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A secular state is important, but (for me) it’s not enough

Sunday’s post on humanism has gained lots of attention, including the National Secular Society’s, who shared it on their homepage. (Thanks to them for the readers that sent the blog.)

One issue I mentioned half way through that post, and that I’ve brought up a lot elsewhere recently, is that I want to focus my activities on skepticism – and in particular, atheism – not just on separating church and state. I differ in this sense from many humanists, but also from the NSS, which works “exclusively” toward a secular state.

Their president Terry Sanderson, who I’m told liked the humanism post, said two years ago “We will leave humanism for the humanist groups, atheism to the atheist groups and fix our sights uniquely on secularism.” A secular charter, illustrating their campaign aims, was announced at the same time.

Don’t read this post as a criticism of the NSS – I share their aims, support their work and am fine with that being their focus. This post is just about why, personally, mine is different.

The issues strict secularists address legitimately matter. It matters that Anglican Bishops sit as of right in Britain’s parliament, for example; that “broadly Christian worship” is required in our state schools; that parallel court systems exist for minority religions; that oaths to God are taken by our national rulers; that faith groups get exemptions a priori from a host of laws; that they effectively have automatic charity status; that religious bodies run at least a third of maintained schools here; that public money funds chaplaincies in hospitals, the armed forces and education, and that we still have an established church. These are just some of the issues the UK has – elsewhere, things are sometimes far worse – so I’m glad there are people on the case.

But in terms of religion’s impact on the world, and on this country, it’s not just these church-and-state issues that matter to me. In fact, if I had to list all my concerns, they would only constitute a small fraction.

It also matters to me…

  • …that according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, only 48 percent of British people believe in evolution, and that in a 2009 survey by ComRes, 32 percent said it was probably or definitely true “that God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years”, and that 51 percent said intelligent design was probably or definitely true. It matters that many children are presumably taught this by their parents and not just in school, that entire churches of typically-educated adults believe something so clearly absurd, and that students at well-respected universities boycott lectures on Darwin.
  • …that in churches and living rooms everywhere, people are taught that God created humans as two separate genders, whose function was to “cleave unto” one another, and that this is used to justify misogyny, transphobia and bigotry toward queer people in general. These beliefs manifest themselves as dirty looks in the street, heteronormative language and other entirely legal microaggressions.
  • …that people in enjoyable, consensual relationships put huge amounts of effort into not having the sex each of them wants, because they think it will make baby Jesus cry – because they think creating the universe gives someone else authority over their sex life.
  • …that people give up sometimes-huge quantities of money to their churches or religious organisations, many of which spend that money on egregious or dishonest things, when they could use it to help loved ones, vulnerable people or good causes.
  • …that people die when they stop taking their medicine, because they believe prayer will cure them of serious illness. Advertising regulations will not stop this happening, because these beliefs are often acquired in pews, over coffee with friends or family members, from reading holy books or from prayer itself.
  • …that people with serious mental health issues are taken, or go willingly, to ask pastors, priests and other religious leaders for advice, who it’s presumed on no evidential basis have access to ultimate knowledge but who frequently have no medical or psychiatric training whatsoever. It matters when totally unqualified believers and religious leaders go out of their way – entirely legally, most of the time – to tell people they have depression or other MH issues because they lack humility before God, rather than because they’ve got an illness.
  • …that parents tell their children they’re possessed by demons, and sometimes perform vivid, traumatising rituals to drive them out.
  • …that the same parents and other adults terrify children with vivid, traumatising statements about Hell.
  • …that children are threatened with Hell for not believing, and that adults are too. Not rarely. Not even occasionally. Like, all the fucking time.
  • …that children are indoctrinated with unfair, unbalanced presentations of beliefs as obvious facts.
  • …that people who aren’t especially religious feel a sudden need to “do God” on becoming parents, and lie to their children about what they believe. It matters that children grow up believing sometimes-absurd things because their parents were dishonest.
  • …that people who aren’t especially religious feel they need to have religious weddings, child-naming ceremonies or funerals. Particularly at funerals, this can be enormously alienating for some attendees.
  • …that when some atheists die, believers insist they have religious funerals which don’t represent their lives and which they wouldn’t have wanted. For some attendees, this makes bereavement even more heartbreaking than it is already.
  • …that believers with no knowledge or understanding of other religions spread hateful, dehumanising propaganda about one another, including when the religions at stake are in many respects highly similar from an outsider’s perspective.
  • …that believers with no knowledge or understanding of atheists spread hateful, dehumanising propaganda about us – and that educated believers do that who ought to know better.
  • …that when I stood at a secular stand on a busy Oxford street with slogans like “Not religious?” and “Living without religion”, a passer-by with several children shook his head, in slow revulsion, as if witnessing a fascist parade.
  • …that while representing an atheist student group at a freshers’ fair, I had to explain to a fellow student – at Oxford University – what an atheist was, something I learned aged 11.
  • …that some believers, including relatively educated ones with very large audiences, claim that “our laws, customs, traditions, language, music, architecture, diet, everything you care to name, [.] are all based upon Christianity“.
  • …that some believers, including ones I’ve met, say the genocides of the Old Testament were justified explicitly because God (rather than people) ordered them.
  • …that some people, including some atheists, think sinking a sharp knife into the genitals of an eight-day-old baby and cutting them apart without anaesthesia is okay, if done for religious reasons, and should be legal. (I’m not even talking about people doing it. It concerns me simply that some people think it’s okay, which they still would if it were banned – which it should be.)
  • …that civic and secular authorities are failing to enforce the existing laws against female genital mutilation, perhaps in fear of appearing racist or religiously intolerant. (Imagine the results if, instead of Muslim immigrants’ daughters, white girls in Britain had their clitorises cut off.)
  • …that civic and secular authorities refrain from using existing laws against churches and religious bodies which for decades have deliberately, knowingly concealed sexual abuse of children.
  • …that when it’s suggested these churches not be trusted with children, some believers and atheists react as if something indescribably intolerant, bigoted or aggressive has been said.

None of these issues will be addressed just by separating church from state. If no clergy sat in parliament, all state schools were wholly unreligious, no church had undue exemptions from any laws, and so on – anything above could still be happening. Each results from people’s actual beliefs about the universe, and not necessarily from public funds going to religion. In most cases, we can’t and shouldn’t tackle them with changes to the law, infringing on people’s freedom to believe whatever they want; but by fostering a climate of skepticism where people choose their beliefs carefully, subjecting religious claims to appropriate scrutiny, we might.

I’m glad there’s someone taking the “secularism-only” approach – specifically the NSS – and not focusing on criticising superstitious modes of thought. As Maryam Namazie puts it, “Secularism is a precondition for basic rights and freedoms. It’s inclusive unlike religion”; separating church and state can be desirable to believers, and secularist campaigners need as many foot soldiers as they can get, so it makes sense that they don’t religion-bash.

Some of us want to focus on secularism, and some want to help persuade people out of irrational beliefs. It’s entirely up to the individual which to emphasise, and there are very good reasons to keep those efforts separate. Personally, I want to be one of the latter.

Across society and around the world, a conversation is taking place about whether and why religious beliefs hold water or not. I want to be part of that conversation, and there are several reasons I think this is what I should be doing:

  • I’m not a lobbyist. As I said in my “humanism” post, secularist work – not always, but often – involves meeting with politicians or national and local authorities, examining legal frameworks and legislation, preparing long term strategies and choosing pragmatic goals – that isn’t me. I don’t have the patience or diplomacy for that kind of work, and I don’t have access to Westminster.
  • I’m good at responding to evangelism, and I like doing it. I couldn’t put together summaries of Britain’s complex laws or give speeches to the UN about the Vatican’s history of child abuse, as some of the NSS’s people have – but I do feel at home giving point-by-point responses to arguments the Gospels are reliable. That kind of thing is important too.
  • I used to be religious, so I have an understanding of belief – and Christianity in particular – some atheists don’t have. I get what it’s like to belong to a church, and I’m happy to dig into Bible quotes. I understand the differences between different churches. This makes me better informed than some atheists are, and I find specifically that many pure secularists have been raised in atheist households, and don’t always fully appreciate things like deconversion.
  • I’m angry – about the things religious leaders do, the things done to atheists in the name of belief, the things done to believers in the name of other beliefs, and generally the harmful ways religion affects the world. Spreading skepticism and organising explicitly in atheist terms, rather than working for secularism in non-confrontational ways, satisfies me; I want to be confrontational. (That doesn’t mean I want to be rude, unfriendly, aggressive or generally a dick – it means I want to have the argument, as part of a broad social movement if not in person.) If I focused on separating church and state, I wouldn’t feel as fulfilled, and that means I wouldn’t be as good at it as I am at atheism-centric work.

You could offer me a job with the NSS, or a similar group, starting tomorrow, and convince me totally that in five years I’d have made a huge difference – but if it meant I had to shut up about religion and not have the “beliefs” conversation, the cost to me personally would be too high.

I know that, since secularism is important, not everyone can take that stance – and happily, not everyone does. I’m glad there are people most fulfilled by church-and-state activism. (Tessa Kendall, who formerly worked for the NSS and to whom this post is in part a response, is one of them.) Sadly, and as I suggested in Sunday’s post, my happiness to part ways isn’t always returned.

If U.S. atheists are reading this, I know this may seem strange, but I’ve heard it said by pure secularists, and especially by humanists, that the kind of activism I and lots of other atheists pursue – the kind which involves persuading people out of their religions, making them look critically at their beliefs, encouraging atheists to come out in religious communities and talking about harm caused by irrational beliefs – gets in secularism’s way. The implication is that by criticising religion, we put believers off supporting a secular state.

I want to ask: what’s the point in secularism, if it means we all have to be nice about religion? Isn’t that enormously object-defeating? I’m a secularist because I think bashing beliefs should be allowed, and I’m as happy for people to bash mine as I am to bash theirs.

But I’m going to take a moment and say just what else I think is wrong-headed about that, because I think that activism promoting skepticism and combating irrational beliefs is of great use to secularism.

If more people are skeptics and atheists…

  • …it’s very likely more will be secularists. How many people join the NSS due to getting involved in atheism – at least in part, say, because they read The God Delusion or went to a Tim Minchin concert? Quite a lot, I bet. We can talk, legitimately, about why religious people should be secularists, but the fact is that an emphatic atheist is likely to want bishops out of parliament far more than, say, an Anglican – in fact, if you meet someone at their local atheist group, you can be almost certain they want that. Whatever extra members those groups get, the more potential memberships fees, donations or volunteers the NSS might get.
  • …fewer will be in religious groups, for church leaders or theocrats in general to use against secularists. We know that the Catholic church, for example, takes every opportunity to rally its schools and congregation against marriage reform, something the NSS supports, and we’ve seen Evan Harris lose his parliamentary seat, due at least in part to the organised smearing by Christian pro-life groups. Let be clear, cold-blooded and Machiavellian: when it comes to achieving secularist political goals, the fewer people the churches have, the better.
  • …religion’s privileged status, and Christianity’s in particular, will be further questioned. The 2001 census, which misleadingly suggested 71 percent of Britons were Christians, has been waved like a flag by Christian theocrats and evangelicals (also known as The Daily Telegraph). The suggestion is that since Christians are numerous, we ought for example to retain the Lords Spiritual – even on its own terms, that argument is bad, but the more people in our country tick “No religion”, the more absurdly unrepresentative bishops’ seats will look. Bigotry shown toward emphatic nonbelievers, like the man’s our “Not religious?” slogan disgusted, will presumably be rarer too, since more people’s friends and relatives will be atheists.
  • …more people will see religions just as ideas, like political philosophies or economic schools of thought, which have to earn their keep in the marketplace of ideas. They’ll stop thinking of them as inherent parts of people’s identities, like where their parents come from or their gender identity, and understand that it’s entirely fair – and helpful – to criticise them, just like any other ideas. That helps create an environment where no one’s beliefs get a free ride or an unfair advantage over anyone else’s. Isn’t that what secularism’s about?
  • …fewer theists will be theocrats, and some theocrats will become atheists. One inherent problem with selling secularism to believers is that some feel they know without doubt that their religion is the right one – as far as they’re concerned, it’s simply a fact that Christianity is the truth, and so of course no other worldview should get seats in parliament. To them, treating other religions the same is like treating flat earth-ers and astronomers the same. Atheist activism, if it deconverts these people, can make them secularists; and if it doesn’t, it might at least help them understand that their beliefs aren’t watertight facts.

This can and does work. It’s often said that you can’t reason someone out of religious beliefs – but very clearly, that’s untrue. I was reasoned out of mine. A significant number of people at any atheist gathering you care to attend, I’m willing to bet, have been reasoned out of theirs. Across society and around the world, more and more people are generally leaving religion; and in relatively unreligious societies like Britain, my experience is that fewer and fewer atheists are apathetic.

Atheist-specific activism is a valid option. It works. It isn’t pointless.

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