[First of all: thank you to the establishers of this blog for allowing me to post material here - I think they have a great idea, and it deserves to be successful]
What with all the panic over events in North Korea and the Middle East, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the real need for action closer to home - for me, the UK. In light of current tensions, one of the most important issues is how the British, and other European states relate to the various beliefs and outlooks found among their increasingly diverse populations. The argument for increased secularisation, resisted by a number of religious groups, needs to be made, strongly and repeatedly.
It’s increasingly common to see secularism portrayed as anti-religious, with talk of “Secular Fundamentalists” intent on imposing their materialistic philosophy on the rest of the, God-fearing, country. However, it’s wrong to confuse secularism with atheism (or, more accurately, anti-theism), and it’s important to realise that establishing a secular state is in almost everyone’s best interest.
Secularism, in its most basic form, is simply the idea that the everyday business of the state should be conducted on atheistic (in the sense of lacking religion, not opposing it) grounds only – government should not dictate, fund or interfere with religious matters.
In a multi-faith nation, such as the UK, it’s impossible to see how the government can maintain any other position for long, as interfering in religious matters will inevitably involve discriminating against one minority or another. The British government is currently involved in a perilous plate-spinning act, trying to keep various faiths happy through state funding and (often) token representation in government business for self-proclaimed “community leaders”. This is leading to increasing tensions.
Separation of Church(es) and State is the only democratic way forward. We need to reduce religious figures to the position of ordinary private citizens, with no more voice than the rest of us. Religious organisations should be treated no different from secular groups. And funding for purely religious activities should cease.
Government-funded “faith schools” are the most prominent example of state interference in religious matters, and the best evidence against it. Segregated schooling, on whatever lines, will ultimately prove divisive and bad for social cohesion. Educating children from different backgrounds together is the best way to create the sense of an inclusive, united society which the government seems to desperately desire. They also breach the right to freedom of religion, with the government colluding in the imposition of beliefs onto children not yet old enough to make rational choices about their life. While parental (and community pressure) in religious matters will always exist, it’s another matter altogether when the state actively encourages it.
Religious groups which benefit from state support are also in a risky position in supporting it, as, should future governments take a less favourable view of their particular beliefs, they might find themselves being heavily discriminated against in favour of other faiths. The recent commotion about the veil clearly shows the danger of the government wading into these issues.
Secularisation should put all faiths on a level playing field, and put individual choice (the keystone of democracy) in religious matters at the forefront of the state’s involvement.
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