Secularism and Religion

Speech to Nottingham Secular Society opposing the motion, ‘All religions should embrace secularism.’ (Motion proposed by Terry Sanderson, President, National Secular Society).


CAPE, 44 Pelham Street Nottingham NG1 2EW


Rev Dr David Hilborn, Principal, St John’s College, Nottingham


28th April, 2014, 7.30pm


Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:


I’d like to thank you for asking me to speak here tonight. I must confess, however, that when I, as an Evangelical Anglican theologian, was invited to debate here, at the Nottingham Secular Society, on the subject of secularism, the image that first came to my mind was Daniel in the Lions’ Den! Then again, that story turned out ok in the end, and like Daniel I believe in a miraculous God, so let’s see how we go as I try to persuade you to vote against the motion before us.


As some of you know, this debate was originally scheduled to have taken place last October, but had to be cancelled due to high winds making it impossible for Terry to travel up here to Nottingham. Well, as I’ve read the headlines this week I’m tempted to suggest that those winds were an Act of God – because what might have been a rather more abstract debate back in the autumn has been given real pertinence by David Cameron’s claim in the Church Times that Britain is a Christian country, by 50 leading secularists and atheists penning a letter of protest at his supposedly ‘divisive’ comments, and by subsequent interventions from Dominic Grieve, Iain Duncan Smith, Archbishop Justin Welby and his predecessor Rowan Williams.


Yet while it would be tempting to focus on that whole furore this evening, our motion is not specifically concerned with whether Britain is a Christian country, or whether, more particularly, the Church of England should be disestablished. Rather, it’s asking us to consider something much more broad-ranging – namely whether ‘all religions’ should embrace secularism’. So I hope it honours that motion if from time to time I illustrate my opposition to it with reference to the ‘Cameron Controversy’, but if I concentrate on the more essential and fundamental terms in which it’s been framed. And as I do this I want to stress that the wording of tonight’s motion immediately prompts some crucial questions…


First, what’s meant here by ‘religion’? Not surprisingly the NSS website uses the word ‘religion’ a lot, but a clear definition is pretty hard to come by there. On balance the NSS leans towards what might be called the metaphysical definition of religion – that which sees it defined by belief in a God or gods, and which John Haldane describes as seeking ‘solutions to the observed facts of moral and physical evil, limitation and vulnerability, particularly and especially death.’ Then again, there are hints elsewhere on the NSS site of the anthropological understanding of scholars like Clifford Geertz, who defines religion not so much in terms of theism as by cultural and ritual processes – or as he puts it, ‘symbols which act to establish powerful…moods and motivations in [people through] conceptions of a general order of existence.’ On these terms, it’s possible to cast non-theistic and even atheistic belief systems like Theravada Buddhism and Marxism as ‘religions’. 


Now this definitional ambiguity about ‘religion’ is significant not only in itself, but also because it goes to heart of what our motion actually means by ‘secularism’. To be blunt: while ‘secularism’ here might appear to describe a benign ‘level playing field’ in which the state fosters equality of belief-systems both religious and non-religious, when read in context it can be seen to imply a more militantly humanistic and even atheistic agenda – one which should be resisted not only by Anglican theologians like me, but by any religious believer who thinks that “doing God” must have a public as a well as a private dimension.


You see, if ‘religion’ is a tricky concept that needs defining, we should take even more care over ‘secularism’.  In the ‘Secular Charter’ published by the NSS itself, two distinct definitions of secularism can be discerned. First, as I’ve said, is the principle of equality of religions and beliefs before the law.  So far, so apparently good. But the second definition is more problematic. This is the definition of secularism as an active effort to separate the state from religious institutions and influences – to make the public square a religion-free, or more specifically a God-free, zone. Taken at face value, I have far fewer issues with the first version of ‘secularism’ than with the second. Indeed, if all that was meant by ‘secularism’ was equality and diversity of religion and belief, I’d probably not be opposing the motion this evening. In practice, however, secularism all too often extends from this first definition to the second – namely, the active attempt to exclude religion from public life and civic influence.


This second, more aggressive form of secularism goes beyond freedom of religion, and beyond even the constitutional distinction of religion from the state. Rather, it pursues an agenda which has shaped the National Secular Society since its inception in 1866, but which has been played down in more recent times, not least by Terry himself – perhaps because of the extraordinary resurgence of religion worldwide in the past few decades, and perhaps because of the growing diversity of religious expression here in multicultural Britain. The agenda in question is the agenda of politicized atheism – or as a still downloadable pamphlet from the NSS website by former President David Tribe describes it, ‘militant secular humanism’. Indeed, although the NSS more prominently proclaims that ‘secularism is not atheism’, that it ‘simply provides a framework for a democratic society’, and that it ‘does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion’, I have to say that this is belied by the campaigning thrust of the NSS, which, remains effectively concentrated on excluding religion from civic life – whether in the form of religiously-based schools, government-backed faith-based welfare projects, or public service chaplaincies.


As I’m sure many of you know, the term ‘secularism’ derives from the Latin saeculum meaning ‘this age’ or ‘this world’ rather than the ‘age to come’, or heaven. And quite clearly there is a form of secularism which is philosophically wedded to scientific materialism and the denial of the supernatural – a strain which is thus ideologically committed to public atheism as over against public religion. The founder of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91) certainly saw his atheism as closely bound up with his secularism, and devoted comparable amounts of time to advocating for each. Even today, the ‘new look’ NSS showcases a range of ‘Honorary Associates’ who are better known for their ideological advocacy of atheism than for their promotion of secularism as such: Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais, A.C. Grayling, Jonathan Meades, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullmann, Jonathan Miller, Joan Smith and Polly Toynbee, to name just a few. Tellingly, many of these very same names appeared as signatories to that Daily Telegraph letter decrying David Cameron’s assertion that Britain remains a Christian country. So again we come back to that fundamental question of definition: when the NSS asks religions to embrace secularism, as Terry and our motion are asking them to do this evening, what is actually meant by ‘secularism’? The dedicated, campaigning atheism of these ‘Honorary Associates’, or the apparently more neutral, pluralistic secularism that Terry himself seems to prefer? Our motion makes no distinction between the two, and because it doesn’t adherents of any socially responsible religious tradition should vote against it.


Our public life today is enriched by a diversity of religious communities. All have their part to play in our civic discourse; all have a stake in the body politic. Ostensibly, Terry might agree with this in principle. But in fact, denunciation of faith schools, hospital chaplains and faith-based welfare bespeak a more intolerant kind of secularism – one that would have religious citizens confine the religious aspect of their lives behind closed doors, to the privacy of their own homes, churches, temples, synagogues and mosques. This is the model of secularism that pertains in the French system of laicité, and I have to say that it’s a dishonest, disingenuous sort of secularism – one that claims a civic neutrality which is in fact anything but neutral – which is, indeed, a myth…


You see, to require religion to be ‘privatized’ in this way is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of religious traditions, the vast majority of which do not see themselves as personal hobbies or recreations, but as holistic systems dedicated to the common good. And here’s the thing: civic religion remains strikingly popular, so that to sweep it from public life in the name of ‘equality’ would, in fact be deeply undemocratic. Recent surveys have shown that 80% of the English population support church schools as promoting good behaviour and positive attitudes among young people.  1 million pupils attend Church of England schools specifically. 1600 CofE chaplains alone offer tangible support to people of all faiths and none in hospitals, prisons, schools, universities, colleges and the armed forces. And chaplaincies are hardly exclusive to the CofE: many other churches and faith groups contribute to them, and even, of late the British Humanist Association! And let’s not forget the numerous food banks, credit unions, hospices, care homes, youth clubs, homeless shelters, aid charities and housing trusts run by churches and other faith groups, some of which receive government money, even while others don’t. Our debate tonight may be much wider than the current ‘Cameron Debate’, but it’s worth noting that leaders of other faith groups, from Anil Bhanot of the Hindu Council through Farooq Murahd of the Muslim Council of Great Britain to Lord Indarjit Singh of the Network of Sikh Organisations have all endorsed the idea that Britain remains a Christian country, and in some cases, that the establishment of the Church of England benefits their own faith communities, and society in general.


Sure, fewer people consider themselves Christian now than a decade ago, but 59% is still a majority. Sure, fewer people attend church, but 1.7 million are in CofE services alone at least once per month on average, and 12 million visit cathedrals every year. Sure, historic Free Churches are in decline, but newer Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are growing, and making ever more impact on public life. This is hardly privatized religion, retreating into the shadows. Granted, 41% of folk may call themselves ‘non-religious’, but non-involvement in religion is hardly the same thing as committed secularism. Terry can confirm, but as far as I can work it out, the current membership of NSS is no more than 5000. Respectable enough, but hardly a mass movement poised to sweep religion out of civic life.


In any case, there’s no such thing as the ‘neutral’ or ‘naked’ public square.  All of us enter it with presuppositions and pre-commitments – secularists and atheists as much as religious folk. In a free society, all of us need to engage in public life with graciousness and respect for the other. It is arrogant of secularists to suggest that their ideology is better equipped to define and manage this diversity than the public theologies of various faith groups.


And even if it were possible to exclude religion from civic life, one might well ask whether secularism could deliver anything approaching the sort of moral infrastructure and social cohesion which have so long been provided by religious traditions. I do not mean to suggest by this that non-religious people can’t be moral. Of course they can. But for thousands of years, religious traditions have delivered practical public benefits to humanity which secular systems have often failed to acknowledge or emulate. Religions invest the basic processes of birth and death with dignity and significance. They generate sustainable communities, with shared principles and goals. They inform and enhance family life. They offer a hope beyond the grave, which spurs people to bequeath a positive legacy to their successors—a legacy which transcends mere reproduction. Thus in most religious understandings, the order of a universe made by a loving Creator is inextricably linked with the love, peace and justice of a positively ordered life in a decently ordered society.


And since our motion does not confine itself to Britain it’s worth saying that this applies internationally as much as in the UK. In the Sixties and Seventies social scientists routinely predicted the global eclipse of religion. The sociologist Peter Berger famously declared in 1967 that by the Twenty-first century religious believers would exist only in ‘small sects, huddled against a world-wide secular culture.’ Yet by the 1990s, Berger was forced to pronounce that declaration ‘absurd’. Indeed, as Professor Grace Davie confirms, Europe is now the exception, not the rule, where religious decline is concerned. In China, South Korea, Brazil and other economically advancing cultures, it’s going from strength to strength. Globally, religious affiliation is growing at a rate of 1.5% per annum. Every day sees 70,000 new Christians and 68,000 new Muslims.[1] The world in 2014 bears out what Friedrich Wilhelm Graf has called ‘the stubborn persistence of religions’. Or as the Economist journalists John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge sum it up, on the world stage, ‘God is Back’.


Against this background the renowned Catholic theologian Hans Küng has worked with several other faith leaders in recent years to define a ‘global ethic’ derived from insights common to the world’s major religions. Given its diverse provenance, it is in many ways a minimal ethic, and as an Evangelical Christian there is much I would want to add to it. But though it represents a fairly humble ‘lowest common denominator’, it still highlights the essential historic contribution of religion to the codes and values that shape our lives today. It has four key components. First, non-violence and respect for life, as embodied in the work and witness of figures like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Second, a culture of solidarity which prioritises communal networks. Third, an emphasis on truth telling and tolerance in human relationships. And fourth, the common dignity of all human beings, derived from their status as children of God.


Again, secularists may claim that it’s possible to construct a similar sort of morality without recourse to the divine. But religion got there first, and as we’ve seen, it’s not going away. Indeed, godless moralities tend to be parasitic on religious ethics, while eschewing those qualities of ultimate purpose and eternal value which have made the great religions so robust, so durable, and such generous net contributors to our social wellbeing. Religion can inspire change for the better because its offers a vision of the whole of life—not only its physical and material aspects, but its moral and metaphysical dimensions, too. As a Christian, I find this vision fulfilled uniquely in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. In Jesus I see rationality in action—wisdom with a human face. To me he satisfies men’s and women’s finest religious instincts, their highest ideals, their greatest ethical aims. Yet he does so not only as a paragon of humanity, but as the Son of the living God, as divine wisdom and divine love made flesh. And taking my cue from Jesus’ inextricable link between godly love and love of neighbour, I’m also happy to make common cause with non-Christian religions where our shared values point people beyond themselves—to a vibrant, democratic society enriched by its religious communities at both public and private levels. History shows that those who deny this kind of society by seeking to marginalise or privatise religion end up impoverishing public life rather than enriching it.  


Mr Chairman, if ‘secularism’ means equal rights for the beliefs and practices of religious and non-religious people, then I might count myself a secularist. But if it means the systematic exclusion of religion from public life on the false assumption that secular humanism, scientific materialism or atheism is more ‘neutral’ or ‘benign’, then I most certainly am not. Granted, religions have at times behaved immorally, and even tyrannically, when afforded civic power: that’s why Hans Küng’s project stresses that civic and global peace depend on peaceable rather than martial religion. But on this reading, secularists have abused power, too – and arguably, in modern times, the secularist record here is worse. Despite the subtitle of David Tribe’s pamphlet I’m sure there are ‘non-militant’ secularists. Terry seems to be one, and maybe many here tonight are, too. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that secularism in another guise drove the Jacobins, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. I’m not saying that all secularists want to eject religion forcibly from the public square, any more than I would expect a thinking secularist like Terry to imply that all religious believers are theocratic fundamentalists.  

What I am saying is that the contribution of religion to our common life has been immense. It remains as necessary for a healthy society as it ever was. Attempts to oust it from the public square have a disreputable past, and do not bear repeating. We need public religion today, as the vast mass of humanity has always needed it. We can argue the fine details of how secularism is defined in theory, but too often in practice secularism has shown itself as negative and hostile to religion, and particularly to public and civic religion. Mr Chairman for these reasons, and the others given here, I oppose the motion.   


3 thoughts on “Secularism and Religion

    1. Yes, I am. Good to hear from you, Clabon. After City Temple and Queens Park URCs, which you may recall, Mia and I became Anglicans in 2002. Mia continued to work as Head of Chaplaincy at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital and I did a house for duty curacy in Acton while continuing to work for the Evangelical Alliance, where I had been Theological Adviser part-time since 1997. After curacy I left EA to work for the North Thames Ministerial Training Course, first as Director of Studies, then as Principal. NTMTC partnered with St Paul’s Theological Centre at HTB in 2008 to form St Mellitus College, and I continued as Principal of NTMTC while also serving as Assistant Dean of St Mellitus. In 2012 I was appointed Principal here at St John’s College, Nottingham. Mia has continued working at Guys and St Thomas’, so we maintain a flat in London while occupying a family home on campus at St John’s.

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