Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Understanding secularism

Once again, a Laurence Boyce article on Lib Dem Voice has sparked off a discussion amongst the party faithful. This time, Laurence is riled by Cardinal O’Brien’s pronouncements on abortion. Last week, the Roman Catholic leader called on Catholic politicians to oppose abortion, and suggested that political leaders who vote in favour of it should be barred from Communion. Laurence sees this as “subvert[ing] the democratic process.”

To some extent, I sympathise. Laurence is right to attack the Cardinal’s stance on abortion. A woman doesn’t terminate her pregnancy for fun – she does so under very difficult and individual circumstances. A woman herself is best able to decide if an abortion is necessary and justified – not the state, and not the criminal law.

What I disagree with, however, is Laurence’s outrage that O’Brien should be allowed to air his views. It’s all very well to complain that the Cardinal isn’t elected and isn’t accountable to anyone, but as Jeremy Hargreaves points out, he doesn’t hold any political power either. Anybody who feels strongly about an issue has the right to campaign in public, and try to change people’s opinions. I’ve helped to organise a demo about a contentious and emotionally-charged issue – nobody elected me to represent them, but I really don’t think I was subverting democracy.

If Laurence believes that the religious groups should be entirely private organisations, he must accept their right to have their own policy, however out-of-kilter it is with the rest of society. And as long as churches don’t break the law on discrimination, they should be allowed to decide who is and isn’t eligible to take part in the activities they organise. The Catholic Church excluding a pro-choice politician from Communion is no worse than, say, UKIP refusing to let a pro-European edit their newsletter.

Much of the current debate stems from Laurence's belief that the Lib Dems should position themselves as an “explicitly secular political party”. Rather awkwardly, there are two definitions of the word “secularism”, with significantly different meanings, which often leads to misunderstanding and confusion when people discuss this topic. If we're going to have a rational debate on the role of secularism within the Lib Dems, we need to define our terms clearly.

Firstly, secularism can mean total freedom of belief; the idea that the state should remain entirely neutral, without promoting any religion over another, or promoting theism over atheism. That’s my view of secularism. It’s consistent with liberal thought and with existing Lib Dem policy.

Then there’s the second view, as given by the OED: the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state. This brand of secularism isn’t just a neutral stance on religion, it’s an argument against it. It may well be a good argument, but that isn’t the point. If we’re going to be neutral, and leave religion up to individual consciences, then we’re wrong to attack religion, just as we’d be wrong to as promote it.

I’m all in favour of the Lib Dems having a strong platform of religious neutrality – in fact, I think it’s a fundamental liberal belief. But if we allow secularism to descend into Laurence’s pastime of “bashing religion”, even when it genuinely deserves bashing, we undermine our claim to be neutral and tolerant. It takes a lot of discipline to stay calm, especially when figures like Cardinal O’Brien make such outrageous pronouncements – but true secularism vitally needs that sort of discipline.


Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Jonny,

As you know, I am a Militant Atheist Baby Elephant - and my Daddy Richard goes into a rant about religion... well, pretty much on an hourly basis - but we agree with most of what you have to say about secularism requiring NEUTRALITY. It is fair for me to air my fluffy views; it is fair for some nutter to spout off.

Where we DISAGREE with you, though, is when you say that the Cardinal is ONLY airing his opinion. He is threatening any Catholic MP with not allowing them to take communion and this is a pretty big thing for Catholic believers.

The nearest equivalent we could think of was threatening to OUT gay MPs who vote for Section 28.

This is not just MORAL blackmail; it is getting close to ACTUAL blackmail!

And, of course, it wouldn't JUST be him – it would be the rule for all of the Catholic Priests who WORK for him. If the Cardinal makes a PRONOUNCEMENT then they have to do as they are told. He may not be elected, but that's still quite a lot of POWER within his own organisation.

We expect our MPs to make these IMPORTANT decisions after weighing up the evidence and deciding on the best of their conscience and intelligence. And NOT because some old man in a dress is making threats!

Laurence Boyce said...

Very thoughtful and intelligent response Jonny. It won’t surprise you to learn that your second definition of secularism is the one to which I subscribe. However, I would be the first to say that that vision cannot be imposed by the state, which would amount to a sort of Stalinism. Instead, I want to achieve the end result primarily through conversation, which is what all the Blogging is about.

But I would say that your first definition of secularism is maybe too loose. For me, secularism, in the strict sense of the word, means separation of church and state. That doesn’t happen by accident; it requires a bit of enforcement under the authority of a secular constitution.

Take America as an example. Under their secular constitution, the American courts have ruled that “Intelligent Design” (aka creationism 2.0) cannot be taught in the school curriculum. Over here, without a secular constitution to protect us, we tend not to bother with “Intelligent Design” so much; we just plump straight for the real thing.

Note that despite being secular, America is a deeply religious country. Many religious people also desire a secular society because it frees up religion to operate in a marketplace of ideas. It is entirely possible that when Britain goes secular, it will become much more religious. That’s a risk I’m willing to take!

While my article centred largely on abortion, because that was the news item, I’m not actually that bothered about abortion because I don’t see the law changing any time soon. My only concern about abortion would be to try to get the numbers down to a minimum, to which end we should be applying all of our faculties of reason and basically none of our religious ones.

No, the touchstone issue for me is faith schools, something which I regard as a monumental folly. Divisive, costly, restricting of choice, discriminatory, bad. I regard a sort of liberal defence of faith schooling as being deeply flawed. Basically, the line goes something like this: if parents want to have a Catholic school, or even teach their children creationism, then who is the state to stand in their way?

But the question I ask is: whose education are we talking about? It’s not the parent’s, is it? It’s the child’s. I believe that the state has a duty of care towards the most vulnerable members of society, and there are none more vulnerable than children. Yet we appear to be quite happy to allow them to be taught patent falsehoods in the name of diversity and choice. I say that is an abject betrayal.

I am not naïve about the difficulty of abolishing faith based education from where we now stand, but it is imperative that we set it as a long term goal and start making the argument. I think that the situation could move very rapidly, much faster than you might think, and that Liberal Democrats need to position themselves now to capitalise on the shift in national mood when it arrives, which it surely will.

For the time being, most people regard faith schools as being broadly a good thing. They get good results, have a good ethos, and all that jazz. But that will change, and very suddenly. You heard it here first!

Jonny Wright said...

Dear Millennium,

First of all, thanks very much for your comment, and very best wishes to you, Richard and especially Alex, who sent me a lovely email over three weeks ago, which I still haven't replied to, because a) I'm very disorganised, and b) I was in five different places in the space of a fortnight! (Graal-M├╝ritz, Berlin, London, Oxford and Altrincham.)

I think you're absolutely right to say that MPs should make their decision based on their conscience and their intelligence, rather than being morally blackmailed. But Catholicism is basically a big organisation which you can be a member of, and which you can get thrown out of if you go against its beliefs (even if those beliefs are wrong) - and I think that an organisation should have the right to do that.

I'm not sure I agree with your Section 28 comparison. I think the nearest equivalent would be a Lib Dem MP who voted in favour of keeping Section 28, when it was party policy to get rid of it. Charles Kennedy would have been within his rights to tell that MP to get lost, and not come back until they'd discovered a capacity for tolerance. In the same way, even if their policy is very wrong, I think that the Catholic Church should be able to exclude members who go against it.

Look at it this way. You and I both think that religions should be strictly separate from the state. But if you want to tell Catholic bishops that they have to give Communion to someone when they don't want to, then you're arguing that the state should mess around in the internal affairs of a religious group. Separation has to cut both ways.

I think the best we can do is trust Catholic politicians to use their brains, their conscience, and their political principles, instead of being bullied by an "old man in a dress". Charles Kennedy has certainly managed to be a Catholic yet support Civil Partnerships and stem-cell research, for example.