Evolving Thoughts

Sunday Sermon

The Eight Day Adventist calendar has rotated into phase with your infidel calendar, so it is time for a sermon. Our subject today is secularism.

I noted an article about the decline in secular standards in Turkey, which of all modern societies is the one most deeply founded as a nation in secular ideals. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wanted a society not controlled by the imams in order for Turkey to catch up to the then more secular west. But Turkey is now about to elect a Muslim leader who wants Sharia. Meanwhile, in the once-shining example of modern secularism, the United States, even the Administration and the Army is now openly run by religionists. And a few expressions of outrage by a couple of senators seem not to have much effect. I think we can safely say that the United States is lost to the world as a secular society now.

So why should it matter? A few minority religions, and all those nonbelievers, will just have to toe the majority line and submit to the religious rules of others. There’s nothing unjust about that, is there? Besides, it is the fault of those Hindus, Jews, Muslims and atheists they chose wrong, isn’t it?

Friday night, over beers (which is a religious rite in Australia), one of the students asked me why secular society should be defended. After all, he said, isn’t secularism and liberal democracy just another ideology? Why should those who are authoritarians, or socialists, be constrained by the rules of liberal democracy? It hit me this is a “frame” that is shared by most people these days. Isn’t secularism just another religious ideology?

Setting up ideas as competitors in the market place is correct in one sense, but there is a very large distinction between an idea that states “all ideologies should be given room to breath, so long as they do not impose their views on others by force or coercion”, and an idea that says “all people must adhere to our standards”. If your religion says that all believers must do X, then fine, so long as there is no coercion against leaving your religion when it suits. Secularism protects citizens against apostates being harmed or killed, as Islamists will do against ex-Muslims if they convert, and other religions will also do if allowed to.

Religions are not good ways to run a society or nation, unless you can guarantee that every single member of your nation is a believer, and not a heretical or heterodox one either. Neither Israel nor Iran has managed that feat. Why should we give in to the claim that it will work here? Shouldn’t all rational believers recognise that even if they could make America or wherever a Christian (Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist) state, they had better not for their own good?

I am very sad that America is now an exclusively Christian state in fact of not in law. I am sorry that the American response to religious terrorism was to become much more like the terrorists rather than to defend the secularism of their fathers. I had such high hopes for them. But perhaps we still have a chance in Old Europe and the old colonies that inherited the European drive to pluralism and tolerance of the late 18th century. Or perhaps the first victim religious clash of civilisations will be the areligious and the tolerant. I hope not. Defend secularism no matter what your religious views are. Secularism protects your religion as much as it does my irreligion. Secularism allows religions to behave in a civilised manner. It’s not an ideology; it’s the field in which ideologies can behave properly, like a sports field and code allows teams to compete without murdering each other.



  1. #1 Roland Deschain
    April 28, 2007

    You must be truly angered that the increasing Muslim influence in Europe/Australia is breeding Christian fundamentalism instead of a strong drive to reaffirm secular values (which wouldn’t change a thing for most Europeans/Australians Christians, but would utterly remove any base of power from the Muslim argument.

    Your short speech makes me think of Dawkins’s hypothesis of why the U.S. is such a religious anomaly within the developed world: precisely because it is the only nation where secular values (most importantly the separation of religion and state) are deeply entrenched in the law.

    Paradoxically, the very freedom of religion that occurs when it is barred from the government has led the religious majority in the U.S. to fight viciously to reinstate it. I believe that if the UK officially remove all religious positions from its government (however vacuous/powerless these positions are at the moment), a fundamentalist Christian movement would very soon pop up in the UK demanding a very real/powerful representation in the government.

    Now I know I am grotesquely generalizing a very complex situation, but allow me one more: I don’t think there can be a state without a majority religion represented in the government (I am an atheist, so I’m saying this with a deep sigh of defeat). In most developed nations, this representation is purely symbolic and (largely) without power. However, officially take away that symbolic representation and a very real religious representation will inevitably reassert itself (ex: US). This turn of event will of course lead to a degenerate/cruel/tyrannical government. And then the cycle repeats.

  2. #2 Janne
    April 28, 2007

    I think that perhaps your initial examples are somewhat backward. Kemal Ataturk had to define a “militantly secular” society precisely because the traditional society was too deeply embedded into a religious worldview. And the US constitution sort-of similarly makes a point about being secular for similar reasons (many early immigrants were essentially religious refugees; to overgeneralize, it’s always been a country of sects).

    To that end, taking countries that have seen the need to explicitly defend secularism in their constitution as examples is probably rather pessimistic.

  3. #3 John Wilkins
    April 28, 2007

    Janne, Ataturk’s motives were to prevent religion from controlling social progress, as I understand the history. The U.S.’s separation was to prevent any one religious denomination from controlling society. In both cases, secularism was a way of ensuring that the powers temporal and the powers divine were distinct. But this also occurs, with less drama and overt display, in pretty well all modern democratic nations. Australia has a nice clause in its constitution, which formalises the British conventions about religious freedom, for instance; not because religion was a major source of social disunity then (it was later, when the Catholic Church tried to run the labour movement) but because in the British past, it had been, and the rules evolved to prevent it.

    I don’t know enough about Sweden, with its Lutheran majority, to say what you have there. Perhaps you never did have sufficient pluralism of religious views for it to matter. It matters now.

  4. #4 Gerard Harbison
    April 29, 2007

    I am very sad that America is now an exclusively Christian state in fact of not in law. I am sorry that the American response to religious terrorism was to become much more like the terrorists rather than to defend the secularism of their fathers.

    Hysteria ill becomes you, lad.

    I grew up in a Christian-dominated society, one where two flavors of Christians went to war over issues such as whether children’s playgrounds could open on Sundays. Tomorrow, when I get up in the upper left corner of the US, a small minority of my fellow citizens will be in church, and the rest will be going down to Starbucks to pick up the New York Times, or playing soccer, or shopping, or just hanging out. But, thankfully, the malls and the ballfields will be open.

    This is not a particularly religious society. There’s a lot of public hypocrisy about religion, but it’s skin deep. And there is a minority of maybe 15% who’d like to impose their religion on the rest of us, but let’s not exaggerate their power or influence.

  5. #5 John Wilkins
    April 29, 2007

    Nobody gets sarcasm any more, do they?

    Of course the US is not a Christian society. But there are those who, like the CO in the Tillman case, Kauzlarich, who seem to think it is.

  6. #6 Scott Belyea
    April 29, 2007

    Roland Deschain:

    I don’t think there can be a state without a majority religion represented in the government …

    I don’t understand this statement as a generality. I can see it in the symbolic sense for the UK. However, when I look at Canada, it beats me what you could be referring to. And I wonder about the Scandinavian countries …

  7. #7 John Wilkins
    April 29, 2007

    It’s a pretty standard conservative refrain that religion is what makes a state. Secularism is the claim that it is not necessary.

  8. #8 Scott Belyea
    April 29, 2007

    It’s a pretty standard conservative refrain that religion is what makes a state.

    Oh, I understand that, but the particular statement I quoted struck me as more than a bit odd …

  9. #9 writerdd
    April 29, 2007

    Excellent post, thank you!

  10. #10 Alex
    April 29, 2007

    I’m also wondering about that statement Scott, I don’t know what the religious representation in Australia is. We have a couple of highly religious people in the wrong spots (Eg, a catholic health minister who brings his abortion views with him) but I’m not aware of any formal representation. Am I right John?

  11. #11 Chris Ho-Stuart
    April 29, 2007

    Excellent article, John.

    Alex brings up an interesting point. We [have] several religious politicians, but (in my opinion) we remain a highly secular society in the sense John proposes. Secularism is not an ideology, but a common background in which ideologies and religions can engage and interact without murdering each other — or imposing their ideology by force. So in a secular society we expect to have religious politicians; and they will have views that are formed by religion. That is not a conflict with secularism.

    You mention Tony Abbott, our Health minister. He is personally strongly opposed to abortion, and he brings those views with him. I disagree with him; but secularism means he can do this. There’s a huge and usually nasty debate on that topic; it is one in which secularism is tested incredibly strongly. Abbott’s rhetoric is restrained by comparison with what we typically see on the web. I actually respect him, though I would not vote for him. He’s intelligent, and he’s compassionate. (His Home Page).

    This has been topical recently, in relation to the drug RU-486. Abbott had indicated that he would, unilaterally, refuse to approve the drug in Australia. Parliament removed his power to do this early last year; I think that was a good move. However, the first formal registration of the drug with our “Therapeutic Goods Administration” has still to be made. It is expected shortly, and this has been a minor story in the news. I expect it will get press again when the application is made.

    Secularism is a worthy ideal and one that that requires on-going defense. The ongoing work to maintain a secular society needs to be engaged by unbelievers and believers together, as both recognize the value of secularism, even with some disagreements as to how that works out in some of the fine details.

    Tony Abbott is, I think, on our side on this; though he may not be on our side with respect to various other political questions. See, for example, his Address to the Conference of Australian Imams.

    Hey. Nice to have a blog with some Aussie politics.

    [Edit by John]

  12. #12 John Wilkins
    April 29, 2007

    I think Abbott is on “our side” so long as it suits him politically [i.e., when the issue is Islamic behaviour], but not when he wants to impose moral standards on society according to his lights. In short, I think he’s a hypocrite. If he had a chance to impose Catholic doctrinally based standards on all of us, then Church-State separation would rapidly evaporate. His behavior on the RU486 issue indicated this pretty clearly. There was no public interest, or therapeutic, reason why he should have controlled this. None whatsoever. The sole reason for his control was that he got to determine that it would not get to be used in line with his anti-abortion standards. He wasn’t preventing Catholics from using it, but everyone.

    So I’m sorry, but I think Abbott, and Howard’s and other politicians’ complicit agreement, actually is the problem here in Australia in the attack on secularism.

  13. #13 Chris Ho-Stuart
    April 29, 2007

    I agree with you on the RU486; Abbott was clearly in the wrong there. But I think we can live with such disagreements.

    By live with, I don’t mean ignore as unimportant! The disagreement there was real and substantive; and the limits on the executive power of the health minister was an important positive step for secularism.

    What I mean by “live with” is that, having disagreed on that issue, we can move past it and still find common ground on other matters, as well as new areas of disagreement.

    After all, isn’t that the secularism as you describe it here? The field in which ideologies can behave properly, like a sports field and code allows teams to compete without murdering each other.

    I’m cautious on the hypocrisy label. We all deal with issues where there are competing concerns, and in some contexts one principle weighs stronger in the balance, and in another context other principles are uppermost.

    I’m inclined to accept that Abbott, basically, is a supporter of our secular society. Part of the problem with the abortion debate is that there are such wildly different perspectives on public interest. For many people, an embryo or fetus is a part of that public interest. There’s a divide here that cannot be simply bridged.

    I’m always thinking these subjects through, and shifting somewhat as I do. It’s a great topic to have brought up for discussion!

  14. #14 John Wilkins
    April 29, 2007

    The abortion debate (no, I won’t get into that here) is founded on the idea that small undeveloped organisms in utero can be said to have legal rights. But the legal situation is that nobody has rights before partition. Why should a secular society control when abortions can be had? Only on the assumption that rights should be extended before partition, which makes sense only on the Catholic theological doctrine of the ensoulment of the zygote.

    No I am prepared to say that a late term fetus probably feels pain, and that its experiences may perturb later development out of the womb, but that is not enough to favour the rights of the fetus over the [adult, formed and definitely rights bearing] adult mother. So on what non religious basis should abortion be controlled? There is none, I would say.

    This is entirely a matter of religious attempts to control the nonreligious’ behaviours. There is no other foundation to it. If the religious want their community to abide by theological standards, well and good. There is no basis for extending that into secular society.

    Abbott is, in my observation, a slimy operator who will do anything he can to advance his religious standards into secular society. I do not extend to him the sort of latitude you do, Chris. He has proven himself many times.

  15. #15 Tyler DiPietro
    April 30, 2007

    “Secularism protects your religion as much as it does my irreligion.”

    This is one of the areas where I think secularists have a hard time empathizing with certain believers. While more liberal religious organizations are all good and cool with the “live and let live” mentality, a lot of religions play off of exceptionalism. “Christian nation” rhetoric is one example of that, “you can’t blaspheme us without dying” is another.

    I have a hard time understanding where people would get the idea that their supernatural beliefs make them innately exceptional in the broader realm of law and politics. But I’m just a dumbass atheist, afterall.

  16. #16 Enigman
    May 1, 2007

    As a theist I too (re #15) am dumbfounded by the political exceptionalism of many modern theists. I suspect that their apparently theistic talk is really all noises of social approval and disapproval. If they really believed that they were right, about such a powerful entity as their Creator, they would have no problem with letting politics be politics. Nor would they fear the scientific pursuit of the truth. And if they themselves feared their own God as they want others to fear them, they would be a lot less presumptuous in their beliefs anyway.

  17. #17 Trinifar
    May 1, 2007

    Well, pardon me for linking to my blog, but as a steady reader of Evolving Thoughts I always enjoy John’s comments on religion and secularism and recently wrote something related. In this post I try to shed some light on the language we use to talk about religion and atheism. Adherents.com which collects data on the number of people in various religious and secular categories notes that world-wide “secular” is the third largest group just after Christianity and Islam. Of the people in the secular category, about half say “yes” to the question “Do you believe in God or a Higher Power?” (They can’t all be AA members. )

  18. #18 Mike Haubrich
    May 3, 2007

    I’m cautious on the hypocrisy label. We all deal with issues where there are competing concerns, and in some contexts one principle weighs stronger in the balance, and in another context other principles are uppermost.

    Chris, I have come to the conclusion that you are cautious on everything. Not to be nasty or anything, but in your desire to accommodate everyone you really come across as a, um, stoner who just wants everyone to get along.

    Sorry. Not everything is a T-Account.

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