Thursday, January 03, 2008

Secularism and the radical tradition

In this post, I typed: "during the age of revolutions and Enlightenment, anti-clerical sentiment became a clear characteristic of Liberal thought", but that isn't true. Not "anti-clerical" sentiment, but rather secularism. My phrasing was very clumsy.

Secularism has two planks to its bow, as it were. First, the absolute and uncompromising defence of the right of every person to faith, or no faith. Secondly, the equally absolute and uncompromising restriction of religion to the consensual private sphere.

Government, education, health provisioning and every other area of government must disregard entirely all religious belief. Children cannot be mutilated or raped - and yes, these actually are issues in contemporary western society thanks entirely to the presence of religion. Both things happen outside religion, but are treated as crimes. Within religion they should also be treated as crimes. Religion is no excuse. If an adult woman wants a relative to saw parts of her genitals away with a piece of flint, it's her business. If she attempts to similarly mutilate a child, it's the business of the police.

The founding fathers of America had the wisdom to enshrine this in their constitution, although it is under threat. As an aside, there's been some recent controversy about Ron Paul saying he does not "believe" in evolution. Well, nor do I, just as I don't "believe" in the existence of gravity. It's not a matter of faith in either case, but rather of empiricism. I know that's not what Paul meant, but it's a point that should be made more often. Paul wants to remove religious issues from the scope of the State and is therefore a secularist. The idea that seems to have arisen that to be a secularist you have to be an atheist is twaddle.

Secularism is an absolute requirement for any fully civilised state, and I type that in the full but disgusted knowledge that Britain is not a secular society. Without secularism you have government used as a tool of sectarian abuse and of the oppression of unfortunates within religious sects. I would cheerfully vote for a religious politician who was standing on a secularist platform. That's a good description of several of the people who acted as midwife to the birth of the world's first democratic, secular republic.

Unfortunately, as the post linked to at the top of this one demonstrated, what we now have is secular politicians like Ken Livingstone pandering to religious special pleading.

Livingstone considers himself to be a man of the liberal, radical tradition. A more complete betrayal of a political legacy is impossible to imagine.


dearieme said...

I'm all for secularism (and atheism too). However, "The founding fathers of America had the wisdom to enshrine this in their constitution" isn't quite right, if by that you mean that they insisted on separation of church and state. All they insisted on was three things (for the Union, not for the individual States). 1. No religious test for office.
2. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" 3. "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Excellent, but that's your lot.

Peter Risdon said...

I suggested there were two aspects to secularism: the defence of the right to private religion and the exclusion of religion from the government.

I'd say the former is served by your numbers 1 and 2 and the latter by 3.

That's what I meant.

You might suggest they could have gone further, but I'm not sure how. The revolutionaries, especially Paine, were engaged in debate, among other things, about whether or not one could bind people in the future to a set of ideas or policies. It's a complicated argument, linked into justifications of the hereditary principle, that I'm sure you're familiar with. But given this, I don't think they could have gone any further without attempting to bind to a set of policies generations to come.

dearieme said...

I think we're agreed: on this business, the Constitution writers did a fine job. If any of the states had kept their established churches, though, would you and I agree that it had been a fine job?

Peter Risdon said...

Absolutely not. There were some horror stories there...

Mark Wadsworth said...

Having watched the Ron Paul video, he says "there is no absolute proof on either side". Which is factually correct. I'd say there's a heck of a lot more 'proof' for evolution that 'intelligent design' (roughly in the ratio 99.9 to 0.01) but I'm not scientist and it's not up to me to say.

So, fair play to him, if you want to get elected in the UK or the USA, apparently it is not good form to admit you are an atheist (see Matthew Parris' article last Saturday). So, as a wily politician, Ron Paul has come up with a reply that keeps everybody happy.

Peter Risdon said...

Mark, yes he does say that. The amount of evidence for ID is exactly equal to zero whereas the amount of evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Evolution plainly happens. How it happens is one of the most interesting areas of scientific work.

I disagree with Paul about a lot of things, all of which he specifically states should not be within the province of the federal government.

So if I were American I'd vote for him.