Secularism, Indoctrination and Freedom

One thing I feel very strongly about is secularism – I think it’s an essential feature of a civilised democracy. Now, before anyone takes up arms, here’s what I mean by that. Contrary to how some seem to understand it, secularism isn’t about banning religion, or dictating atheist dogma – it’s about separating church and state, ensuring that all are free and able to pursue any religion or none, as they see fit. Basically, I don’t think any belief or lack of it should be given a privileged position in society, regardless of my view of the validity of those beliefs.

I don’t like the idea of having an official state religion. In many cases, it’s relatively harmless (and I can generally live with the situation in the UK), but it can easily create an uncomfortable and inappropriate expectation that the state religion will be reflected in laws, ceremonies and official practice, effectively imposing that religion on people who don’t share it. I think children should be able to honestly discover and learn about a wide range of beliefs and religions in RE, not subjected to years of Christian indoctrination interspersed with pat dismissals of other beliefs. I think creationism should stay in RE where it belongs, and come nowhere near a Biology lesson. And I don’t think schools should be obliged, as they currently are, to have communal “acts of worship”.

Ah, so I want to ban God from schools and government? No, I want a society where no one is discriminated against because they hold a minority view. I want it to be possible to go through life with any or no belief without being forced to choose between suffering for those beliefs or compromising them. If you think that sounds namby-pamby and politically correct, take a moment to consider how you’d feel if your belief was in the minority, and you were expected to regularly join in worship of a deity you don’t believe in, or adhere to associated religious laws.

Having said that, it does get messy. If religion shouldn’t be favoured or imposed on non-believers, how do you define a religious law? Is it fair to say any restriction on abortion, for example, is motivated by religion? How about divorce? Debt? Is it even possible to prohibit murder without falling foul of the Secularism Police? Honestly, I don’t have any simple answers, although I’m pretty sure we can all agree that murder is undesirable. The best I can suggest is to judge each case on its own merits. At the very least, there should be good secular arguments in favour of a law, not just “God says so”.

Personally (others may disagree), I’m content for religious bodies to be given tax breaks and positions in the House of Lords, provided that their recognition isn’t based simply on their religion, but is available to groups of all religions and none which meet the same criteria. So there would need to be specific non-religious reasons for this recognition, and it would need to be possible and reasonable for the same advantages to be won by other groups, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them. The state shouldn’t be supporting religion for the sake of religion.

So where does that leave us? We have an ideal and a basic structure of how to apply it. It may not be perfect or watertight, but it’s much more inclusive and tolerant of minority beliefs than the current situation, and that’s surely a good thing.


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

3 responses to “Secularism, Indoctrination and Freedom”

  1. Wen Scott says :

    Hello David, good points.

    I agree that state and religion should be clearly separated as public and private. Without secularism in our governments and public spheres, we come dangerously close to compromising democracy. How easy it is (as history teaches us, now and in the past) to take the next step from ‘state religion’ to penalties for ‘non-believers’ to outright persecution.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Hi! I don’t think we need to raise the spectre of persecution, which can look as melodramatic as when believers claim to be persecuted because they’re not able to impose their beliefs on everyone else. I’d rather address it in terms of discrimination, which should be argument in itself.

      I wouldn’t say racism’s a bad thing because it could lead to apartheid, I’d say it’s wrong because it’s discriminatory and unjust. I think the same principles should apply here.

  2. unkleE says :

    Yep, I agree too. Christianity is a great blessing to individuals and inspires them to greater things, but it can have terrible consequences when allied with, or co-opted by, a powerful state or leader.

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