In the mixer…or just mixed up? Why Baroness Warsi is wrong about secularism – by Ronnie Stockton

This is a guest post written by Ronnie Stockton

I’m not averse to the odd footy cliche, so obviously the ‘in the mixer’ tagline of yesterday’s R&R post caught my eye.  As an atheist, I do find that faith is a ‘funny old game’ and I was intrigued by the passionate debates created by Baroness Warsi’s article about  secularism.   

Decrying ‘militant secularism’?

So as we know, yesterday Baroness Warsi visited the Vatican and called for Christian values to be placed at the heart of public life.  She decried what she describes as the “militant secularisation” of Britain. She said:

“For me one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.”

Totalitarian religion?

We’ll leave aside the irony of calling secularism intolerant on an official visit to the Pope, a man who recently described gay marriage as a “threat to humanity” and represents a ‘brand’ of Christianity that it could be argued flirts with totalitarianism more than most other aspects of the religion. Baroness Warsi herself has also expressed less-than-tolerant views on homosexuality … but let’s not dwell on the complexities of her statement and focus on the simple fact that what she is describing is not secularism.

What secularism actually is

Secularism is the belief in the separation of the institutions of the church from the institutions of the state, and the right to freedom from religious rules. A belief in secularism is not even always connected to atheism.

I am an atheist. I encounter daily people who are secular Christians, secular Muslims, secular Jews and secular Hindus. They all hold their own personal religious views but they reject entirely the notion of religious privilege within the institutions of government.  After all, the environment which offers the most freedom both for the atheist and the believer is one in which the state remains neutral in matters of faith.

Misleading claims

Beyond the semantics, a quick peek at the facts would demonstrate that Baroness Warsi’s assertion of a growth in “militant secularism” is quite clearly misleading and (among many others) the following points demonstrate this.

  1. The passage of her own government’s Welfare Reform Bill was hammered in the Lords by Church of England Bishops who sit there as senior clerics of our Christian church. 
  2. Her cabinet colleague Michael Gove’s robust defence of faith schools (which enjoyed a renaissance under the last Labour government) are a matter of record.  
  3. It is still enshrined in law that all schools in Britain must hold an act of collective worship every day

It is worth noting that prayers take place at the beginning of each day in both Houses of Parliament and despite the best efforts of Councillor Clive Bone, it looks like they will continue to do so in Town Halls up and down the country. 

An appreciation of faith

I do not back the banning of any religious (or non-religious) ceremony and have often sat in reflection during prayers connected to work meetings that I attend and I have found that much of the Christian message appeals to me. I have posted on R&R before about the great inspiration that I experienced as a result of hearing Rob Bell talk passionately about Christ’s message. As a result, I felt that via this conduit, Christ’s words were speaking to me.  To be around Christians celebrating their devotion and expressing their beliefs feels like a privilege for me, as does embracing the dignity and serenity of Korean Buddhist Temple ceremonies. 

Reality check

The reality is that the United Kingdom is far from being a secular nation.  Mercifully, within all religions practiced in the UK, very few people actually believe in or follow the multitude of regressive laws and arbitrary commandments that exist within almost all ancient religious texts.  I do not fear the religious devotion of others and I suspect that this is true of most of my fellow atheists. 

It would appear that Baroness Warsi is invested in finding division rather than common ground.  For me this speaks not of an endorsement of religion, but of the political chicanery that plays to those in society who are interested only in a lack of inclusion.

Ronnie Stockton has previously written for R&R – see An atheists encounter with Rob Bell which was one of the most popular articles on R&R in 2011.

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
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2 Responses to In the mixer…or just mixed up? Why Baroness Warsi is wrong about secularism – by Ronnie Stockton

  1. Greg Smith says:

    I like this a lot but I would distinguish between
    1. secularism – the doctrine that there is no God so evrthying to do with faith is nonsense – and there certainly are militant secularists like Dawkins who proclaim that.
    2. Secularity – which is a political arrangement in an open plural democracy that gives everyone a level playing field to share common values and debates while keeping and expressing distinctive beliefs and institutions. (different versions in USA, France, India, Scandanavia/Germany and the (nations of) the UK.
    3. secularisation – a process whereby functions, powers and influence once held by the church decline and the state or the market, or the secularised voluntary sector take over those roles

    I think this is a useful way of looking at things though I’m not sure it would work outside historic Christendom

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      thanks Greg – I find this very helpful. I also agree with much of what Ronnie has put but I do feel there is an undoubted fear which puts pressure on Christians to keep their heads down and make faith a ‘private’ thing. What works and is displayed in the way Ronnie and I discuss issues of faith is a confidence in each other and in the respect we share in each others views to disagree and disagree well. Its sometimes very liberating to be able to be clear that ‘we believe different things – now where do we go from here?’ I guess the UK is in the process of secularising its key institutions – and we are witnessing this process and the counter-reactions that go with it.

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