Baroness Warsi has claimed that “intolerant secularisation has to be held back by reaffirming the religious foundations on which our societies are built”, while the Pope is reported to have recently attacked “atheist extremism” and “aggressive secularism”. I’m not at all sure that I would recognise “intolerant secularisation” if I came across it. “Intolerant atheism”, yes, but secularism is essentially tolerant. All it says is, “Look, believe what you like, but civic life is aimed at the common good, regardless of religion.”
The Pope’s comments suggest that atheism and secularism are related, perhaps even the same. He also said that the United Kingdom should “not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms”. Would that be, I wonder, the Christian foundation that handed over Catholic priests as traitors to be hung, drawn and quartered? Or did the foundation get laid when we stopped doing that? Warsi and Benedict both seem to think that we need Christianity to tell us the difference between right and wrong. The evidence is not convincing.
In perhaps typically British style we bumble along, not worrying too much that church and state are still connected. The head of the Church of England is the country’s monarch, and must be a descendant of Sophia of Hanover but does not have to be interested or trained in religious matters of any sort. Oh, except for not being Catholic. It would be hard to make this up, wouldn’t it? Yet although some naive, extreme expressions of multiculturalism have lately come in for criticism, the fact is that Britain is home to multiple cultures. Along with the separation of parliament, government and the judiciary, a grown-up modern society needs a separation of church and state. It needs to be secular.
Now although I myself happen to be about as English as you can get, and was lucky enough to be educated in one of England’s finest schools and one of her finest universities, I am also a Buddhist. How did that happen? I don’t know where the original motive came from, but England’s traditions of free enquiry, free education, freedom of thought and free, well-stocked libraries certainly helped. Thank you, England!
So let there be no mistake – if you count yourself as a Christian, Muslim or Jew, then your god is absolutely not my god. I do not believe in him, and I could not respect him if I did. But that’s perfectly fine, isn’t it? We don’t need to agree on such matters, do we? We do, however, need to be kind to each other, we need to strive for wisdom, we need to develop compassion. We have to live together in the same society, to work together and enjoy each other’s company. That is why we need a secular society. We need a society that recognises people’s religious freedoms, acknowledges their differences, and that does not award status on the basis of any particular faith.
Freedom of religion must have a high priority in any decent society. True, religion must never be allowed to trump the standards of common goodness, or indeed the laws with which society tries to protect itself. In our secular society we are, I hope, quite clear that female genital mutilation is a crime. We do not want to cut off the hands of thieves, or behead anyone, not even for murder, let alone for failing to hold particular religious views. Some extreme forms of belief may demand those punishments, but a secular society ruled by common goodness will say “no”. Freedom of religion necessarily implies that no one religion should have a special place in schools, council chambers or indeed in parliament.
If British society is, while flawed, not really a bad one at all, what possible reason is there for thinking that this is due to Christian influence? Why can it not be due to the goodness of British people? The British are, after all, human, and it is humans who create goodness and beauty as well as horror. Cataloguing the evils that have been carried out in the name of Christianity is popular, but perhaps cheap. More interesting is the question of why we now reject those evils. Is it because we have a Christian society, or because, as humans, we are capable of compassion? Why do we now reject the idea of slaughtering all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but accept the principle of “Do as you would be done by”? After all, Christianity has held out both of these as admirable. As humans, whether Christian or not, we can judge which of these approaches is worthy.
As a Buddhist, I want to live in a decent society. I do not want to live in a “Buddhist” society, whatever that is, and I certainly don’t want to live in a society dominated by the rules of any of the Abrahamic religions. Without secularism the state cannot help favouring one religion over another, and that would be a recipe for disaster.