Is secularism a gateway drug?

Religion seems to fear secularism. I often hear people saying that secularism is a threat to religion, or treating it as synonymous with atheism. I find these arguments rather odd – secularism has no relation to religion, being a position that can be held by all beliefs or none, and it actually protects believers from persecution by ensuring that no religious belief can take precedence over others and claim the right to enforce its own particular dogma in the public sphere. But my own experience makes me wonder if that fear of secularism might be more rational than I previously thought.

Looking back, the first time I noticed my beliefs were changing was when I started to see the sense in secularism. I’d previously thought that the church should be disestablished, but that was from a rather selfish point of view, feeling that the unique position of the CofE was holding it back from proclaiming the gospel with appropriate zeal (I know, I know). This was different – I began to realise how much sense it made to ensure that no one was required to adhere to someone else’s beliefs. I supported it for the benefit of others, not myself, and this was the first sign of my waning faith.

Maybe it was a symptom of a slight uncertainty or subtly growing liberalism. Once you begin to entertain the possibility that you might be wrong, it naturally seems to lead to a greater degree of empathy and understanding of other beliefs, and I started to consider how I’d feel about having someone else’s beliefs forced on me, rather than being able to get official support for my own views. Where I’d had the relaxed view that my beliefs were right and ought to be privileged because they were in the majority, I started to see that there was another side to the equation, and recognised that it was rather more complicated.

At the time, this change felt like a significant step, and I suppose it was the start of my journey away from the church. Not in any intentional way, and nothing changed much for some time, just that it seemed to open the door to understanding views other than my own. Maybe it was also important that I effectively disagreed with the church on what seemed like an important issue. I’d hear Christians bemoaning secularism, or expecting to be granted rights that they wanted to deny to others, and I’d wonder how they could get it so wrong.

So if that first step towards secularism was the beginning of a journey away from the church, does that mean the church is sensible (at least within its own worldview) to oppose the “gateway drug” of secularism? Does it make sense to erect a fence around the top of what may turn out to be a slippery slope? I’m not so sure. Did secularism lead me away from the church, or were both things caused by a gradual softening and liberalisation of my beliefs, of which this was the first apparent symptom?

My story looks like good evidence that secularism is linked to loss of faith, but I find it hard to believe that the simple fact of holding secularist beliefs would lead someone away from the church, not least because so many people manage to be religious secularists. One intriguing possibility is that it’s the church’s general opposition to secularism, rather than the detail of the beliefs themselves, that may turn a simple view on how to run civil affairs into the beginnings of rebellion against the church.

To repeat, secularism has no necessary relation to other beliefs. But if you come to the conclusion that it’s a realistic viewpoint which respects other people, while the church is conflating it (either ignorantly or disingenuously) with atheism and demanding special treatment for its own beliefs, it’s bound to increase the distance between you and the church, and make you wonder what else they might be wrong about. If the church affirmed secularism as an application of loving your neighbour, this wouldn’t happen.

Of course, this is speculation, and in any case, the church is unlikely to suddenly ask to have all its historic privileges removed, so it can be treated just like any other belief. But I wonder if this is consistent with evidence that young people are deserting the church in numbers over its anti-gay attitudes. The church is telling people certain things which they can see are false, and that discredited claim is turning them off everything else the church has to say.

The church wants to be relevant and influential, but in trying to protect its position by drawing strong boundaries, the more influence it seems to lose. There could be a parable in that.

Photos by indy_slug and Sadie Hernandez, used under Attribution License

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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.

13 responses to “Is secularism a gateway drug?”

  1. jonnyscaramanga says :

    Interesting thoughts. Certainly, it’s impossible (or at least never seen in practice) to be a fundamentalist and a secularist, so if you come from that stock than any flirtation with secularism is at least a softening of views.

    I once read an interesting piece in the Spectator which argued that, just as a vaccine is a mild dose of a disease, the established Church of England inoculates our country against religious extremism.

    I know that everything I was warned against as a child as potentially leading me astray – secular music, non-Christian friends, drinking, secularism – were stages I passed through en route to atheism. I think that strong faith doesn’t survive scrutiny very well, and all of those things are likely to subject it to scrutiny. In that sense, they are gateway drugs.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I like that idea of the CofE as a religious vaccine, but there are plenty of nutters and extremists, including at least one bishop who believes that gay sex causes natural disasters and (I wish I was making this up) infects your rectum with demons.

      • jonnyscaramanga says :

        Haha! That’s awesome. In general, though, Britain does seem more culturally resistant to religious extremism than America and (this may be just my perception) other English-speaking countries.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I think that’s probably right, but I’m not sure if it’s connected to the good ol’ CofE, or just our national character. I’m reminded of a comment I once heard about the rise of fascism across Europe. Some submitted to it, some fought it, some banned it, but we laughed at it. I think irreverence and satire is very much a part of British culture, and mockery is a pretty effective protection against extreme and bizarre movements.

  2. sixpointnineme says :

    Interesting considerations. As you correctly state in this post, secularism has nothing to do with belief. The main purpose is to have separation of church and state. In this way, the decisions that have to do with the mundane, are decided by the people, without meddling by some church. No religion is given privilege over another, nor is it exempt of paying taxes. In a secular society, all beliefs and non-belief are treated equally.
    “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:20-22 (KJV)
    I cannot, for the life of me, understand why, the different Christian churches will not abide by their own scriptures. Let government and the people take care of public policy, while they take care of belief. I suppose it is because that would lessen the power that they yield and also their financial gains.
    Is secularism a “gateway drug”? In the eyes of the churches it must be seen as such. In my view it is only a sign of the progress of a democratic society.

    Thank you for sharing your views.

    “In a secular society the religiously motivated must translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values. Their proposals must be subject to argument and reason, and should not be accorded any undue automatic respect”.
    – President Barack Obama

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I cannot, for the life of me, understand why, the different Christian churches will not abide by their own scriptures. Let government and the people take care of public policy, while they take care of belief. I suppose it is because that would lessen the power that they yield and also their financial gains.

      I think you just answered your own question!

      Or, and this is just a suggestion, it might be that there’s a genuine failure of empathy involved. I can’t remember exactly how I thought about this back in the day, but I think the thought process often goes along the lines of “This is a Christian country, therefore it’s appropriate for that to be reflected in public affairs, therefore anyone who objects has an anti-religious agenda.” Lots of begged questions in there, but when you’re preaching to the choir, it’s likely to be fairly easy to get to the point where secularism is a proxy war against religion without ever questioning the huge number of dodgy premises earlier on.

      • sixpointnineme says :

        Oh, so true, I tend to ask and answer things, akin to thinking out loud. I think you are right on the point of the thinking process behind it.

        “This is a Christian country, therefore it’s appropriate for that to be reflected in public affairs, therefore anyone who objects has an anti-religious agenda.”

        But an anti-religious agenda would not be necessary in the ideal; if such a thing could be possible, secular state.

  3. thebiblereader says :

    i wouldn’t call secularism a gateway drug….I would call reality a gateway to doubt, cause those who are most exposed to the real world have a higher tenacity to reject religious dogma

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I think I’d phrase it ever so slightly differently and say that exposure to different ideas makes people less tenacious in holding onto their existing beliefs, rather than more tenacious in rejecting them. But yes, there’s a possible relationship right there, with reality (or at least exposure to other ideas) leading to both an openness to secularism and an increasingly light hold on other beliefs.

  4. Daz says :

    This reminded me of this rather good take on CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.

    I’m not sure secularism is a gateway to non-belief, as such, but I’d venture to guess that it’s a gateway to less dogmatic belief. But then, I’ve never been a believer anyway, so I’m possibly/probably missing some insight.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Well, is it a gateway to anything, or is it a symptom of those things, or do they have a common cause? That’s something I still haven’t quite got my head around.

      But your link (which is excellent, thank you) reminds me that I had a similar experience when I started to view C.S.Lewis as mostly hot air. He made various arguments which are often quoted but look really flimsy when considered closely, and I found it a quite significant moment when I started to see him in a different light. There are probably hundreds of little moments like these, some more significant than others, on the road from belief to unbelief, but it’s hard to pin down how they all relate to each other.

  5. sarahjanelives says :

    Reblogged this on sarahjanelives and commented:
    Very interesting. I have often pondered the correlation between the slow disassociation from strong church ties and lifelong unquestioning faith that seems to follow increased exposure to that big ‘ol world outside the church. it does seem that the more you are exposed to free thinkers, examiners, & questioners…..the more you begin to see the inconsistencies of your religious upbringing. i guess the moral of that tale is that if you want to remain part of your flock, you must remain a sheep.

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