Catford November Meeting: What is Secularism?
Despite the explosion of ‘non-faith’ among people in the UK, more children are worshipping in Church of England schools than in the pews on a Sunday. Islam and minority faiths are growing in followers, and the government is attempting to cope by following a ‘multi-faith’ model – extending privileges to all faiths so that there are now Sikh and Muslim schools for instance.
Stephen Evan, campaigns director at the National Secular Society (NSS), examined the contradictions and social risks in the current public arrangements for faith in the UK. In an excellent speech which provoked wide-ranging discussion afterwards, he demonstrated how secularism is a solution to the settlement of church and state. By separating the two, and treating all faiths and beliefs equally before the law, each faith or philosophy can safely practice. When one church or faith is privileged, or even several faiths, it is an interference and a fudge.
Stephen said that the multi-faith model is at odds with the majority of opinion in the country. He pointed out that secularism is not anti-religion: it is religious leaders who try to define secularism as anti-religious. We should take note of who attacks secularism and what their interests are. The NSS argues for a secularism that is ‘muscular and inclusive’ and not aimed at erasing religion from public life. It is ok to celebrate Christmas! Secularism is shaped by the culture in each country to a certain extent, so secularism in Britain may not be exactly like laicite in France.
One area where the government’s policy of ‘accommodating’ religions is damaging is education. Allowing schools to adapt the curriculum and subject content means that girls in Jewish schools may not be taught about human reproduction. Children in fundamentalist Christian schools may not be taught about evolution. Allowing schools to take only catholic or only protestant children in Northern Ireland has entrenched social division and unrest. The current Government is planning to allow religious schools to select 100% of their pupils on the ground of faith. How are children going to learn about others, and develop tolerance, if they are segregated? There is work to be done to explain and champion secularism in the UK today.