There is a letter in this morning’s Independent from David Burgess, Little Bardfield, Essex. It’s a response to Peter Popham’s “No Secularism please, we’re British.” In his article Popham says this:
What is staggering about the secularists is their arrogance and the shortness of their memories. The materialist utopianism of the Communists and Nazis is to blame for all the worst atrocities of the past century. Dawkins may appear to make sense, but it is incredible that we should be ready to pay serious attention to a prophet whose message is the same as those whose schemes led straight to the hells of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge. [my italics]
Now, you might think, everyone knows that this is just silly, but this is obviously not true, because Peter Popham believes it. He believes that the secularism being proposed by the likes of Dawkins and Grayling is the very same message brought by Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot! As David Burgess says, a bit wryly:
I must remember to renew my subscriptions to the Nazi and Communist parties, cancel my standing orders to the various charities to which I contribute and then to kick the Big Issue seller outside Waitrose instead of buying (and enjoying) the magazine.
I must remember never again to feel the sense of sublime peace that creeps over me when I listen to Bach or Mozart or contemplate the glorious dales in Yorkshire, the lavender fields of Provence, or even the wheatfields of Essex; all this to assert my true nature as a secularist.
Burgess is right to mock Peter Popham, for this is not the first time that he has gone all wide-eyed and spaced out over the goodness of religion, nor is it the first time that he has linked religion and peace and secularism with conflict and repression.
As recently as 24th December 2011, he wrote a piece about Islam and peace. Here are a few words from that article:
This was the year that a new sort of Islam emerged, an Islam as tightly wedded to non-violence as Gandhi himself was. But it’s a phenomenon that we are having difficulty coming to terms with.
Islam is the main reason that atheism has gained so much ground in the past two decades. It is a long time since the CofE posed a threat to anybody, and the influence of Rome has been dwindling for years. But, if one wanted proof that “the God delusion” filled people’s heads with pious fury, the proponents of violent jihad offered it on a plate.
So, violent jihad is only a secular deformation of Islam? As he says in the same article:
In vain was it pointed out that the real fathers of Islamist violence were the modern secular prophets, Marx and Mao, and that equally godless theorist of violent Third World revolt Frantz Fanon, famous for saying “violence is man re-creating himself”. Bin Laden’s talk of crusades, infidels and paradise was proof enough that his jet fuel was religious mania.
Now, for anyone who has read even the very short introduction to the history of Islam this is just a pipe dream. Violence and jihad are strongly embedded in Islamic tradition, and it is an extremely dangerous piece of self-deception to suppose otherwise.
How could Popham simply ignore the jihadist spread of Islam, or the part that Islam played in the slave trade, for which Europe is continually berating itself? Ibn Warraq, in his book, Why the West is Best, mentions that the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, in 2007, published a book entitled The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. And then he comments:
One wonders if a publisher today would promote a book titled The Great British Empire, and How it Changed the World. Many a modern introductory book on Islam begins by singing the praises of a people who conquered half the civilized world in an incredibly short period of time; in glowing terms it will recount an era when Muslims ruled over a vast population of diverse peoples and cultures, in an empire stretching from the banks of the Indus to the shores of the Atlantic. One can hardly imagine a contemporary British historian getting away with similar eulogies to the British Empire. … European colonialism and imperialism (both being terms of abuse by now) are blamed for all manner of problems on earth, and treated as a matter of shame for all Europeans; but Arab imperialism is held up as something admirable and a justifiable source of Muslim pride. [Kindle edn. loc. 2052-2060]
Islam was spread by imperial expansion, until Muslim warriors stood at the very gates of Europe itself. Ibn Warraq points out how jihadi raiding parties into infidel (Christian) Europe, ranging as far north as Britain, returned with booty of wealth and slaves. As Ibn Warraq writes:
Not well known to the general public is the enslavement of Europeans and North Americans by Arabs, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. According to Robert C. Davies, “almost certainly a million” and possibly many more white Europeans were taken into slavery by Muslims of the Barbary Coast between 1530 and 1780. The coasts of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Ireland, and England, especially Cornwall, were all targets of Muslim raids for centuries. [1688-1689]
Empire and slave trading, all based on the plausible excuse of Islamic jihad carried out on unbelieving populations, on which the wealth and populousness as well, in many cases, as the cultural sophistication of (so-called) “Islamic civilisation”, were founded. It is time we stopped making excuses for Islam and began to see it as the predatory force that it is and was.
The point, if the point still needs to be made, is that, while some of the utopianism of Enlightenment thinking may have led to the disasters of Nazism, Communism, and Pol Pot’s completely absurd idea that he could simply reset the clock of history to year 1, and begin building a utopia in Cambodia, this is because of the residuum of religious zeal that lay dormant in the projects of nationalism and the ideal of the workers state, and is not due, as Popham so confidently asserts, to the secular ideal, which may, in some of its forms, look forward to the marginalisation and demise of religion, but which is more about the subordination of religious goals and ideals to the common good. Secularism is not religionlessness; it is a state in which religions recognise that they have no right to privileged access to public space and to a public voice, but in which everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, try to order society for the good of all. Doubtless religious ideals may play a role in secular societies, not because they are religious ideals, but because they appeal to the good of both believers and unbelievers.
Julian Baggini has a helpful article in the Guardian this morning which puts the point succinctly and clearly, in which he states that:
A healthy secular society must allow for a plurality of ways of living – but these must never compromise the common good.
This does not mean that religious voices will not be heard, but they will be heard, not because they are religious voices, but because they conduce to the good of all. As Baggini says:
What [secularity] requires is that articles of faith, or other substantive conceptions of the good life, do not carry any weight simply because they are matters of faith. The requirement to justify your position in terms that are not exclusive to your specific comprehensive world view is not an excessive or impossible one. It is simply the minimum requirement for fruitful, peaceful co-operation between people with different world views.
Thus, the Roman Catholic “pro-life” view cannot be imposed on everyone, if, as I believe, it can only be justified within the context Roman Catholic moral theology, or other similarly religious moral outlooks. Others are entitled to disagree, and their rights need to be recognised and respected within the secular context, so long as these rights are compatible with the good of all. The same goes, as I have said repeatedly, for assistance in dying. The religious arguments are nearly always based upon death coming only according to god’s will, but for those who do not believe in a god, or that death is something that comes according to the will of some supernatural being, death can reasonably — and should in law be allowed legally to – come at the decision of a person as the outcome of a life lived with deliberation and choice.
It is interesting that this morning’s Independent should also herald the publication of a book on “L’Affaire Dreyfus” by Piers Paul Read, in a review by David A. Bell. The review is fairly scorching as to Read’s abilities as an historian, but what is most interesting to me in this context is that Read writes as a Roman Catholic, hoping to redress the balance that was shifted by the way Catholicism and its unrelenting antisemitism played into the Dreyfus affair. Read laments the loss of the centrality of Catholicism to the French national psyche following the many years during which the Dreyfus affair worked its way through the courts until Dreyfus’s final vindication in 1906, ten years after Ferdinand Esterhazy, a very shady character, walked into the German embassy in Paris and offered to sell French military secrets. Esterhazy was involved in translating German documents for French military intelligence, and thus had both access and motive. It was largely Catholic antisemitism that convicted Dreyfus in 1894. (The complexity of the affair and its many ramifications can be seen in this Chronology of the Dreyfus Affair.)
Here, for my purposes, is the important paragraph of David Bell’s review, in which Read’s main concerns are raised. For, as a result of the Dreyfus affair, limits and restrictions were placed on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in French public life, limits and restrictions lamented by Read:
As for the affair itself, [Bell writes] he calls it part of “the ideological struggle between the France of St Louis and the France of Voltaire”. Following Harris, but without her careful nuances, Read makes the Dreyfusards out to be almost as rigid and intolerant as their opponents. He stresses the offence that Zola had caused to devout Catholics with his anti-clerical novels. And in a section entitled “Retribution”, on the passage of secularist legislation in the wake of the affair (including restrictions on Catholic schools), he speaks of “a determined effort by a government of atheists and Freemasons to prevent the education of French children in a faith that had flourished in France since the baptism of Clovis, 1,400 years before”.
Notice how a secular government might work to raise people in a tradition of public service without regard to ideological beliefs. Read speaks in terms of a government of atheists and Freemasons, though he ignores the fact the antisemitism often underlay such accusations in the past. But David Bell points out that Read is simply ignoring the fact that “at some point in the late 19th century, the “France of St Louis” turned into something altogether more modern and more pathological,” in its deep, almost indelible antisemitism. Bell offers us an example:
Here is typical language from a diocesan newsletter: “Servile, slithering, artful, filthy, and vile when he is the weaker one, he becomes arrogant when he has the upper hand, as he does now. The Jew is our master.”
And this is a clear indication of why, in fact, public life should not be governed by religious convictions, but should be a neutral meeting place where concerned citizens can make decisions for everyone equally.
This means, of course, or at least should mean, that the peculiar twists and turns of theological conviction will not be represented in decisions made at the level of law and government regulation. Everyone is free to enter into the discussion, but no one should expect to have their religious beliefs taken seriously at that level. Indeed, the spectacle of Republican candidates for President of the United States trying desperately to outdo each other in the extremism of their religious commitments is something that should not take place, and should not be permitted to take place in a public forum in which public servants are to be elected. John F. Kennedy’s assurance that no one in the Vatican would make decisions for his government is the ideal towards which American presidential candidates should strive, for in putting their faith commitments into the public debate they are implicitly subverting the constitution that they will, if elected, swear to uphold and defend. Explicit statements about faith commitments in order to garner more votes is in conflict with the Constitution of the United States, and its much celebrated separation of church and state. That it should take place in the way that it does in such public and prominent ways should precipitate a constitutional crisis. That it does not has a great deal to say about the state of the American union and the religious pathologies that have been allowed to grow unchecked at its heart.