On Secularism

Secularism, as a philosophical and political concept, has had a long history within the Western world[1]. It first appeared in Ancient Greece in the writings of Plato[2], and was further developed during the Reformation in the 16th century with Martin Luther and John Calvin[3] and later by modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant[4], et al. It is clear from the literature that secularism started as a way of managing pluralistic societies where various theistic assumptions were held. Jürgen Moltmann suggests,

Outside the modern world, there were and are no religionless politics…The secularization of the modern state which Christian and Islamic fundamentalists lament is a religious achievement springing from the religious liberty of modern men and women; it is not an irreligious evil.[5] [6]

As with most philosophical and socio-political theories there are various forms in which it is found.[7] With the limitations of this essay I have chosen to engage specifically with the National Secular Society (N.S.S.) whose claim that ‘secularism is the best chance to create a society in which people of all religions or none can live together fairly and peacefully’ instigates this study.

I will use the N.S.S. charter and their other documents[8], explicitly highlighting a key issue of the inconsistencies in their proposals. From this perspective I will draw a comparison between the ideas put forward by the N.S.S. and those of liberal democracy, as depicted in Stanley Hauerwas’ Community and Character. Whilst exploring the assumptions of liberal democracy, I will debate whether a) it is a political system that leads to peaceful life and b) the N.S.S. can construct a polity that supports fairness for all in the context of a pluralist society. In doing this I will further highlight the contradictions between their charter and the foundations on which secularism is constructed and begin to question the N.S.S.’s implicit suggestion that society can be at peace only when everyone submits to an autonomous legalistic, ethical framework based on the ‘objectivity’ of secularist worldview. This will lead me to conclude that one appropriate Christian response is to live out a social ethic based not on restrictive denial of competing belief, whatever tradition or culture, but on open discussion, which will provide a fairer and more peaceful society.

Secularism, Liberal Democracy and Humanism

The separation of religion and state is the foundation of secularism. It ensures that religious groups don’t interfere in affairs of state, and makes sure the state doesn’t interfere in religious affairs.[9] [10]

The N.S.S. has set itself up as the public voice for those ‘working exclusively towards a secular society.’[11] Its charter consists of ten clearly defined aims of the organisation (see appendix i), which will act, along with Hauerwas’ classification, ‘All I mean by secular is that our polity and politics gives no special status to any recognizable religious group. Correlatively such a polity requires that public policies be justified on grounds that are not explicitly religious’ [12], as my definition of secularism.

Ultimately, secularism purports that there needs to be a separation of religious belief and political ethics. This, for the N.S.S., is articulated mainly on the macro-level of social polity but, as societies are made up of individual citizens, this requires a privatisation of religious belief on the micro-level. Hauerwas’ definition suggests that public policies, in a truly secular society cannot be justified on religious grounds. This is challenged in the documentation of the N.S.S.

Religious people have the right to express their beliefs publicly but so do those who oppose or question those beliefs.[13]

This statement is contradicted, however, in the N.S.S. charter when it states,

Religion plays no role in state-funded education, whether through religious affiliation, organised worship, religious instruction, pupil selection or employment discrimination.[14]

If religion is refused a role in state-funded education then it denies religious people a right to express their beliefs in that public forum. E.F. Schumacher argues that our ‘modern’ society is based on Enlightenment ‘scientism’ which, he suggests, denies any importance in ‘metaphysical’ questions such as “What is man?” In answer to this question the ‘modern man’, Schumacher suggests, may well answer

…Nothing but physics and biology. If this were true there would be no point in discussing “education”… What can be the meaning of “education” or of “good work” when nothing counts except that which can be precisely stated, measured, counted, or weighed?[15]

He goes on to explore the un-quantifiable aspects of our lives, which the modern man needs to give an answer to. Without a metaphysical framework

We modern people, who reject traditional wisdom and the existence of the vertical dimension of the spirit, like our forefathers desire nothing more than somehow to be able to rise above the humdrum state of our present life.[16]

He argues persuasively that if we maintain this non-metaphysical materialism then education fails to equip our young to ‘rise above [their] own humdrum, petty, egotistical selves.’ Schumacher asks,

What, in these circumstances, can be the purpose of education? In our own Western Civilization… its purpose used to be to lead people out of the dark wood of meaninglessness, purposelessness, drift, and indulgence, up a mountain where there can be gained the truth that makes you free.[17]

What this all leads to is a suggestion that behind the N.S.S. charter is an atheistic assumption that denies the engagement with a metaphysical aspect of the education of our young. If we, as a society, adopt this charter then we subject the next generation to a worldview that denies them the opportunity to gain ‘truth that makes you free.’ Schumacher ends with a keen observation,

Maybe all I want is to be happy… For happiness you need the truth that makes you free – but can the educator tell me what is the truth that makes me free?[18]

In denying the participation of religion within the public education of our young, the N.S.S. is not only contradicting their claim that ‘religious people have a right to express their belief’ but also expressing a desire to remove an acknowledgement of the metaphysical aspects of our humanity from public policy.

Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian writer, ‘takes the classical view that it should be the function of politics to direct people individually and collectively toward the good.’[19] With this in mind he, like George Will, state, ‘we are right to judge a society by the character of the people it produces’[20] which does not mean, as Hauerwas is quick to point out,

…that it is the function of the state to make people good, but rather to direct them to the good. Politics as a moral art does not entail the presumption that the state is a possessor of the good, but rather that the good is to be found in a reality profounder than the state.[21]

If we continue down this line of argument it becomes clear that we must ask, “what role does morality and ethics play in the N.S.S. charter?” Hauerwas addresses the dismissal of Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address and the question of the metaphysics of humanity.[22]

Some have suggested that Solzhenitsyn has confused a social and cultural critique with a political critique. Yet to dismiss Solzhenitsyn in this way is but to manifest the problem he is trying to point out. For we have assumed that we can form a polity that ignores the relation between politics and moral virtue.[23]

When reading the supporting documents of the N.S.S. it seems they have no explicit concern of morals or ethics, or rather they are attempting to rise above such issues and become a ‘framework’ encompassing all morals and ethics,

Secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society. Atheists have an obvious interest in supporting secularism, but secularism itself does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion or belief, neither does it seek to impose atheism on anyone. Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike.[24]

If we read this statement alongside the view that politics must be concerned with the moral character of its citizens, then to deny any ethical direction, atheistic or not, within a polity is to ignore the responsibility to develop moral and ethical agents within its society. Hauerwas and others see this as

…an extraordinary moral project that seeks to secure societal co-operation between moral strangers short of reliance on violence… In the interest of securing tolerance between people, we are forced to pay the price of having our differences rendered morally irrelevant, for recognition of such difference if the basis for fear and envy. As a result, our nature as agents in and of history is obscured.[25]

Hauerwas’ depiction of liberal democracy serves us well in critiquing the implied assumptions of the N.S.S.. His chapter, “The Church and Liberal Democracy”[26], is an excellent observation of the many inherent inconsistencies within this polity, which I do not have the space to fully sketch out here. His main argument, however, is important if we are to offer some appropriate Christian response to the N.S.S. charter.

…liberalism is a political philosophy committed to the proposition that a social order and corresponding mode of government can be formed on self-interest and consent.[27]

It is clear in the literature on the history of secularism, which I would argue underpin the N.S.S., that the 18th and 19th century philosophy of Kant and others leads society to pursue individual happiness.[28] [29]

The problem with our society is not that democracy has not worked, but that it has… We have been freed to pursue happiness…[Solzhenitsyn] thinks it is the inevitable result of a social order whose base is the humanism of the Enlightenment, which presupposed that… man [does not] have any higher task than the attainment of his own happiness.[30]

If we follow this aim to its natural conclusion, however, we come across the deepest incompatibility of the N.S.S. charter. It is clear that the N.S.S. desire people to experience freedom, of ‘religious belief’ and ‘expression’[31], but ‘the great ironies of our society is that by attempting to make freedom an end in itself we have become an excessively legalistic society.’[32] With this in mind let us turn again to the explicit aim for the N.S.S., to seek a state where,

There is one law for all and its application is not hindered or replaced by religious codes or processes.[33]

The religious freedom, and the moral and ethical freedom that grow out from our metaphysical frameworks, inevitably leads to conflict when one comes in contact with another opposing view. In order for us to live peacefully, it seems, we require a legal authority on which to call upon at such times,

Liberalism is successful exactly because it supplies us with a myth that seems to make sense of our soicial origins… A people do not need a shared history; all they need is a system of rules that will constitute procedures for resolving disputes as they pursue their various interests.[34]

Ironically, within such a legalistic society ‘there is no need for voluntary self-restraint, as we are free to operate to the limit of the law’[35] but this then requires a lack of freedom to pursue our own happiness. To clarify this contradiction I could say it in this way; ‘The ethical and political theory necessary to such a form of society [is] that the individual is the sole source of authority’[36] but this form of society requires a primacy of legal authority to restrict citizens from fully expressing their freedom in ethical action[37] in fear of creating internal conflict. Hauerwas offers this response,

[the church’s] first social task in any society is to be herself… to be the kind of community that recognizes the necessity that all societies… require authority… [and] our authority is neither in society itself nor in the individual; it is in God.[38]

The N.S.S. claims it allows authority to remain with the individual to choose his/her religious belief and to hold to their own self- determined metaphysical framework for their moral and ethical development. It cannot, however, maintain such a view when establishing public policy and so claims its own beliefs as the necessary authority by which to resolve disputes. We can compare such a view with that of humanism,

Humanism… declares an optimistic view of the capabilities of men and women: they are entitled to moral autonomy… and are known to possess rights which dignify the individual without the need for reference to any transcendent authority …the sacralising of welfare provision and the cultivation of what are now called ‘caring’ attitudes assume quasi-sacramental status in the new Religion of Humanity…[Humanism] is about the sovereignty of humanity and its imagined needs, and not about the demands of God at all.[39]

Moltmann admits the difficulties of such a view when he says,

The great dreams of humanity which accompanied the ‘discoveries’ and the projects of modern times from their inception were necessary dreams, but they were impossible ones. They asked too much of human beings.[40]

Within this form of society it seems that, in order to achieve peaceful existence whilst maintaining individual freedom of belief and moral assumptions, it is necessary to construct a political framework of rules and laws which force citizen’s to subjugate themselves under as a necessary authority. The Christian community, as with other religious groups, have a problem in this respect; we submit only to the authority of God .

The hallmark of such a community, unlike the power of the nation-states, is its refusal to resort to violence to secure its own existence or to insure internal obedience. For as a community convinced of the truth, we refuse to trust any other power to compel than the truth itself.[41]

Before outlining an appropriate Christian response to the initial claim of the N.S.S., there is a more direct inconsistency between the views expressed by the N.S.S. which I would like to highlight. My aim in drawing out these contradictions within the charter has been to establish my argument on the incompatibility of the N.S.S.’s stated assumptions and, therefore, question that their social framework is logically valid.

Individuals are neither disadvantaged nor discriminated against because of their religion or belief, or lack thereof… The state does not engage in, fund or promote religious activities or practices.[42]

In the first of these premises the N.S.S. claim the secular state neither ‘disadvantages nor discriminates’ individuals whatever their religious belief or practice but how can this be when they simultaneously state that individuals can receive engagement, funding or promotion by the state in activities on non-religious grounds but not on religious grounds? In this, very possible situation, one is discriminated against because of their religious affiliation, belief and practice. This means that N.S.S.’s charter fails to be logically valid.

To begin my conclusion I’d like to use a quote from John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the secular state of the USA, which says, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.”[43] This suggests that any secular state requires a moral or religious framework, which is strangely absent from the N.S.S. or, rather, is, despite its claims to the contrary, atheistic. This materialistic assumption, despite not being articulated, leads to a society that fails to develop citizens of moral character. Its democracy is based on ‘facile doctrines of tolerance or equality’ but the church’s society ‘is forged from our common experience of being trained to be disciples of Jesus’[44] under the sole authority of God.[45]

Despite Moltmann’s positive view that, ‘the freedom of the church from the state, and the self-assertion of the church in the face of political religion or state ideology, are the best securities against totalitarian state, because they do not allow the state, which is a human creation, to turn into a monstrous Leviathan’[46] [47], I cannot see how the proposal of N.S.S. will allow its citizen’s to pursue moral goodness whilst religious belief is denied its voice in matters of public policy out of fear that such expressions create conflict. The Christian response, therefore, must be to ‘help us to experience what a politics of trust can be like. Such a community should be the source of imaginative alternatives for social policies that not only require us to trust one another, but chart forms of life for the development of virtue and character as public concerns.’[48] For in such a society, ‘discussion becomes the hallmark… since recognition and listening to the other is the way our community finds the way of obedience.’[49] 

[1] We must also appreciate the use of this polity within the modern Indian culture and other Eastern societies but its origins are in Western philosophical tradition. It is interesting to note that the secularism in India and elsewhere has not got the same atheistic assumptions as it does in the West in modern day.

[2] Plato, Desmond Lee (tr.), The Republic (London: Penguin Books, 1987)

[3] Harro Höpfl (tr. &ed.), Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

[4] Immanuel Kant, Allen Wood & George Di Giovanni (trs. & eds.), Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and other writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, Margaret Kohl (tr.), God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology (London: SCM Press, 1999) p.212

[6] Moltmann also outlines the history of secularism from ‘the messianic hopes’ of the modern world buoyed by the new discoveries of the Americas and the scientific advancements brought about by Christian scientists Sir Isaac Newton, et al. Robert Miller also argues this in Arguments Against Secular Culture (London: SCM Press, 1995) p.180-185

[7] Paul Toscano likens secularism to a religion: ‘For each secularist, secularism will be defined a little differently… It only mean that secularism, like Christianity, is a religion of many froms, manifesting itself in many sects.’, Invisible Religion in the Public Schools: Secularism, Neutrality, and the Supreme Court (Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1990) p.46

[8] “National Secular Society’s Secular Charter”, National Secular Society, http://www.secularism.org.uk/secularcharter.html ,“About The National Secular Society”, Ibid., http://www.secularism.org.uk/about.html  and “What is Secularism?”, visited on 23rd April 2012.

[9] “What is Secularism?”

[10] See also Moltmann, God for a Secular Society

[11] “About The National Secular Society”

[12] Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1981) p.72

[13] “What is Secularism”

[14] “National Secular Society’s Secular Charter” item (f)

[15] E.F. Schumacher, Good Work (London: Jonathan Cape, 1979) p.112

[16] Ibid., p.113-114

[17] Ibid., p.113

[18] Ibid., p.117

[19] Hauerwas, Community of Character, p.75

[20] George Will, The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) p.3

[21] Hauerwas, Community of Character, ff. p.248

[22] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart”, address at Harvard University, Harvard Gazette, June 1978.

[23] Hauerwas, Community of Character, p.75

[24] “What is Secularism?”

[25] Hauerwas, Community of Character, p.120

[26] Ibid., pp.72-86

[27] Ibid., p.78

[28] This philosophy was written into the American Declaration of Independence and is now universalized into the Declaration of Human Rights.

[29] C.f. Schumacher’s observation mentioned above.

[30] Ibid., p.75-76

[31] “What is Secularism?”

[32] Hauerwas, Community of Character, p.75

[33] “National Secular Society’s Secular Charter” item (b)

[34] Hauerwas, Community of Character, p. 78

[35] Ibid., p.75

[36] Ibid., p.78

[37] See Hauerwas, Community of Character, p.115 and also Martin Rhonheimer, ““Intrinsically Evil Acts” and the Moral Viewpoint: Clarifying a Central Teaching of Veritatis Splendor”, The Thomist 58 (1994) p. 1-39

[38] Hauerwas, Community of Character, p.83-84

[39]  Edward Norman, Secularisation (London: Continuum, 2002) p.1-3

[40] Moltmann, God For A Secular Society, p.17

[41] Hauerwas, Community of Character, p.85

[42] “National Secular Society’s Secular Charter” item (c) & (g)

[43] Cited in Hauerwas, Community of Character, p. 79

[44] ibid., p.51

[45] This is obviously shared by other religious organizations.

[46] See Thomas Hobbes, Richard Tuck (ed.), Leviathan: or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p.114

[47] Moltmann, God For a Secular Society, p.40

[48] Hauerwas, Community of Character, p.86

[49] Ibid., p.85