I was going to continue with my series on Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great today, but then I bumped into Andrew Brown way out of intellectual bounds, and decided a few more words directed toward him, as well as towards the huge brouhaha brewing over the place of religion in public life, would possibly be more to the point. The US bishops were girding up their loins for a long battle with unseen forces — even to the point of shedding blood! – at the same time that Baroness Warsi and her Tory pals made their pilgrimage to Rome in defence of religion against the looming powers of secularism. Suddenly, it seems as though the whole religious world has lost touch with reality, beleaguered and threatened by an imagined bogeyman whom they have chosen to name “secularism” even though, like their god or gods, there really is nothing there.
Andrew Brown says that “militant secularists” fail to understand the rules of secular debate, and in an article bearing that title simply fails to explain what he means. Indeed, he makes no sense at all this time, and although purportedly about militant secularists, he does not explain what he means by the term. Consider this paragraph from his article, in which he claims to be explaining what he means by militant secularism:
There are three kinds of people in Britain today who might be taken for militant secularists: that is to say people who are not just themselves unbelievers, but have an emotional investment in the extirpation of religious belief in others. There are the adolescents who have just discovered “rationality”; there are gay people who feel personally threatened by traditional monotheist morality; and, in this country, there are parents frustrated by the admissions policy of religiously controlled schools.
This is simply incoherent, as just a moment’s thought on Brown’s part should have confirmed. He does mention Dawkins in connexion with adolescent secularists, some of whom, we are told,
… discover Richard Dawkins the way that others discover Ayn Rand. Large confident solutions to all the world’s problems, which are only held back by the stupidity and self-interest of the old, will always appeal to teenagers.
But that’s about as close to a statement about militant secularism that he gets. After discussing the uniquely bewildering English school system for a few irrelevant paragraphs, he then says, suddenly, and irrelevantly:
None of these groupings are large enough in themselves to threaten the future of Christianity, or of Islam, in this country. But they make a useful enemy for politicians such as Lady Warsi.
Their real offence, though, is that they don’t understand the rules of secular debate.
The pronouns “their” and “they” don’t refer to anything that could be construed as militant secularism, and the claim that “they don’t understand the rules of secular debate” is arguably without any reference at all.
In any event, at this point, Brown makes a leap of faith and refers us, without any clear reason for doing so, to Julian Baggini’s article on the neutrality of the secular state: “‘A secular state must be neutral’ – what does that mean exactly?” This is where Brown’s problem begins, and he only leaves himself the space of a three or four Twitter posts in which to solve it. Here’s the heart of his answer:
But Baggini’s definition provides a way to understand this. A secularist, he says, is someone who appeals to natural reason, and not to divine law. And this kind of reason is by definition something shared by both sides in the argument. But the militant secularist takes for granted that “the religious” have no access to reason. There can be no reasoning with his opponents. All he can do is to repeat himself more loudly until the idiots understand.
However, I can find nothing that justifies that confident, “But the militant secularist takes for granted that “the religious” have no access to reason.” Indeed, Baggini’s supposition is that, like all other human beings, they do. All they have to leave out is any reference to a supposed divine law. This is, after all, a reasonable restriction. Of course, religious communities can order their own relationships, and establish their own parameters, more or less as they please. However, since religions differ from and conflict with each other at the level of their positive claims about the divine and/or the spiritual realm, and the consequences they draw from those claims, it is only reasonable to leave these contentious points out of consideration when trying to find a modus vivendi for larger ventures — like the nation — in which all are involved in searching for ways to live together in peace. The situation is very much like the Reformation settlement in 16th century Britain when the issue was mainly the diversity and militancy of Christian convictions upon which so many lives were lost.
Brown’s pathetic maunderings do not even scratch the surface of the problems involved, which have very little, if anything, to do with the British school system. The same problems are in evidence practically everywhere around the world. The role of Islam in Egypt, for instance, where Islamist parties were recently victorious at the polls, raises questions about the role of minorities, and especially Coptic Christians, within the national community. The battle over contraception in the United States, which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has decided to raise to the level of a First Amendment contest for religious freedom, even though that amendment was arguably about individual rights rather than the rights of religious institutions, is another case in point. Baggini’s answer to the problem of religious diversity is a simple one. This is not something that can be settled at the level of religious institutions, which are irrevocably locked in disagreement. What must take place is that citizens see themselves, at the level of political community, as citizens first and foremost. Religion comes later. The question is not one about institutions, but about how individuals can live together in peace, even though they may disagree about beliefs and practices which they take to be of fundamental importance for their own lives. If religious institutions, and any supposed rights which institutions might claim in the social contract are placed first, there is simply no way of reaching agreement, for the religions themselves are intrinsically divided, and, barring a miracle, will remain so.
As Baggini says, dividing national communities along religious lines would be disastrous:
I think it would be disastrous to structure public life in such a way to encourage people to organise around their ethnic or religious identities. In civic life, people should see themselves as citizens first, the identity they share with others, and Christian, atheist, European or whatever the identity that divides them from others second. The recognition of the plurality of values does not require pluralistic public processes. Faiths which embrace pluralism will be happy in a truly secular society. Those that do not will hardly be better represented in a pluralist one.
Baroness Warsi and her gang of pious politicos (as the National Secular Society in Britain calls Warsi’s mission to the Vatican) believe that the only way to achieve justice in a multireligious society is for the religions to be prominent in public debate and decision making. She tells us in an article in the Telegraph that her delegation to the Vatican will (although she puts it in the first person):
be arguing that to create a more just society, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their creeds. In practice this means individuals not diluting their faiths and nations not denying their religious heritages.
Clearly, Baggini’s article is a direct response to this claim, and it seems quite clear that Baggini has history on his side. An Islamist Egypt, for instance, is almost certainly a place where minorities will not receive justice. Indeed, in such a situation, for Copts to “feel stronger in their religious [identity] and more confident in their creeds” would undoubtedly lead to an intensification of persecution. The only reason that Warsi could possibly think that justice would be served in Britain by an intensification of people’s religious identities, is a conviction that, in Britain, a stronger Muslim presence would not lead to similar injustices. She does not seem to recognise that it is precisely the secularity of British society that has enabled the influx of millions of Muslims into a secular Britain which does not suppress Muslim opinion even when it becomes militantly anti-British. A strongly Christian Britain would not have been nearly so patient or indulgent.
Indeed, as Brown says, bringing his article to a close:
And, of course, in Britain today, no militant has the power to persecute his enemies with the force of law. But that’s not because we’re nicer than other people, but because our political system is better.
Remember, though, that Brown is ostensibly speaking about militant secularism. He even denies that “militant” secularists understand the rules of secular debate. Yet it is precisely secularism that makes the British political system better than one in which religious identities are strong and given priority over the common good, a secularism that assumes that everyone is capable of reason and rational discourse, and can distinguish this from partisan religious commitments. It is not, as Baroness Warsi complains, that secularism is intolerant and illiberal. The whole purpose of secularism is to isolate intolerant religious and other factional opinion, and the only reason that it seems intolerant is that it does not and cannot quiescently tolerate the hydra-headed intolerance of the religions and their conflicting beliefs and moral priorities. She is the one who simply has not learned the rules of secular debate, and it is this misunderstanding — shared, it seems, by David Cameron — that led her on such a quixotic mission to the Vatican.