Thursday 15 November 2007

Debating the meaning of secularism

There's been a bit of a spat about religion and secularism over at the Thinking Anglicans website, sparked off by an article in the Church Times by vicar and regular Guardian columnist Giles Fraser (via Ekklesia). The latter takes the National Secular Society to task for the 'trickery' with which it employs the word 'secular', sometimes to mean the separation of church and state (with which Fraser agrees) but at other times using it as 'little more than a synonym for virulent anti-religious prejudice'.

In an early post on this blog, I criticised the NSS's tendency to blur the distinction between secularism and atheism, so I have some sympathy for Fraser's argument. But I'm disheartened by the animus which this liberal Christian commentator displays towards secularists, as in the sneering language of his opening sentence:

The Thought Police at the National Secular Society (NSS ) have held their latest annual gathering, patting themselves on the back for another bumper year of God-bothering.

Thought Police? Isn't that a bit strong when describing a minority pressure group, committed to freedom of belief, and having very little political influence? Fraser is deeply sceptical of the NSS's claim that it seeks 'a society in which all are free to practise their faith, change it or not have one, according to their conscience'. But he offers no evidence to back up his argument that the organisation's real aim is the 'eradication' of religion.

You can find some less heated debate about religion and secularism at two useful websites. The Religion and Secularism Network is based at Cambridge University, while The Immanent Frame is a blog on secularism, religion and the public sphere supported by the US Social Science Research Council, and devoted almost exclusively to discussion of Charles Taylor's new book A Secular Age.

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