Giles Fraser: Is secularism neutral on faith or anti-religious?

24 October 2007

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. In a recent press release, they boast that their “certificate of de-baptism”, a strange document that can be found on their website, has been accessed 100,000 times in the past five years.

A number of those web hits have been me. Every time I have a look, I wonder to myself: if you don’t believe anything happens at baptism, what’s the point of being de-baptised? To be cheeky, it all seems rather superstitious to me.

But my real argument with the NSS is the trickery it constantly employs with respect to the word “secular”. I contend that the core meaning of secularism is the belief in the separation of Church and state. Religion, the secularist contends, ought not to have a place in shaping the laws or political realities by which we live.

Thus there should be no bishops in the House of Lords, the Queen ought not to be the head of state and Supreme Governor of the C of E, and so on. There are many Christians who believe in this sort of thing. From time to time, I am one of them. There is also a fairly good argument that the first secularist was Jesus himself, rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. Augustine followed with his division between the City of God and the City of Man.

The NSS often employs this meaning of secular, especially when it is trying to look grown-up in making representations to government. Thus it says it wants “a society in which all are free to practise their faith, change it or not have one, according to their conscience”. It goes on about the importance of public space being open to all, irrespective of faith.

Yet, not far below the surface, another meaning of secular breaks out. Here, secular is little more than a synonym for virulent anti-religious prejudice. In this guise, the NSS portrays all religion as being about “brainwashing” and “indoctrination”. It goes so far as to defend comments about Muslims as having “shit for brains” (from a “comedian” also beloved by the BNP).

The commentator Sunny Hundal, who is from a Sikh family but is not religious himself, says of those in the NSS: “While they preach secularism, they actually prefer atheism.”

The NSS is either an organisation seeking to defend a neutral public space for everybody — the religious and the non-religious alike — or it is a part of a campaign to eradicate religion from sight. It should make up its mind which one it is. It cannot be both.

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