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Monday, October 16, 2006

Europe needs to become more secular

[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.


jams o donnell said...

Looking good Matt. I hope this blog is a big success. I have linked and will be back

Stran_ger said...

First of all great articule
As a person who leaves in a country which still has a trong chatolic presence in politics i know this first-handed. I think that both faifth and state can co-exist but they must be in territories well defined and there must be mutual respect.

Edda said...

Europe definitely needs to be more secular. The power, or more accurately the influence, of the church should be minimized in all divisions of the state. In this respect, I completely agree with "French-style" secularism. The schools and more importantly all public institutions should be religious-free, in other words, neuturalized.

Matt M said...


It depends on what you mean by "religious-free": one problem I have with the French model is that it sometimes goes too far, as in the case of banning religious dress / symbols on school children.

People have the right to express their religious beliefs however they want (as long as it doesn't harm others), and in a truly secular state they have the right to express themselves in, though not on behalf of, public institutions. Otherwise the state becomes active in religious affairs - which is unsecular.

Individuals, even those who work for the state, need to be able to express their religious identity - as long as they don't use state resources to promote or impose that identity on others.

Edda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edda said...

Matt, how free are we to express our religious beliefs in the societies we live in? If being naked was a part of my religion,would I be able to hang around like that? And would a woman in veil respect me?

I'm not sure if I agree with you when you said individuals, even for those who work for state, need to be able to express their religious identity. Today, unfortunately, all religions are nothing but a mean to create barriers among individuals lacking tolerance...That's the reason why I believe all public institutions should be religious-free. The individuals should have all the right to practice what they believe in and express their religious identity, but just not in public insitutions.

Matt M said...


There will always be social pressures regarding religion - but there is a difference between society and the state. It's one thing for something like the veil to be frowned upon, another for it to be illegal.

The problem is that once the state starts telling people when and where they can express their religion it's no longer secular - which is defined as "indifference" to religion.

For example: If a geography teacher wanted to wear a crucifix in class then they should be free to do so. However, if they wanted to use class-time to promote the teachings of Jesus Christ (i.e. using state resources to advance their religious views) then that would be unacceptable.

People will probably always try to push their religious views onto others. There's very little we can do about that* - but at least we can try to ensure that the state doesn't help them in anyway.

(*other than promote an education system which encourages open-mindedness and rational debate)

Edda said...

Matt, do you think it makes sense to have a science teacher wearing a crucifix? How reliable would it be to have a veiled teacher talking about evolution theory?

How would the students get influenced by their role-model with religious symbols?

There is nothing wrong for people to practice their religion as long as they keep it to themselves.
But if a society is tolerant enough to have teachers in latex clothes with shiny boots who don't impose any of their S/M ideas on students then I don't see any reason why a teacher with a crucifix or veil shouldn't be allowed to do the same.

Just as teachers, state institutions should not influence or impose people religion wise. As you said people will always try to influence one another in one way or another. That's why these attempts should be minimalized.

Matt M said...

If someone has strong religious views, then stopping them from wearing a veil or crucifix probably won't make much of a difference to whether they influence students or not.

Children need to be made aware that they live in multi-faith societies - exposing them to ideas (or at least making them aware of them) at an early stage is probably a good thing.

If teachers want to wear veils, crucifixes, or shiny S/M gear, then they should be allowed - providing it doesn't prevent them from teaching properly.

I went to a school where we sang hymms at assembly. For me that is crossing the line, as the school itself was promoting a particular religion. However, this exposure did give me an understanding of Christianity - an understanding I lack of Islam, Hinduism, etc. This understanding has come in extremely useful when dealing with religious people I encounter. If I'd had openly Muslim or Hindu teachers I think I'd have a better understanding of these people, who make up part of my society.

As long as children are made aware of the choices they have, and aren't forced to accept the ideas of any particular faith, then I don't see a real problem with religion in schools.

Edda said...

Doesn't this sound a bit utopic, Matt? I wish what you have written was possible also in practice.

Stran_ger said...

Sorry but i have one question, when we talk about allowing woman to wear veil in classes, are we talking about a common veil or a full covered veil?