Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

What if it comes down to a choice between secularism or Humanism?

It’s been some time since I’ve posted anything, but now that I’ve cleared some of my workload and thought of something worth sharing, I hope to make up for my lack of blog activity.

This post on philosopher and Heythrop College lecturer Stephen Law‘s fantastic blog contained an argument I’ve heard before from some within our movement, and which I’ve even myself made on some occasions:

One way in which the secular character of a society can begin to be eroded is if the religious start insisting their views are deserving of special, institutionalized forms of privilege or “respect”. Here are six examples of such demands:

• We should not permit plays that mock, or might in some way deeply offend, those with certain religious beliefs.
• Airlines and schools should have no power to ban flight attendants or school pupils from wearing religious symbols, if the individual’s religion, or conscience, requires it.
• Taxpayer’s money should be used to fund religious schools that are then permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of religious belief.
• The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else should not apply to Catholic adoption agencies asked to help gay couples adopt.
• One religion should automatically be allocated 26 seats in the House of Lords – all men – which can be used to help block legislation that has popular, democratic support (such as the Bill on assisted dying).
• Our State should have an explicitly religious affiliation.

A challenge

All of the above claims for special privileges are regularly made in the U.K. In several cases, the privilege already exists. Many believe these claims are legitimate. Some of you may have some sympathy with at least some of them. I shall raise a challenge for those who make these claims. The challenge involves a simple test.

THE TEST: If you agree with some of these claims that religion deserves special institutionalized privilege or respect, cross out the word “religious” and write in “political” instead. Then see if you still agree.

As Law points out, most of us would be deeply uncomfortable with our country banning the mockery of certain political views, of permitting partisan symbols on flight attendants or school pupils (though in the case of the latter I personally would not mind), partisan schools, guaranteed representation in our legislative institutions for certain political movements, or constitutional support for a specific political ideology.

The reason why Law thinks that the two are analogous is one with which we’re all familiar:

If you reject the political versions of these claims, why suppose the religious versions should be considered differently?

This challenge can be sharpened by noting that, very often, religious beliefs are political beliefs. Consider, for example religious beliefs on women’s role in society, the moral status of the actively homosexual, abortion […] These beliefs are all intensely political. Indeed, religious organizations are increasingly political animals.

Law anticipates a number of possible objections to his claim that in this case the religious is analogous with the political, and in doing so he hits on one objection in particular:

Religion often forms part of a person’s identity in a way that their politics doesn’t. That’s why we should institutionally privilege religious beliefs.

Religion is more than a set of beliefs; it is also a set of practices and symbols that serve to shape both individual and group identity. However, Law discounts this objection by noting that while it is true that religious adherents often attend regular devotions, make pilgrimages, are part of a transnational community, and cover their homes and sometimes even their persons with icons and symbols of the faith, football fans do so also and yet we would not say that they should be entitled to special protection under the law.

While I agree that religious schools, adoption agencies, and the constitutional elevation of specific religious positions should have no place in our society, I do think that his dismissal of the role that religion plays in identity is too hasty and blase, and ignores certain demonstrable aspects of the role religion plays in some communities within our society. In other words, religion and political affiliation are not always analogous in practice. Religious identity is often singularly important to a person’s life, and can comprise an almost totalitarian set of ideals, tastes, symbols, and behaviours which have no analog in other sources of identity. I think that we must be more careful about passing laws that transgress upon the former. In particular, I think that banning the display of religious symbols from schools is a dangerous road to travel. You can read my discussion of why I do not think the veil should be banned for a good case study.

While it may be true that, even taking the theoretical view of religion as a cultural system – a register of beliefs and a set of non-propositional cultural practices (Margaret Archer‘s definition) – one finds that it has valid analogs unworthy of special protection in society, there is a practical argument in favour of treating it differently. Religious affiliation currently constitutes a singularly important source of identity for many people, to a greater degree than other cultural affiliations such as Law’s football fan comparison. There are a variety of reasons for this: ‘Multiculturalist’ policies, immigration trends, the global ‘Islamic revival‘ that has in particular seen the rapid growth of fundamentalist forms Islam, the similar rise in Christian fundamentalism throughout Africa or ‘the West’, the proliferation and deregulation of communications technology (egs: satellite t.v. and the internet). Without expounding on these reasons, the point is that many people treat their religious identity to be equally or even more important than civic/national identities that cross cultural boundaries (an interesting essay on an example of this, which I found with a quick google search).

With the situation as it stands now, some types of secularism run the risk of going against our Humanist ideals. The standard Humanist political stance – by which I mean my political stance which I think the rest of you should also take – is that all people should be encouraged to participate in the civil and political discourses that shapes policy and public practice. One of the most supremely important principles in achieving such an open and inclusive discussion is freedom of expression. Likewise, one of the surest ways to degrade that inclusiveness is to impel the perception amongst some groups that they are essentially held in contempt, mistrusted, excluded from certain spheres of society, or otherwise oppressed. And some types of secularist policies will impel exactly that. One of my arguments against banning the veil in public institutions is that it will lead to many Muslims, men and women alike, feeling oppressed. Indeed, according to the research Harvard Prof. Leila Ahmed has done on the reasons why Muslim women in ‘the West’ wear the veil, many do so precisely in order to assert their identity in the face of perceived hostility and discrimination. In some cases, such as that of Iran under the Shah, banning the veil in schools simply saw many girls and women ceasing to attend school.

Our goal should always be to encourage the kind of inclusive discourse required for liberal society. Taking actions which produce greater mistrust and xenophobia from significant social groups will be counterproductive to achieving that goal.

Now, I imagine that in almost all cases regarding secularist policies, Law and I would agree. And not just because the dude is way cool, looks like Gilderoy Lockhart (as the picture comparison at the top shows), wrote [among other things] a book called ‘Believing Bullshit‘, edited an anthology on Palestinian nationalist terrorism (I liked his chapter in it, btw), and offers many hours of enlightening reading on his blog. I even still intend to continue to use the argument I’ve quoted him as making here, in discussions with horrible religious apologists. However, there is a point that I think we should all recognise, and a position from which we should all begin when considering any campaign to further the secularist agenda:

Sometimes a policy option will make our society more secular, but less Humanist. In these cases, we should prefer the Humanist option.


One response to “What if it comes down to a choice between secularism or Humanism?

  1. Narges August 24, 2014 at 4:54 am

    Regarding that part of your text, about Shah’s banning of wearing veil in Iran, it’s not quiet right. Veil has never been weard wear in Iran. Only in South of Iran by Arabs and Baloochis as a part of their traditional custom which is totally different from what Saudi women wear today. The common form of hijab at that time for religious people was and still is Chador. These days, may they try to cover part of their face by their chadors but they rarely wear veil.

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