“They want to disown the traditions and heritage of the majority, including the Christian faith and the English language”. Surprisingly enough this quote does not come from the Bible-bashing deep south of America, but from the Local Government Secretary of the UK, Eric Pickles, following the visit of his colleague to show solidarity with the Vatican last week. Who lead this delegation? Baroness Warsi, a Muslim. The series of proclamations of faith and anger at the secular movement marks the first time in UK history the three major religions of the Church of England, Catholic Church and Islam have stood together against common enemy.
Across the pond, as the race for the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States gains pace, Senator Rick Santorum has pushed his way to the front of the pack, proving major competition to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in a way that no Christian right representative has done for decades. Here is a man who rejects abortion, feminism, the very existence of Palestinians, gay marriage, and gays in general. Here is a man who wants to set the US back by centuries in social progress. He has gone so far to brand the Crusades as an act of Muslim aggression.
What both groups of the English-speaking west highlight is the first significant backlash against Secularism of this century. They have turned what was the sleepy state of the west’s Christianity into a political war, setting out the battle-lines against “militant” secularism which they claim is threatening to turn their nations into a pit of moral decay and social collapse. They line up their opponents, the atheist thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and even their own national courts. They see their beliefs as persecuted and attacked, themselves as the majority which the march of secularism is threatening to crush brutally in legal battles aided by liberal courts.
There are many things wrong with the battles they are choosing. To pick Richard Dawkins as the head of the secularist movement is the first. Although he is a supporter of secularism, so are all scientists. Dawkins is much better known for his atheist evangelism than political or legal support of secularism. To label secularists as at all militant is also a bizarre choice of words. What is so militant about pressing cases in court which are already part of a nation’s constitution and laws? Separation of Church and State is one of the most fundamental aspects of the US constitution, and given the particular love held by Republicans towards that document, you would have thought they would support its implementation. Lastly, that they speak on behalf of the people of their country. In the UK only about 7% of the country are practising Christians, with two-thirds having no affiliation to any religion at all, and this figure is growing. In the traditionally Christian US, atheism has shot up to dominate a quarter of the populace, tripling over two decades, with only 40% of the population practising their faith.
And yet the Christian right are making themselves known in droves in both states, champions of a minority who still believe themselves the majority. The reason behind this is quite simply that their voices are louder. The Christian right in both the UK and US makes their presence known on social issues across the board, taking up fights with movements as diverse as feminism, gay rights, right to die, pro-choice, multiculturalism, republicanism (uk), and even defence departments cuts. Their voice is omnipresent in a way unmatched by any other interest group, and that makes them a powerful force electorally.
The greatest mistake made in the battle lines drawn, is the misconception that secularism is atheism. It isn’t. In fact, many atheists aren’t secularists, they would happily see religion wiped off the earth by force of government. Secularism only means that no religion may affect the laws of a state or it’s public affairs, including lack of religion. Where no set of belief dominates the population, surely to surrender that would be a dictatorship in a different vein? Other opponents of secularism included Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, Nero, Stalin, Chairman Mao, and the Spanish who wiped out the native populations of South America. Whether they be religious or atheists, all were brutal individuals who punished lack of their beliefs with death. An extreme view maybe, but one none-the-less.
One of the most surprising perspectives of the anti-secular movement is the belief that the good of society is based upon Christianity. In fact, the United States were founded to escape the anti-secular movements of Europe, and the freedoms enjoyed in the UK are those gained through secular reform. The last two times these issues seized the politics of a country were the enlightenment and the battle against Intelligent Design fought in courtrooms last decade.
The image of nations driven by the bible are terrifying ones. Ones we left behind hundreds of years ago with good cause. In leviticus alone, along with homosexuality, it condemns round haircuts, football, fortune telling, tattoos, clothing made of two materials mixed together, eating shellfish, pig, rabbit (and many other animals), shaving, gossip, and even associating with women whilst on their period. Without secular practice, we may well have all of these codified into law, just like the persecution of homosexuals in the last century.
The New Testament explicitly bans divorce, so without secularism there would be no way for women to escape abusive marriages, or for out-of-love couples to separate. It also insists upon veils for women (Corinthians 1:11) who are not made in God’s image like men are, surely a step back for feminism which allowed Baroness Warsi to become an MP? Jesus, long renowned as a bringer of peace, was also uncommonly obsessed with swords. He commands all his followers to buy them (Luke 22:36) and states that he has come to bring swords, not peace (Matthew 10:34). He also charged into a Jewish temple to attack people with a whip (John 2:15). The New Testament condones slavery and the beating of slaves (1 Peter 2:18, Luke 12:47-48) and that women should stay silent and be subject to male authority (1 Timothy 2:12).
Many now condemn secularism for stripping our society of morality, but what secular progress has given us is far greater than what it has taken away. Societies worldwide, whether they are Christian, of another religion, or of none, are equally capable of good acts and those of great altruism. However the way in which our modern, largely secular, society has come to see the Bible has clouded our view of what exactly it preaches. Yes, there are passages which give us very good advice upon which to shape our moral compass, but there are also passages of great cruelty and intolerance. The television play “God on Trial” depicts the difficulty faced by the Jews in Auschwitz increasingly aware of how the Old Testament God had commanded them to do to others in their past as the Nazi regime was doing to them.
The one thing secularism gives us is freedom from all these passages, and the ability to form our moral compass based on whichever we should see fit, and it does not take being religious to pick the good from the evil of the “good” book.