Tag Archives: Secularism

Permission to have that conversation

In May, Maajid Nawaz presented this important talk at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum. It’s important because he attacks the concept that religion, and especially Islam, should be protected from criticism. And especially he attacks the concept that we should not talk about the problem of Jihadism, or Islamic terrorism. We should not avoid calling a spade a spade.

Maajid says the West, and particularly the USA, has it all wrong. The policies of intervention, imposing “democracy” and the killing of terrorist leaders and civilians via bombing and drones, will never solve the basic problem – that extremist jihadism appeals to many Muslims, even western born Muslims.

He is advancing the need to counter jihadist ideologies with alternative moderate policies – but points out this is hardly happening. And how can it happen if people are too “politically correct” to discuss and condemn actions like the stoning of women, female genital mutilation, imposed marriages, etc.

Maajid has the right credentials to back up his message. He is a former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and used to advocate jihadism.  He was imprisoned in Egypt from 2001 and 2006. His experience led him to change his thinking and he left Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2007, renounced his Islamist past and called for a “Secular Islam“.

Now he is a co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank that seeks to challenge the narratives of Islamist extremists.

Maajid wrote about his experiences and changes of thinking in his book Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism.


More recently he discussed these problems with the atheist Sam Harris. Their discussion is published in the book Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.

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Secularism – its internal problems

Book Review: How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by James Berlinerblau

Price: US$15.29
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 11, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0547473346
ISBN-13: 978-0547473345

Secularism makes the headlines these days – if only because of attacks on it by militant religionists. So I welcome media articles and books which help counter this misrepresentation. It’s necessary to encourage the proper understanding of what exactly secularism is and why “far from being the enemy of religious pluralism, is its guarantor”.

Berlinerblau describes secularism as “a term that, as we shall see, has been defined, derided, used, and abused in a bewildering variety of ways.” Especially by today’s “Christian ‘outrage machine.'”

So it’s worth quoting in a little detail Berlinerblau’s own definitions of secularism:

“Secularism is a political philosophy, which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion. It translates that preoccupation into various strategies of governance, all of which seek to balance two necessities: (1) the individual citizen’s need for freedom of, or freedom from, religion and (2) a state’s need to maintain order. . . it may create or actualize certain dispositions and world-views in us all. Foremost among these are the “secularish” qualities, such as tolerance toward others, moderation, and a willingness to be self-critical about one’s own faith.

It ensures that your child is not forced to join a “voluntary” prayer circle in the school cafeteria.

And if you fancy being able to think about God in any way you see fit, then once again, a little gratitude is in order. This type of freedom is secularism’s essence. This is secularism’s promise. This is the end to which all genuine secularisms aspire.”

But, my feelings about this book are mixed. On the one hand Berlinerblau does clarify the meaning of secularism and criticises those who use the word too loosely. He also delves into the history of secularism in the USA and proposes his own advice on the future strategy and tactics required by the US secularist “movement.” On the other hand I have doubts about the historical accuracy of some of his claims. And while there may be value in some of his suggested tactics, I think the advice sufferers from his own ideological biases and his idealisation of the concept of a secular “movement.”

Atheists need to pay attention

While Berlinerblau criticises the extreme distortion of secularism by strident Christians and other religionists he also takes a well-deserved biff at those atheists who often uses secular as another adjective for atheist. Sure, I can understand the need, particularity in the USA, to make use of words other than “atheist”, given its demonisation. But it does no good to co-opt “secular” – especially as this plays right into the hands of the religious militants and the “Christian ‘outrage machine'” who want to equate “secular” with “atheist.” It’s bad enough when those people play the old “bait and switch” trick. When they take text using the inclusive meaning of secular (neutral about religious belief) and dishonestly argue assuming it means atheist. But atheists who use “secular” as meaning “atheist” or non-religious” only fuel militant religious arguments against secularism.

So we should criticise anyone who uses the term “secular” in such a misleading way – especially in the names of organisation or benign references to people, organisation or media. On the other hand, the English language is full of confusing words and people should always take context into account. No amount of action from “language Nazis” can really influence common usage. Nor will our arguments instil sudden honesty into those religious militants and leaders intent on maintaining their privilege. Perhaps we just have to carefully make out context clear when we use these words.

History of secularism

I won’t comment on how accurate the author’s presentation of the history of secularism in the US is. Its outside my areas of expertise. I do think he makes interesting comments relevant to the tactics of people today wishing to prevent undemocratic encroachment of religion into government and state issues. But my concern is that Berlinerblau’s presentation of the history of secularism in the USSR and of the current attitudes of the so-called “New Atheist” is just not objective.

Quoting Stalin on “reactionary clergy” when he says “Anti-religious propaganda is the means that ought to bring to a head the liquidation of the reactionary clergy.”  Berlinerblau adds “Liquidating clergy? Needless to say, this is not a legitimate aspiration of secularism.” No, but he should recognise that “liquidation” of hostile, even armed, reactionary elements – in terms of removal from power and influence – is the “legitimate (even if undemocratic) requirement” for a regime that wishes to stay in power after a bloody civil war. And yes, sometimes that liquidation became physical as well as political.

Berlinerblau’s error in equating political and military actions during an extreme period of social upheaval with “legitimate aspiration of secularism” make me a bit suspicious of all the history he presents.

Personally I think the experience of religious groups after the 1917 revolution up to the present is a rich area which could teach us a lot. It is just too simplistic (if ideologically satisfying to many historians) to present the myth of a persecuted and banned religion and Orthodox Church during the period of communist power. After all, the most dangerous organisation to belong to during the Stalin Terror of the 30s was the Communist Party – half its Central Committee disappeared in the space of a few years between two Congresses so imagine what it was like in the ranks. Persecution at that time was widespread so it is wrong to draw general conclusions only from persecution of church members then.

After the 1917 Revolution and subsequent civil war all political organisations, except the Communist Party were made illegal. The outstanding exception was the Orthodox Church – a little surprising as it had lined up against the revolution and had previously supported Tsarism. The new regime obviously accommodated the church, seminaries operated during much of the time and priests were even members of the Supreme Soviet. Clearly, as the only legal political organisation, the Communist Party would have included members of all sorts of ideology and religious belief – it was the only way to take part generally in society. I think that, and the integration of the Communist Party into state and commercial structures helped decide the relatively peaceful transition to the post-communist society. It probably also influenced the nature of post-communist institutions and power.

In particular – I think there is a fascinating story behind the current Russian power structures with strong influence from a nationalistic Orthodox Church and the security forces on the one hand, and the roles and situations of these organisations before 1990 on the other.

Still, Berlinerblau history of secularism in the USSR has some value and his comments on secularism without democracy are worth consideration for the lessons they provide. They seem especially relevant to the current struggles in the Middle East where undemocratic secular regimes are being swept aside by the very religious forces they were meant to control. They were not able to solve the problems presented by militant religions and surely do not represent the future we wish to see for secularism in the West.

Then again the political situations and maturity of the various political and religious forces are very different. As are the societies themselves. So the history of secularism in undemocratic and authoritarian regimes maybe interesting but is of little relevance to our political situations. Despite the attempts of the local religious extremists to paint today’s democratic secularism in the colours of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (let’s not mention Hitler).

Those nasty “New Atheists”

This is a major obstacle for me. If an author presents an obviously distorted, and motivated, description of current phenomena we are familiar with, what trust can you place on their presentation of, and interpretation of, past histories? And what value can you see in the strategy and tactics they advocate for supporters of secularism today? Very relevant because the book is a “Call to Arms.”

Berlinerblau declares he desires that “secularists and atheists can pursue their legitimate and worthy agendas and work together when their interests overlap (which is often).” However, he belongs to the groups of non-believers who think that vocal atheists should STFU. Which makes me think his valid request for atheists not to equate “secularism” with” atheism” sometimes transforms into a wish for atheists not to be too public about their presence in any secularist movement, or in their demand for secularist policies. I wonder if that is what really motivates his desire to “disarticulate secularism from atheism.”

This agenda also prevents him from understanding lessons drawn by others. He ridicules the point made by Richard Dawkins and others that even “mild and moderate religion . . helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.” I think it’s a valid point but Berlinerblau’s agenda-driven misunderstanding raises questions in my mind about his objectivity and ability to understand issues he deals with. How does he possible get to this?:

“Surely a school of thought that can’t distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen in Cincinnati is not poised to make the sound policy decisions that accrue to the good of secularism.”

This distortion reveals his wish to exclude vocal atheists from his secular “movement” – purely because they are vocal (he describes it as  “sound and fury”). As does his assertion:

“It is very clear that extreme atheists would rather that the church not exist, and this makes their inclusion in the secular camp problematic. New Atheists tend to make grand rhetorical gestures toward that goal, though little indicates they seriously plan on bringing their ideas to fruition. We now turn to some extreme atheists who did precisely that.”

This is followed by his chapter “How not to be secular” where he considers the experience of the USSR! Isn’t that “gleefully tarring” today’s vocal atheists with the Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot” myth? (I am borrowing a term he used in the book against these vocal atheists).

I think this emotive reaction to vocal atheism displays a political naivety that undermines his “call to arms”. How can we build an inclusive secular movement by excluding important sections  – just because these people are vocal about their beliefs and understandings? After all, it is the nature of beliefs that people keep them despite uniting in the common actions. Unity of action does not mean denial of freedom of belief or removal of political rights and freedom of expression.

Do we need “manifestos” or honest appraisal of political realities?

I disagree with Berlinerblau’s apparent assumption that we need a “Secular Movement” – for which his book is a “Call to arms.” Politics is rarely that simple – especially when unity of action  from diverse groups around abstract aims is involved. Personally I see that issues will be dealt with and resolved on an ad hoc basis. People will unite and act on specific demands, often local and not national issues. Even where they are motivated by grander concepts such as freedom of (and from) religion, equal rights and opposition to discrimination.

Also participants in a (lower case) secular “movement” bring their own understandings, ideas and skill to that movement. We are not rank and file soldiers unquestioningly following a “Call to arms.” Some people are activists, others are armchair supporters. Some people will follow a lead, others will lead. Some people are preoccupied with today’s struggles, others have longer term vision and aims.

That is why I think Berlinerblau and others who rant against today’s vocal atheists make a big mistake. They try to fit everyone into their own concept of what an atheist should be without recognising the reality faced by today’s atheists. There are a multitude of requirements. Unified political action for secularist aims isn’t the only game in town. Another important one is education – consciousness raising. How can atheists take part in a political movement if they don’t even recognise that they are atheists, are afraid to acknowledge that fact or inhibited in their political actions by their social surroundings.

In his rather biased criticism of the “New Atheism” Berlinerblau loses sight of fact that the practical role of Richard Dawkins and some others is consciousness rising for atheism – not coalition building for secularism. Concentration on consciousness raising does not mean opposition to coalition building by any means – as a simple reading of pronouncements by these people will make clear.

Frankly, I see consciousness raising as an important factor in any secularist movement. Denial or exclusion of that function, as Berlinerblau appears to want, actually weakens the movement.

And that is my main objection to this book.

Some readers will no doubt find value in the book’s description of the history of secularism in the US and the mistakes it may have made. The history of secularism and religion in the USSR and post communist Russia needs further analysis. (A general criticism of today’s historians as the ideological “perspective of the victor’ makes objectivity difficult). And the history and problems of secularism in authoritarian Middle East state needs further analysis. it’s a topical issue.

The book is of value for those reasons but I don’t think it should be taken as a “Call to arms.”

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Do atheists need religion?

I was in no hurry to read this book – Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. It got such bad reviews. And I really wasn’t impressed by Alain de Botton’s contribution to public debate – on TV and in the media. However, an atheist friend recommended the book and, although I don’t think she had finished reading it, she was impressed with the book’s arguments. Or at least the problems the author identified for atheists living in a secular society.

So, out of a sense of responsibility I purchased and read it.

My conclusion – a waste of money and time!

I don’t intend this to be a review of the book. For that I recommend reading Martin S Pribble’s thoughtful review (Religion For Atheists). As an aside, I followed Martin’s reading of this book via his Twitter comments. First time I have come across a Twitter book review! I think it sort of works – at least when the reader gets emotional about what he or she is reading.

Sufficient to say that de Botton sets up straw men – an idealised, perfect religion (mostly Christianity) and a deficient, sterile, secular society. His only objection to religion appears to be their supernatural stories. So his answer to the worlds’ problems is to ditch supernaturalism but adopt the remaining institutions, buildings, funding structures, social relationships, moral messages, music and art of religion (particularly Christianity). As is! Artificially.

My atheist friend often comments on the need in our secular society to develop institutions which provide for the social needs of people. Their desire for community and charity. So I can see why she was, at least initially, attracted to this book. It’s just that I can’t see how de Botton’s utopia (religion with all its trappings except its gods) provides this, or is even possible.

Personally I agree that modern society needs to provide more in the way of institutions, ceremony and even buildings which appeal to our desire for community and significance. But that is not unique to modern society – it has always been the case – especially as the old institutions often did not fulfil these promises, or were even quite evil.

The point is that the most appropriate ceremonies, institutions and culture for these purposes are the ones that are built by the existing society, not artificially transplanted into it. And we are building such institutions, ceremonies, etc., in our modern, pluralist, secular society.

Religion needs secularism – and can learn from it

Why should we artificially transplant something from a religion (after removing its supernatural content) when we can do better? Consider modern ceremonies like weddings and funerals in this country. They have become a lot more secular – even where they are performed in a Church. We seem to have welcomed with open arms the secular concept of remembering and celebrating the life of a deceased person in our funerals. Friends and family give their stories and feelings. New Zealand funerals today are far more satisfying than those in the old days which simply had the religious purpose of sending the person of into the “afterlife.”

The church has noticed and adopted many of the features of secular funerals and other ceremonies. Incorporated them into their own ceremonies.

There are many other examples. The point is that – yes, we do need more and better institutions and ceremonies which contribute to our human need for community and friendship. We do need more buildings, art and ethical commentary appealing to those needs. It’s a matter of more of what we are doing well, not artificially transplanting from old and moribund institutions and ideologies. And its a matter of creating these new institutions and culture in a way that is inclusive – not the exclusiveness “them vs us” of the religious approaches.

So, my recommendation is that you should give this book a miss, unless you feel a responsibility to read it like I did. At least I will now be able to discuss the book and my reactions intelligently when I next see my atheist friend.

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The “public square” myth

Here’s a graphic I used in a recent presentation on “Accepting Pluralism in a Secular Society.” (Presented at the Recent Interfaith Forum, Hamilton). It shows data* which sort of demolishes the “public square” myth argued by militant Christians. This is the claim that Christians are somehow being denied their rights to take part in public debate. It comes up when there is an expansion of the human rights of everyone – these militant interpret it as a loss of rights for them. When usually it amounts to a loss of privilege – like their privilege to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality or religion.

Often this sort of whining comes from evangelical Christians – which makes this data all the more ironic – it’s data collected by UK evangelical Christians! And it shows that evangelical Christians are actually more likely to take part in the “public square” than are  other members of the general public. They are twice as likely to write letters to a newspaper and five times as likely to lobby or demonstrate.

So why the concern? Why the newspaper articles and academic papers** implying some sort of restriction to Christian participation in the “public square?” Why all that whining we have seen in the UK lately about militant and “aggressive” secularism trying to eliminate religion from public life?

Loss of privilege?

Well – look at the details and you begin to see what motivates this. The Bideford Town Council has been ordered not to include Christian prayers in the official business of its meetings. (See Defeat for imposed prayer and Privileged whinging?) The Whanganui District Council here voluntarily took the same action (see Whanganui District Council comes to senses). Note that no-ones’ right to religious observance has been denied – just their privilege of imposing it on others. (In both cases the alternative of those so-inclined praying before the meeting was offered).

The truth is there are no unreasonable restrictions limiting Christian access to the public square. Where some restrictions seem to exist (eg. harassment of co-workers on the job, wearing religious symbols where there are uniform rules, etc.) these apply to everyone – all religions and none. The public whining about those issues, and attempts to get religious exemptions, are just another example of demanding special privileges.

Mind you, I can understand that there may well be “perceived’ restrictions. This comment from Linda Woodhead, in her article Restoring religion to the public square, illustrates this. She describes “Being jeered by a lecture room full of academics” when commenting “after a lecture delivered by a notable and brilliant feminist scholar. “ She doesn’t detail her comment, only that it had something to do with explaining feminism’s global influence as due to religion.

“Restriction” self-imposed and tactical

This reminds me of the reaction of audiences in the old days when a certain dogmatic Maoist used to get up and lecture everyone during question time at political meetings. I can imagine his comrades trying to reign him in. Telling him to use language that was mere acceptable. And not to rely on dogmatic arguments which only his comrades accepted.

I can also imagine Linda’s brothers and sisters in her church telling her to try to use more secular language and to stop promoting arguments about region being responsible for everything, Christian Chauvinism, even though they all agreed that it was so. It’s a matter of communication.

In other words one should be tactical, recognise where the audience is at, when one attempts to communicate a message. But of course the dogmatists, whether they are Maoists or Christians, will see this as cowardice. That they have a moral and ideological responsibility to impose the stories and language they love on the listener – whatever their own beliefs.

It’s an old issue in political and ideological communication. But such a tactical issue is not a “restriction” on Christian participation in the public square. To see it that way is perverse. It is demanding the privilege that everyone else must accept the same stories, same language. Everyone else must think they way the Christian or Maoist prosletyser does.

They don’t – and they won’t. But in a democracy the Christians have the right to present their arguments. If they are able to use a language and stories that do not turn off their audience they will be successful If they insist on dogmatically assuming everyone will accept their own sectarian language and stories, and if they don’t they should, then so be it.

They won’t get their message across and they well be laughed at or even jeered.  But participation in the public square is a two-way street. The audience has the right to disagree, to object, to jeer or even ridicule. To demand that they don’t is not only demanding an unreasonable privilege for yourself. It’s restricting the rights of others to take part in the public square.

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*Data thanks to Christians active in the public square: survey – an article on The New Zealand Christian Network  –  which, ironically, actively campaigns against secularism.

** Religion in the “public square” does seem to get a lot of unwarranted attention from academic theologians and philosophers of religion.

Beyond Religion

I usually don’t recommend books written by religious leaders – but this is an exception: Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps the title is a give-away – the book acknowledges that religion cannot solve the problems of the modern world. We must go beyond religion.

Personally I find the authors justification for this position rather weak. He argues that in today’s global world no one religion can speak for everyone. Hence we must go beyond – especially as religions themselves cannot provide a common ground. However, even in non-pluralist societies where specific religions had overwhelming dominance they were still incapable of offering real solutions to people’s problems. That is because of the epistemological problem inherent in religion –  its inability to understand the real world.

Clear and simple

So the Dalai Lama argues for a secular approach. Here I find his writing valuable. He dismisses the arguments of religious militants who see secularism as the enemy of religion. Who actually fight against secularism. The Dalai Lama presents the correct understanding of secularism as an inclusive social arrangement, and not an atheist ideology. Because it is inclusive it provides a guarantee of human rights to all, irrespective of religion and belief. It provides the only real platform enabling us to solve today’s problems.

The beauty of this book is the simplicity and clearness of the author’s language. There’s none of the theological mental gymnastics and pretzel twisting we have come to expect from religious leaders. I found myself, as an unrepentant atheist, nodding my head at his clear description of secularism. I am sure that we would disagree over specific minor details, but I would be happy to use this text as a description of, and argument for, secularism in today’s pluralist world. And I think that many religious people would too.

The clarity and simplicity of the author’s arguments are also characteristic of his description of ethics for the modern world. A secular ethics. Here I use the word “simplicity” positively – I am aware that the Dalai Lama has a detailed understanding of modern scientific understanding of emotions, morality and cognitive neuroscience. But the beauty of his writing is that he explains it all so simply and clearly.

So I heartedly recommend this relatively short book (130 pages in my electronic version) as a clear, easily approached, overview of secularism and secular ethics. And of their importance in today’s world.

Mediation – if you are interested

But there is an extra which many readers will appreciate. The Dalai Lama also communicates some of the thinking behind Tibetan Buddhist psychology. In particular he argues the case for attention to thinking and mood. Even for this to be part of education systems for children. He provides an overview of a number of approaches to meditation as part of this attention.

Perhaps the section on meditation is not for every reader. If you aren’t into meditation you will still find his description of secularism and secular ethics valuable. If you are into, or considering, meditation you will probably also get something out of that section of the book.

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Privileged whinging?

I am preparing a talk on “Accepting pluralism in a secular society’ for presentation at this weekend’s Interfaith Forum. Hence my current interest in these issues.

Carrying on from my last post, Defeat for imposed prayer, this video shows a discussion on UK TV about the judgement on the Christian prayers in the Bideford Town Council official meetings.

Is Christianity Being Marginalised?

Thanks to Dr Evan Harris (@DrEvanHarris) – who I think is the guy in the jacket who spoke a lot and made the most sense.

It just demonstrates the difficulty of arguing these issues across the theological divide. Obviously they can be dealt with more efficiently in court.

“Fighting for faith”

Now Baroness Warsi,  the UK’s first Muslim cabinet Minister who is also chairman of the Conservative Party Tory Party, has chipped in. Attacking “militant secularism”  which she describes as”deeply intolerant” and “denying people the right to a religious identity”.

She is off to the Vatican for talks with Pope Benny and has declared We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith.

Somehow conservative religionists in the UK have misread the Bideford Town Council legal discussion. it did not rule Christian prayer illegal, just that it should not be part of an official council meeting. Those so inclined could pray as much as they wanted before the meeting opened.

But this has stopped such people claiming martyrdom. Yes, that and words like marginilisation are being bandied around. But in reality what is upsetting these people is not marginilsation – just that they iare in danger of losing some of their priveliges. Andrew Copson from the British humanist Associal=tion respond to Warsi’s article with a series of twitter comments:

Signs Britain being taken over by militant secularisation

  • No 1: there’re more state-funded religious schools than ever before
  • No 2: more public services contracted 2 relig groups than ever before
  • No 3: we remain the only western state with clerics in the legislature
  • No 4: first PM in recent history to publicly call UK Christian country
  • No 5: 1st Muslim woman in govt at Vatican at public expense 2 see Pope

‘Census Christians’ don’t support their militant leaders

Mind you – these militant whinging religious leaders are very vocal – but how much support do they have.? Survey results released today suggest not as much as you would think. The Ipsos MORI research, commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science UK (RDFRS UK), shows (among other things):

  • 73% of ‘census Christians’ strongly agree or tend to agree that religion should not have a special influence on public policy
  • 92% of ‘census Christians’ support the statement that the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of religion
  • 78% of ‘census Christians’ say Christianity would have no, or not very much, influence on how they vote in General Elections
  • 61% of ‘census Christians’ agree that gay people should have the same legal rights in all aspects of their lives as heterosexual people
  • 62% of ‘census Christians’ support the right of a woman to abortion within the legal time limit
  • Only 23% of ‘census Christians’ believe that sex is only acceptable within marriage.

As Andrew Copson, commented:

‘There is clearly a vast gulf between the views of what we might call “census Christians” and the politicians, politicised Bishops and Christian lobby groups that claim to speak on their behalf.”

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You CAN be good with God!

OK – we have become used to the slogan “You can be good without God.” Versions of it have popped up all around the world over the last few years.

Even in little old New Zealand.

It’s really only stating the obvious – being a non-theist doesn’t make you a bad person. In principle most Christians probably agree – or say they do. However it hasn’t stopped many of them from finding such slogans offensive.* Because alongside these campaigns to put up such billboards, there have been campaigns to prevent them – or remove them.

Mind you – perhaps there is poetic justice. An Ohio church happened to own the land on which a Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) billboard was. The advertising firm was unaware of the ownership – they just rented the site. The Christ Cathedral Church in Columbus, Ohio had the billboard removed back in June.

Billboard removed by Christ Cathedral Church from their commercial land - on which they evaded taxation by declaring it a "place of worship"

Problem (for the church) is this  bought to public notice the fact they owned the land, that they were earning an income from the land – but they were not paying tax on that income. (One wonders how much this sort of tax evasion goes on in New Zealand where religion can also earn a tax-free and local body rate free charity status – just because they are religious!)

The FFRF looked into this, found the church owned several commercial properties which they evaded taxation on by declaring them as “places of worship!” (see Columbus Church must “render unto Caesar”).

I guess they were worshiping the almighty dollar!

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor commented:

“Apparently this church doesn’t heed the scriptural advice in Matthew 22:21 ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’

“Has this church, that was so offended that a grad student could be ‘good without God,’ been good with God?”

Can you be good with God?

I like that question “can you be good with God?” I guess some people might be asking that these days – there seem to be many cases of priests and religious ministers caught with the hand in the till (or in other places they shouldn’t be). So it’s natural to wonder.

However, I would like to assure Christians and other believers that there is no reason that their beliefs will necessarily stop them from being good. I say that with some confidence because over recent years there has been a lot of progress in the scientific understanding of human morality. And this overwhelmingly indicates that human morality is actually a secular activity. It’s involved with the real world, the non-“sacred” world. Just like accountancy, scientific research, plumbing, etc., it is a secular activity we can all indulge in – whatever our beliefs about a supposed “supernatural” world.

So it doesn’t matter if you believe in a god or not. These beliefs are irrelevant. You can still be an accountant, a scientific researcher, or a plumber. Just as you can sill do morality.

Because morality is a secular activity – its got nothing to do with gods or other supernatural beliefs.


*This hostility is interesting – perhaps at heart many Christians actually don’t think you can be good unless you hold the same supernatural beliefs they do. After all, their holy book says in Psalm 14.1:

The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do
Abominable deeds,
There is none who does good.”

Perhaps they think that atheists are supposed to be immoral (after all this is the “word of their god”)

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Religious theology of secularism

There has been a debate among local bloggers about the nature of secularism and the problem of religious privilege in a secular society. These sort of “god debates” generally produce more heat than light. However, it is worth actually considering elements of some the arguments being used. And how meanings have been manipulated to achieve a desired result.

I have listed a few of the arguments here.

What does “secular” mean?

I discussed this in Secular democracy and its critics. Here I favoured the meaning that is “Not at all opposed to religion, or denying a religious participation. It just describes procedures which cannot be appropriately treated as “sacred” (whatever that means).”

This certainly describes the secular arrangements we have in New Zealand – although Professor Paul Morris (Director of The Religious Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington), for example, acknowledges that our society is not completely secular in that it does tend to favour one religion – Christianity.

But even this simple definition gets distorted in ideologically motivated debates. Take how Madeleine Flannagan at MandM treats the document The Tolerant Secular State,”* prepared by the NZ Association of Humanists and Rationalists (NZARH), (see The New Zealand Association of Rationalist Humanists and the Privileging of Secularism). She takes the first sentence: “The NZARH strongly believes that government should be secular; that is dealing with the issues of this world rather than following a religious agenda” – then manipulates it!

She says:

“They start by defining secular in the first of these senses, in terms of “dealing with the issues of this world.” The switch to the second definition occurs immediately in the claim that a secular state must not follow a “religious agenda.” From what the NZARH subsequently argues it is clear that this second sense is what it really has in mind as much of what it says simply does not follow from the first sense.” (My bold).

See what she does? Takes a perfectly standard and proper definition of “secular” and converts the inclusive concept  that people of all religions and beliefs can come together to deal with the issues of the real world (not possible if the state has a religious or anti-religious agenda). Now comes the switch – she converts a simple inclusive approach to an exclusive anti-religion one.

She, not NZAHR, is doing the switching.

Her introduced words in bold, “must not follow,” creates an atmosphere of compulsion, of privileging a non-religious approach. A common trick of dishonest advertisers and politicians.

So now she can say “the second sense is what it [NZAHR] really has in mind as much of what it says simply does not follow from the first sense.” NZAHR’s second sentence: “Our law should not give one set of beliefs privilege over another and the state should treat religious organisations the same as any other organisation” then becomes sinister – according to her. Rather than describing an inclusive, democratic arrangement she claims it describes a “privileging of secularism” – and by that she means privileging anti-religion!

Secularism a “viewpoint” fallacy?

Here comes another switch in the meaning of “secularism:”

“So let us get this straight. Secularism is a type of viewpoint that 1) the NZARH seeks to privilege over religion.” (Again my bold).

She wishes to replace the meaning of “secularism” as an inclusive, over-all arrangement neutral to religion and anti-religion by a meaning which it implies it is actually a non-representative ideology!

It’s like saying democracy is  simply a political ideology – advocates of democracy seek to privilege their viewpoint over the ACT Party! (whereas, of course, our democratic political arrangements allow the ACT Party to work alongside all other parties. It’s just that our democracy does not have an ACT, National, Labour, or any other political party agenda).

Actually, Madeleine almost concedes her point – which illustrates she knows what she is doing:

“Of course, if one assumes from the outset that secularism is not a specific view and is somehow some kind of neutral position that everyone can subscribe to then the statements read together might make sense but that is an erroneous assumption.”

So she labels any correct reading of the statement “erroneous.”

These little switching tricks have a purpose. She wishes to protect religious privilege – things like tax exemption for supernatural beliefs (see Avoiding tax – supernaturally). She sees this privilege threatened by secular democracy. Therefore she, quite naturally, wishes to discredit secularism. This switching of meaning also helps to divert attention away from the real inequalities – those areas of society where religion, and especially Christianity, maintains a privilege over other beliefs (in conflict with our human rights legislation).

Some ridiculous results

Madeleine disagrees with my description of accountancy as a secular activity (see Secular democracy and its critics).

“It is not secular. When a Christian does accounts he invokes God in the sense that his math is correct and his tallying of the books is honest. We do not turn God off and on when we do these things. You do not understand Christianity if you think this. I know Christians who pray through such activities and praise God when the numbers add up.”

” Therefore, by adopting a secular stance the State is taking a viewpoint that excludes Christianity (and other religions that hold to a similar stance).”

Yes it’s a strange old world! I have a picture of an old school with pupils being forced to read their books. They are surrounded by nuns who hit them with a ruler at any sign they are not praying or “invoking god” while doing their sums. Perhaps Madeleine could comment on whether these clergy in the Boston Archdiocese were praying and invoking their god in their activities? After all “We do not turn God off and on when we do these things. “

But what an insult, she seems to think that when I do accountancy my maths will be incorrect and my tallying dishonest because her god has no place in my work!

So Madeleine rejects educating our children in accountancy, mathematics, science, history, social studies and anything connected with the real world – unless its accompanied by prayer and invoking of her god. She rejects secular education.

To be consistent she should also reject anything that education has produced. Cars, banks, culture, medicine, etc., etc.

It’s an approach that very few Christians would support – and I honestly suspect Madeleine doesn’t run her life this way. She has just got into this ridiculous situation because of the way she has switched meanings to justify her argument about “privileging secularism.”

However this mental gymnastics has allowed Madeleine to define anything our democratic society does as “anti-religious” because it is secular. Therefore the current situation “privileges secularism” and she is disadvantaged because of her beliefs!

Perhaps while she is boycotting our secular schools, government departments, hospitals, research institutes, universities, etc., she could also boycott the NZ Charities Commission. Refuse to accept her tax exemption for supernatural belief (subsidised by the rest of us – see Examples of Charitable Purpose) because the institution is secular?

Yeah, right!


*It’s worth reading The Tolerant Secular State– it’s brief and gives a clear statement of the problem of religious privilege and the interference with human rights in New Zealand.

Martydom of the priveliged

It never ceases to amaze me how some people who have gained a privilege through an accident of history will whine and moan when they fear their privileges may be removed. We saw this recently in local politics when the idea of introducing a capital gains tax was floated.

I guess it’s not surprising. Many people think with their wallet.

But I also saw this last week at the NZ Diversity Forum on The State and Religion. There was a discussion on the fact that while New Zealand is largely a secular country with freedom of religion and belief, Christians still had some historical privileges over other religions and over the non-religious. Several Christians there argued that the parliamentary prayer be retained – because they “believed in a god.” To hell with what other people believed.

But this defense of privilege gets really childish when conservative Christians present any attempt at removal of privilege or discrimination as an attack on their religion. As an attempt at “eradication of religion from public life.”

I have seen a local theologian, Matt from MandM, seriously argue that evolutionary science should not be taught in schools because a fundamentalist family with children attending the school would be offended! Everyone else should suffer because a fundamentalist might be offended by reality!

Now that takes a real sense of privelige!

Parliamentary prayers

The same person attacked the NZ Rationalist and Humanist (NZARH) document The Tolerant Secular State for pointing out the “New Zealand parliament opens with a Christian prayer rather than having a secular statement that allows all politicians to reflect on why they are they are there.” He claims this “states religious prayers should be banned from parliament”. He sees introduction of an inclusive ceremony as an attack on Christianity – what warped thinking.

I guess this is the same as those men who opposed universal suffrage because they saw it as an attack on men. Or marriage equality whoicxh recognises same-sex marriage as somehow an attack on heterosexual marriage!

Another privilege described in The Tolerant Secular State is “the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose. This gives religious/supernatural beliefs an advantage over other beliefs in being subsidised by the taxpayer.” My experience is that this is a privilege conservative Christians will defend to the last. They bring all their theological training, their mental gymnastics and obfuscation, into play when they see that threatened.

Wallets as well as dogma – a powerful combination!

Secular education

Madeleine at MandM has also attacked The Tolerant Secular State – using the same tactics of misrepresentation and distortion. She particularly likes to distort the meaning of the word “secular” (meaning neutrality towards religion) into somehow meaning anti-religious or atheist.

Therefore she refers to The Tolerant Secular State statement “The NZARH strongly believes that public education should be free, secular and available equally to all children” as somehow being anti-religious. She says it means “Taxpayer dollars of all citizens must only be used to support their secular viewpoint and their viewpoint alone” (Here she uses “their” to mean NZARH). And whines: “What about citizens (like me) who do not want their tax payer dollars going towards secular schools?”

Perhaps she doesn’t want to pay for children to learn anything – except religious indoctrination which of course is not secular. Actually she is specific – she considers secular education to suppress her “right to manifest one’s religion including the raising of children. This gets overridden by the practice of sex education in schools.” She opts her son out of those classes. Does she also opt her son out of mathematics, science, history, social studies, and all the other secular subjects.

Poor kid.

Madeleine claims that the  NZARH don’t want schools to talk at all about religion. Ignoring completely the document which says:

“While public education should remain free from religious observance and instruction, it is fine to educate about religion. Teaching about different belief systems, both religious and non-religious, is important. Doing so encourages greater tolerance by broadening students understanding of other beliefs, and challenging the notion that any currently held beliefs are somehow superior to other beliefs.”

And Matt  also has a go at “secular eduction.” He claims that “religious parents are required by law to fund a secular education they disagree with and do not use.”

So religious parents and their children do not use their education in mathematics, science, social studies, history, etc.? All those subjects dealing with the real world and therefore defined as secular?

Matt plays the martyrdom card by claiming that “parents who want to teach there child a religious education pay twice, first they are compelled on threat of jail to pay for other peoples children to be given a secular education, and then on top of that they pay for their own childrens religious education.”

Well Matt, any parent wishing to give their children an agnostic, atheist, Marxist, or any other ideological education must do the same. Pay for the secular education (which is required by law and is neutral towards these ideological and religious beliefs) and on weekends or after school give the ideological education they desire.

Matt finally concludes that New Zealand discriminates against religious parents!

See what a mess you can get into when you start distorting the meaning of words.

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Secularism is important

Book Review: The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism by Paul Cliteur

Price: US$26.95; NZ$53.97
Paperback: 328 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (September 7, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

It’s funny how some people allow their emotional reactions to interfere with their understanding of, and reaction to, words and their meaning. Almost 40 years ago I had a problem posting a letter to an address in the former East Germany. The women behind the counter in the post office refused to accept it because its address included the words “German Democratic Republic.” While she muttered things like “Soviet Zone,” and I was expecting her to starting foaming at the mouth, her colleague had to take over and provide me with the correct stamp.

Some people react the same way to words like secular and secularism. They equate these with atheism, or “worse.” So they animate their definitions of such words by their personal aversion to denial of their gods.

Pope Benedict XVI often warns of the “moral dangers” of secularism and many theologians and apologists wilfully equate secularism with attempts to destroy or eliminate religion.

Definitions and common understandings of words are important- especially where there is emotional baggage. So the first chapter of Paul Cliteur’s book is welcome – and probably necessary. “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism” reviews the possible definitions of these words and argues the case for a consistent and accurate meaning – taking 50 pages to do so.

And far from secularism being hostile to religion Cliteur sees it as “an essential precondition for the free development of religion. . . . It would be a serious mistake to consider the values espoused in the secular outlook as in any way inimical to religion or the rights of religious believers. On the contrary, secularism is the only perspective under which people of different religious persuasions can live together.”

The book devotes much of its content to justification of free thought. Chapter 2 argues that criticism of religion as central to free thought.

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