Wednesday 18 April 2007


I've written before about the phenomenon of an increasingly vocal, inter-faith anti-secularism - evident in the pronouncements of a growing number of doomladen religious leaders and commentators. Since these figures are prone to using generalised labels to damn their opponents - 'aggressive secularism', 'Enlightenment fundamentalists', etc - I thought it was time to give them one of their own. In this post, I'd like to explore what I describe as 'faith-ism' - a set of assumptions that I believe are increasingly prevalent, fundamentally wrongheaded, and threatening to genuine secularism and genuine religious practice alike.

I would argue that the key assumptions of faith-ism are as follows:

1. Religious faith is a good thing - good for individuals, good for society - more or less regardless of its content, and is certainly better than not having a faith.

2. Because of this, the state should actively encourage and promote religious faith, e.g. by supporting faith schools, funding faith-based welfare initiatives.

3. 'People of faith' - whatever the content of that faith - have a lot in common, and certainly more in common than with people of no faith - and form a natural constituency that should work together on faith's behalf.

4. The main problem with contemporary society is its lack of religious faith, and society would be a whole lot better if more people had some kind of faith.

5. Our society is becoming more 'aggressively secular' and hostile to faith.

6. In this increasingly hostile environment, 'faith' has a right to be protected against offence and insult - in fact, criticism of 'faith' is probably due to a prevalent and growing Islamophobia, Christianophobia or 'aggressive secularism' in contemporary society.

Here's a secularist critique of each of these assumptions:

1. Religious faith is not always a good thing. Faith can damage individuals, inspire prejudiced and reactionary attitudes, and losing faith is often healthier for individuals than holding on to it. At a communal and societal level the revival of 'faith' has often produced authoritarian regimes that stifle liberty and inhibit social progress.

2. Because of this, and because modern society is pluralist and the majority are not active believers, government should not intervene to support or promote the activities or interests of particular faith groups.

3. The term 'people of faith' glosses over real differences in belief and values between religions and obscures the fact that many believers (e.g. liberal Christians) have more in common with agnostics and humanists than with some followers of their own and other faiths.

4. The lack of a common 'faith' or sense of purpose in modern, liberal democracies is not necessarily a wholly bad thing. Conversely, the 'main problem' in the world today is not the absence of religious faith, but the threat posed by virulent strains of fundamentalist religion.

5. There is little evidence of a growing 'aggressive secularism'. Responding to the threats posed by religious fundamentalists, and to attempts by faith groups to hold on to outmoded political privileges, some secularists have expressed concern about the erosion of liberty and of the division between church and state. This has been defensively and hysterically misrepresented by some believers as a newly aggressive secularism or 'liberal fundamentalism'.

6. The right to criticise, mock or ridicule other people's ideas, even those that are deeply cherished, is a fundamental tenet of a free society, and religious groups are wrong to claim special exemption in this area.

Although not a practising believer myself, I would also dare to suggest that there may be good religious - and specifically Christian - reasons for criticising this drift towards a nebulous 'Any dream will do'- 'we're all victims now' - kind of faith-ism. I don't think Jesus was interested in defending or promoting 'faith' or 'religion' - I seem to remember that he was actually quite critical of the pious people of his day and of institutional religion. He also had quite a lot to say about self-denial and humility, warning his followers to expect rejection by society - certainly not to claim special privileges from it, or to complain when their beliefs were 'offended'. I'm sure he would have argued that believers should earn respect from the wider society by their actions - rather than claim it as of right. As for blanket tirades against the secular world, I understand that he actually preferred the company of the formally irreligious to the externally pious. Finally, it could be argued that one of his key messages was about being open to finding truth and goodness in unexpected places.

I was prompted to write this by a 'Thought for the Day' slot on Radio 4's Today programme earlier this week, in which the speaker talked at length about the value of 'religion' for the contemporary world - not God, or Christianity, but 'religion'. I know why he did it - as I've mentioned before, Christian spokespeople have had to broaden their sales pitch to hold on to their niche in the multicultural marketplace of ideas, and it wouldn't do to claim any special insights for your own brand of faith, rather than faith in general. But it did strike me that the result was elevating 'religion' or 'faith' into a kind of idol, when what both believers and secularists should be promoting is truth - wherever it is to be found. End of today's sermon.

P.S. Since posting this I've googled 'faith-ism' and noticed that the term is already being used by some religious groups (though without the connecting dash '-') to mean discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. Needless to say, this is a world away from the way I'm using the term. In fact, I would argue that it's misguided to list 'faithism' alongside racism, sexism, homophobia etc as if it were somehow similar - but let's save that discussion for another day.

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