Thursday 29 March 2007

Secularism or atheism?

Sunny at Pickled Politics picks up on a recent posting by Terry Sanderson from the National Secular Society, over at The Guardian's Comment is Free. Sanderson lays into liberal religious believers, accusing them of acting as a smokescreen for fundamentalists. Sunny is none too happy about this, nor are the liberal-minded Christians at Ekklesia. Here is Sunny's main criticism:

The problem with the National Secular Society is that while they preach secularism, they actually prefer atheism. By conflating the two they not only wreck it for the non-atheist secularists but also help their opponents keep confusing the two.

I think I agree. Secularism, rightly understood, means the separation of 'church' and 'state' - the kind of freedom of religion and freedom from religion guaranteed by the US Constitution. Believers can be, indeed have often been, enthusiastic supporters of secularism as a political principle, while remaining firm religious believers. One of the reasons that I get frustrated by recent sweeping pronouncements about 'aggressive secularism' from some believers in the west(see here and here for earlier posts on this) is that, they tend to forget that, elsewhere in the world, Christians have often been among the most enthusiastic supporters of secularist ideas and political parties - especially in Middle Eastern and majority-Muslim countries where secularism is seen as a way of guaranteeing their civil rights as a religious minority.

At the same time, as a 'secularist' with a religious background and a sympathetic interest in matters of belief, I have shared Sunny's frustration that other secularists, and secularist organisations, assume you share their atheism and general hostility to religion. The same is true of some kinds of 'humanism'. I regard myself as a liberal humanist - believing in free speech, equal rights, a liberal and plural public sphere - but have been disappointed with publications such as New Humanist which seem to devote a lot of their energy to knocking religion - i.e. focusing on what they're against, rather than what they're for.

Having said all that, there is a grain of truth in what Sanderson says. As I've tried to say elsewhere, some 'liberal Christians' - like some liberal secularists - have been slow, to say the least, in standing up for liberal principles such as free speech and women's rights in the face of religious fundamentalism, whether here or abroad.

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