dialogue between believers and humanists more difficult. I have some thoughts about why this might be happening – which I want to explore further another time.

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