Baroness Warsi’s rallying cry against the Secularist Front of Britannia

Quick, hide! They’re onto us!

Baroness Warsi is the latest of a string of ranters to shoot their mouths off with exaggerated fears about the dangers of secularism. Just in the last month, we’ve had Lord Carey, the Pope, and even the President of the European Parliament (among others) claiming that secularism is going to destroy the world. Now we have Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, defending a Protestant establishment while on a ministerial delegation to the Vatican. Confused? No wonder.

Baroness Warsi is deeply worried about “militant secularism” sweeping the country. It’s hard to say whether the recent ruling on prayers in council meetings or the visit to the Vatican is the main driving force behind this statement, but in any case, it seems to bear little relation to reality.

First, a quick round of definitions. Secularism is nothing more than the belief that religion should be given no special place in state matters, or that no belief should be privileged and given special treatment in preference over others. I’ve yet to see anyone taking up arms for such a cause, though, so if the concept of militant secularism has any meaning at all, it must be possible to describe anyone who holds moderately firm political views of any stripe as militant.

In fact, if militant secularism were a meaningful description, taking the looser meaning of believing strongly in something, I would also be militantly anti-racist, militantly anti-sexist, militantly pro-equality, and probably even militantly pro-Monty Python, along with many other “militant” positions. I suspect it’s being used as little more than a “boo-word”, though, much like the Pope’s recent warning against “radical secularism”, another abuse of a perfectly good word to scare the faithful and create headlines.

In fact, I find it an enduring mystery that apparently intelligent people can’t tell the difference between secularism and atheism. You’d think it would be a basic qualification to speak on either subject, but they all seem to be under the impression that secularism is a movement for the total eradication of all religion everywhere. A moment of reflection (or at least a decent dictionary) might lead them to realise that as secularism aims to prevent religious favouritism or coercion in the public sphere, it guarantees freedom of religion for those who hold minority views. I’d have thought that would be a good thing, but maybe they’re pinning their hopes on their religion always having majority support.

In her speech, Baroness Warsi doesn’t make a case against secularism, she assumes it:

So today I want to make one simple argument: That in order to ensure faith has a proper space in the public sphere, in order to encourage social harmony, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities, more confident in their beliefs.

In practice, this means individuals not diluting their faith and nations not denying their religious heritage.

Why does faith need a “proper space in the public sphere”? She doesn’t say. How would favouritism towards certain beliefs encourage harmony? Again, no answer. And the entire argument is built on a strawman anyway – secularism doesn’t require anyone to dilute their faith or deny their heritage, it requires that the state doesn’t favour or promote any faith position. But she continues to argue against this strawman:

It all hinges on a basic misconception: That somehow to create equality and space for minority faiths and cultures we need to erase our majority religious heritage.

No, Baroness, the misconception is yours. This is not what secularism represents. No religion or heritage needs to be erased, but that heritage should not be used as an excuse for any belief to be privileged over another in the public sphere.

And her examples of “militancy” don’t help the argument either. She complains of states not funding faith schools (as if she would be happy for public funds to be co-opted to promote atheism, or Marxism), and of faith being “sidelined, marginalised and downgraded”. This is a conveniently vague objection, but in the context of a country which has religion embedded in daily life sending a delegation to an entirely religious state, the only possible meaning is that religion is privileged ever so slightly less than it used to be. Put like that, it sounds rather less impressive.

The Baroness goes on to say that this “militant secularism” she fears is both intolerant and similar to totalitarian regimes – not only complete nonsense on stilts, but rather a risky argument to be making when attempting to curry favour with a Pope who was infamously a member of the Hitler Youth. Once again, it appears that she can’t tell the difference between denying religion a special place in society by virtue of its religious nature, and banning religious observance. Or maybe she knows the difference, and is deliberately blurring it to strengthen her argument.

In fact, looking at this passage, it seems the totalitarian regime may be the status quo:

Just as the bully bullies because he or she is insecure, so too the state suppresses, marginalises, dictates and dismisses when it feels its identity is at stake.

In the United Kingdom, we have guarded against such fear by recognising the importance of the Established Church and our Christian heritage – our majority faith. And that is what has created religious freedom and a home for people like me, of minority faiths

Sorry, what? I can see two options here. Either she’s saying that nasty, noisy secularists provoke the state-sponsored oppression of undesirables, like a wife-beater saying that “she made me do it”, or else she thinks the state is inherently secular, and feels threatened by religion. The same “secular” state which has an established church headed by the monarch, bishops in the Lords, and prayers in parliament. Whichever it is, it does her argument no favours at all.

But most fascinating is a passage towards the end of her speech, where she acknowledges the bad things that are done in the name of faith and the good things done by non-believers, and somehow goes on to use that as an argument for more religion – apparently it’s very important to have religion embedded in society so everyone can see that they’re jolly nice people really. And apparently, this public role would help to educate the believers themselves:

Yet it remains a sad fact that in the modern world we see faith hijacked in the name of evil acts, utterly contrary to the teachings of the mainstream religions of the world. Perhaps if states were more rooted in their religious heritages then faiths would be less prone to being distorted and hijacked for political gains.

Leaving aside the huge leap in reasoning, this sounds uncomfortably like the threat of a terrorist – give us what we want, or there will be bloodshed. With some minor rewriting, I can imagine it as a Sinn Fein statement.

If the Baroness actually wants to discuss the role of religion in public life, and to argue for a special place for this or that belief, she needs to understand what she’s talking about, and back her arguments up with evidence, rather that making sweeping and unsubstantiated rhetorical flourishes. Until she does that, the only people who pay any attention to what she says will be those who already agree with her views.

She’s literally preaching to the converted.

[NB: I’ve done my best to punctuate the text of the speech in the most appropriate way from the full text given here, in the interests of readability. I don’t think there are any points where it affects the meaning either way, but please let me know if you find any, and I’ll look into it.]

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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.

7 responses to “Baroness Warsi’s rallying cry against the Secularist Front of Britannia”

  1. rodericksreview says :

    It does make it needlessly difficult to get anywhere when there’s such a… (willful? I don’t know ), misrepresentation or misunderstanding of secularism. This vague twaddle means nothing, though will inevitably be cheered as if she’s some great ‘Defender’.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I can only assume that there’s some alternative dictionary in circulation, as there are loads of loudmouths who seem to have this strange misapprehension of what secularism is. Bizarrely, I’ve even heard it from the pulpit in church as synonymous with consumer culture.

      Maybe the first battle is one of basic education.

  2. Wen Scott says :

    “Or maybe she knows the difference, and is deliberately blurring it to strengthen her argument.”

    Baroness Warsi is above all else, a political entity, else she would not be leading a delegation on behalf of GB — the cynic might believe, “of course, she knows the difference!”

    Interesting B. Warsi’s references to democracy on behalf of religion, which is democracy’s polar opposite; curious she, a baroness, a member of the aristocracy, lays claim to, as she puts it…

    “the common good:
    To promote democracy.
    To fight for human rights.
    To encourage fair, responsible trade.
    To tackle climate change.
    And to help build stable nations.”

    …when both history and current events would suggest otherwise for both organized religion and aristocracy.

    And all this fear/hatred of secularism? Same old, same old; after the dust settles, the winner gets to appoint the bishops and collect the taxes?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Oh, there’s so much in that speech that I wanted to rant about. If I had the time and inclination, I could produce an annotated version several times as long as the speech itself. I liked the bit where she said religion had to be intimately involved in government to prove that they weren’t all suicide bombers. So much fail in so few words.

      I’m not sure, though, about how deliberate the misunderstanding over secularism is. It’s a common mistake (see Carey, Ratzinger et al) and it wouldn’t change the basic message to accurately call it anti-religionism or whatever. I think it’s just a feedback loop of incorrect usage. It wouldn’t be the first word to suffer the fate.

      • Wen Scott says :

        I must be a true cynic…. I find it difficult to accept on face value that someone of the Pope’s education, authority and experience would misuse such a common word as secularism, especially when it is at the heart of so much public controversy and debate. At the very least he could google the word, couldn’t he?

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Yes, it’s not often I’m outdone on the cynicism front. I just don’t see the benefit in misusing one word when there are others that could do the job, especially as it makes them look hopelessly ignorant to anyone with the first idea of what they’re talking about.

  3. procrastin8or says :

    An excellent summary. Secularism will only become militant when Christmas is banned, when believers are prevented – either by law or physically – from going to a church.

    As it is the only churches being closed in the UK at the moment are those with dwindling or zero congregation, or for cost savings, or because there are not enough Ministers to oversee them. The only person that banned Christmas was Oliver Cromwell and he can hardly be called a militant secularist.

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