Not Saussure

March 23, 2007

Secularism, atheism and fundamentalism

Filed under: Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 3:09 am

Matt Murrell and Sunny, at Pickled Politics are annoyed about an article by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society in Comment Is Free last Monday, and I’m a tad impatient with it, myself.

Mr Sanderson writes, of what he calls religious liberals,

I’ve come to realise that the delusions of the liberals are not qualitatively different from those entertained by the Pat Robertsons or Abu Hamzas of this world.The danger that these apparently harmless liberals pose is that of enabling the fanatics, who happily use them as human shields. Just as the terrorists of the Middle East will hide out in schools and hospitals to avoid being targeted by enemy bombs, so the ideological terrorists hide behind the liberals and the good-natured in order to spread their doctrine of intimidation and terror.

I’ve tried to unscramble the simile as best I can, but I can’t make it mean anything other than that Mr Sanderson seems to think hospitals and schools in the Middle East are bad things because terrorists hide behind them. Consequently, I take it, in Mr Sanderson’s view, a hospital in Beirut is ‘not qualitatively different’ from a Hezbollah military bunker. That can’t be what he means, can it? In a similar vein, he writes,

The liberals pave the way, open the doors and give succour to the very people they say bring their faith into disrepute. But it’s no good the liberals trying to dissociate themselves from their wilder compatriots in faith. They promote and praise the same holy books that the fanatics use as justification for their murderous activities.

thus taking Dr Reid’s ideas on glorification of terrorism even further than has Dr Reid, at least until now. That, to my mind, is as simple-minded would be a Creationist complaining that Richard Dawkins promotes and praises the same books by Darwin that some fanatics have used as justification for their murderous activities, and it’s no good him or Terry Sanderson trying to dissociate themselves.

Both Sunny and Matt, quite rightly, attack him for confusing secularism with atheism; Matt writes,

For me, the only type of secularism worth supporting is that which is synonymous with freedom of religion – the idea that the government has no right to interfere with the freedom of religious organisations, except where those organisations interfere with the freedom of the individual

and Sunny says,

What is the point of involving the NSS in a debate about keeping religion out of state control if what they really want is something else? Terry Sanderson and the NSS not only misunderstand religion, they hate it. They should call themselves the National Atheists Society instead of getting confused and annoying those who want to bring about real change.

Precisely so; secularism, as I understand the term, means that the state should stay out of people’s beliefs or non-beliefs, not out of any sort of tolerance but because they’re none of the state’s business. It isn’t the role of the state to promote any set of beliefs, to make us better, or wiser or happier people. It’s to govern, to provide an impartial framework of laws that enable us to get on, as far as possible, with our own lives in our own way and which come into play when our thus all pursuing our own interests and desires bring us — as will inevitably happen — into conflicts we can’t resolve. It’s to provide us with things that we’ve agreed are best provided by the state rather than private enterprise, not to try to promote one set of beliefs rather than another.

We are, as Michael Oakeshott wrote,

not children in statu pupillari but adults who do not consider themselves under any obligation to justify their preferences for making their own choices; and that it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom which discloses to them a better range of beliefs and activities which gives them authority to impose upon their subjects a quite different manner of life. In short, if the man of this disposition is asked: Why ought governments to accept the current diversity of opinion and activity in preference to imposing upon their subjects a dream of their own? it is enough for him to reply: Why not? Their dreams are no different from those of anyone else; and if it is boring to have to listen to dreams of others being recounted, it is insufferable to be forced to re-enact them. We tolerate monomaniacs, it is our habit to do so; but why should we be ruled by them? Is it not (the man of conservative disposition asks) an intelligible task for a government to protect its subjects against the nuisance of those who spend their energy and their wealth in the service of some pet indignation, endeavoring to impose it upon everybody, not by suppressing their activities in favour of others of a similar kind, but by setting a limit to the amount of noise anyone may emit?Nevertheless, if this acceptance is the spring of the conservative’s disposition in respect of government, he does not suppose that the office of government is to do nothing. As he understands it, there is work to be done which can be done only in virtue of a genuine acceptance of current beliefs simply because they are current and current activities simply because they are afoot. And, briefly, the office he attributes to government is to resolve some of the collisions which this variety of beliefs and activities generates; to preserve peace, not by placing an interdict upon choice and upon the diversity that springs from the exercise of preference, not by imposing substantive uniformity, but by enforcing general rules of procedure upon all subjects alike.

It’s of little interest to most people, and of absolutely no legitimate interest to the state, what someone else believes or doesn’t believe, be it about religion, politics or anything else. So long as people’s beliefs don’t cause them to start making too much of a nuisance of themselves, then let them get on with it.

Mr Sanderson writes that he is

now accustomed to being accused of practising “fundamentalist secularism” and “atheist extremism” by religious reactionaries, but now the terms are being eagerly embraced by liberals. But a moment’s thought would tell the liberals that democratic secularism is their best friend. Not only does it protect those of no belief from being persecuted by over-mighty and ruthless religious regimes, but it offers protection to the smaller religious groups who have become used to being stamped on by their holier-than-thou big brothers (try being a Christian in Saudi Arabia, for instance).

I wholly agree with him that democratic secularism is not only the best friend of religious liberals but also religious conservatives, religious fundamentalists, liberal atheists, fundamentalist atheists and lots of other people besides. I don’t, however, see what particular connection he discerns between his ‘secular fundamentalism,’ or whatever he’d prefer to call it, and the secularism he says he values. He has his strongly held views on religion, so do Muslim fundamentalists and so do Jehovah’s Witnesses. The democratic secularist, it seems to me, takes the attitude that they’re all perfectly welcome to their views so long as they don’t come to blows with each other, or anyone else. If individual atheists, Muslims, Christians or whoever start making a nuisance of themselves then we deal with them as we would individuals who make a nuisance of themselves about animal rights, immigration or football. Otherwise we leave them to get on with it.

Technorati Tags: , ,



  1. […] those who want to bring about real change. Update: Matt Murrell and Matt Wardman pile in, as does Not Saussure Trackback link   |   Add to   |   Digg this   |   […]

    Pingback by Pickled Politics » Terry Sanderson should rename the NSS — March 23, 2007 @ 4:02 am

  2. I’m puzzled here, I’ll admit. Now I take in what is being said here by these guys, I incline to your position, but for differing reasons.

    I resent the dismantling of canon law, especially where it afgfects my own faith, but I concede this is a partial position.

    Comment by Crushed by Ingsoc — March 23, 2007 @ 6:48 pm

  3. Sorry, I don’t quite understand the reference to ‘the dismantling of canon law’ in this context. Could you give an example of what you mean (I’ve just had a quick look through your blog, and I have an idea I know what you’re thinking about)?

    Comment by notsaussure — March 23, 2007 @ 7:11 pm

  4. I would draw a distinction between Permissive Democratic Secularism and Prohibitive Democratic Secularism. The former permits groups to practice their beliefs within a framework of law. The latter is a totalitarian approach which insists that anything other than secularism be banished into the closet.

    The NSS seems to be advocating the latter. I find this approach totalitarian and – being blunt – nasty.


    Comment by Matt Wardman — March 27, 2007 @ 10:59 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: