Papal plots, burqa bans: what does it mean to be secular today?

David Bowden

104242846 221x300 Papal plots, burqa bans: what does it mean to be secular today?“The Devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand,” warned Tom Waits on Blood Money. Not as well as American atheists it seems. Recent research by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has found non-believers have a greater theological knowledge than many professed believers. Manna from heaven for those in the New Atheist stable, you would think, who hold the continued existence of religion as an embarrassment in a post-Enlightenment world.

Yet while some may be given to feelings of vindication bordering on self-satisfaction, one cannot deny that the secularists’ lot is presently not a happy one. While the “Protest the Pope” movement sought to take the “old leering villain in a frock” to task – even investigating whether he could be arrested for “crimes against humanity” – during the recent papal visit, their indignation was drowned out by the outpouring of support for the Pope from the UK’s Catholic minority. Religious groups and schools still secure opt-outs from equality legislation on the basis of their (often discriminatory) beliefs. Liberal writers such as Eric Kaufmann and Martin Amis warn that traditional Western secularism is under threat from the high birth-rates of religious families and the segregation which comes with immigration.

Moreover, many atheists are left feeling uncomfortable when proudly secular countries such as France use the language of freedom and equality to outlaw the burqa: a piece of legislation which specifically targets only a handful of women and, paradoxically, seeks to take away their freedom (to wear what they choose) in the name of liberty. During the general election campaign, Conservative minister Christopher Grayling seemed to speak to the confusion of many when he expressed unease about Christian B&B owners being compelled by law to house gay couples in their own homes; yet the maelstrom of controversy his comments provoked demonstrated the sensitivity of the issue.

Claims of heresy, iconoclasm and blasphemy in days gone by have now given way to the language of offence, with both sides equally guilty. Everything from cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed to ice cream adverts depicting pregnant nuns get censored, often pre-emptively, for fear of offending religious groups; yet militant secularists call for the Pope to be refused entry to the country on the grounds he offends victims of child abuse, sexism and homophobia.

The legacy of the Reformation and religious wars, followed by the Enlightenment, spawned a particular tradition of secularism in Europe based on the separation of religion and politics, and the principle of tolerance. Of course, religious conflict was never completely stamped out, but until recently it was assumed that religion was becoming less important, as the process of secularisation unfolded, and enlightened, liberal values took the place of superstition and deference to religious authorities.

‘No man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another,’ said John Locke in 1689, arguing against state interference in religious belief: ‘All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.’

In their perceived role as guardians of European secular liberalism against the growth of Muslim communities across Europe, it seems that many New Atheists are now compromising the very principles of religious tolerance fundamental this tradition. Secularism should be about allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values without official interference.

However what we are now seeing is the bizarre rise of illiberal liberals, where so-called “liberals” assert their right to micro-manage every aspect of individuals’ lives, from the clothes and symbols people wear, to the talks they choose to attend. Atheists may know the Bible or the Koran like the back of their hand, but the question we should be asking is how much they know and adhere to the Enlightenment tradition they claim as their heritage.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

David Bowden is producing the Battle of Ideas Satellite event Papal plots, burqa bans: what does it mean to be secular today? taking place at Foyles Charing Cross, London on Thursday 7 October at 6.30pm. An additional Battle Satellite debate From open values to burqa bans: have Europeans lost the habit of tolerance? is taking place at 6pm on Thursday 14 October at House of Literature, Oslo. Picture: Getty images

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  • daron

    “yet militant secularists call for the Pope to be refused entry to the country on the grounds he offends victims of child abuse, sexism and homophobia.”

    Let me correct that for you…

    “yet militant secularists call for the Pope to be refused entry to the country on the grounds *is complicit in the cover-up and virtual enabling of of* child abuse, *and promotes* sexism and homophobia.”

    If you can’t even state the issues properly, why do you think you are worth listening to?

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