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.