August 23, 2011

Secular democracy and its critics

Secular democracy and its critics:

“Secularism” and “secular”are very much maligned words. Partly because they are not really understood by some people. But also because some religious people feel threatened by the words.


But they shouldn’t. Despite some attempts to equate the words with atheism and oppose them to religion they really don’t mean either of these. Unfortunately, though, some people insist on using the words that way.


Consulting dictionaries is not always helpful either because they usually list several different meanings.


What does “secular” mean?


However, when we use words like “secular” and “secularism” to describe our modern society definitions equating them with atheism or opposition to religion are completely inappropriate. When applied to society the meaning is more aligned with neutrality towards religion and other beliefs. As the cartoon implies.


So proper dictionary definitions of “secular” include:



  • “Not controlled by a religious body or concerned with religious or spiritual matters;”

  • “Worldly rather than spiritual;”

  • “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body: eg secular music;”

  • “Of or relating to the worldly or temporal;”

  • “Of or relating to worldly things as distinguished from things relating to church and religion; not sacred or religious; temporal; worldly.”


And so on. You get my point.


Secularism - Monk doing monastery accounts


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).


I have the picture of a medieval monk sitting at a desk in an old monastery. A candle by his side he is doing the monastery accounts. He is doing secular work. (I don’t think even the most convinced religious apologists would consider accountancy “sacred.”)


We are all “secularists”


All of us, no matter our beliefs, are involved in secular activities most of the time.


As a scientist I worked alongside scientists with all sorts of beliefs. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, and so on. Bloody hell, one of them was even a member of the ACT Party.


However, despite our different “world views”, we did our work, our scientific research, in basically the same way. We were all involved in collecting evidence, hypothesising, testing ideas against reality, producing effective scientific theories and validating them against reality. Our religious beliefs did not change the way we did our job.


Scientific research is secular – but done by people who hold many beliefs.


Most of you will also be doing secular jobs. If you are an accountant, a plumber, a builder, or whatever, your religious beliefs just don’t influence your work. Your job is secular. And you don’t feel any conflict with that.


Democracy secular by definition


We can look on society in much the same way. Of course opinions and beliefs inevitably do intrude into political and social activity. But while we can express religiously derived views we are actually dealing with a society which does not have uniform religious beliefs. Our society is pluralist. Religious opinions are very diverse. So while in New Zealand you can argue for an ethical or political position because your god told you it was correct or it is written in your “holy” book, such arguments are completely ineffective (outside your direct religious community).


This inevitably means that simple religious arguments cannot carry any weight politically or socially. The sensible protagonist will look for arguments which have wider appeal.


And that’s how it should be. Our political system is democratic, Our society is pluralist. No one belief can be imposed by loyalty. We have to engage in the market of ideas, putting forward our best arguments. And the best arguments are the ones that most people can respond to. Religious arguments just aren’t effective.


Consequently, in democratic, pluralist societies the political and social activity, the live discussion of ideas and decision-making about the best social or political situation, is inevitably secular. It must be to be democratic.


Our politics and social activity is secular even though the participants may hold a range of religious views. It is secular because it is democratic.


So those religious apologists who argue that modern society somehow

“privileges” secularism over religion are making a basic category error. It’s like a political party condemning democracy, the very institution which provides them with a venue for their activity.


Unless of course, they would prefer a society which was undemocratic, but placed them in power while denying all other parties the freedom to exist.


Perhaps this is the way these religious apologists complaining of the “privileging” of secularism see it. Perhaps they would like to return to a society where there religious arguments were the only ones allowed in public discussion.


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