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A More Secular Society?


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Initial post: 27 Mar 2009 16:23:22 GMT
Last edited by the author on 1 Apr 2009 18:46:59 BDT
AJ Murray says:
Its often remarked on the difference between how religion is expressed in the US as compared to religious practice in the UK. The obvious difference between the two societies is that the US is strictly secular, based on the constitution, whereas the UK has a preferred religion, based on tradition. Would there be a difference if the UK adopted the US model?

Does anyone think the UK should move toward a more secular state? Or do you think that the state preference for Christianity somehow led to a more liberal interpretation of Christianity which is predominant in the UK today?

There exists a National Secular Society in the UK which has a charter of 10 objectives that would be written into a constitution if adopted;

http://www.secularism.org.uk/secularcharter.html*

Secular Charter
The creation of a just and equitable secular society in Britain

The National Secular Society seeks a society in which religion and the State are distinctly separated, and where human rights always take precedence over religious demands. We would like to see the following ten objectives incorporated into a written, secular constitution

1. There should be no established state religion.

2. The state should not fund religious activities.

3. The state should not fund religious proselytising in any form and the provision of all services using public money should be religiously neutral.

4. The state should not prescribe, proscribe, or amend religious doctrine.

5. The state should not interfere in religious hierarchies, nor interfere in issues strictly related to membership.

6. No action by the state should have the primary effect of engaging in religious practice.

7. No state action should have the primary effect of restricting religious practice.

8. The state should not express any religious beliefs, or in any publication, speech, or other implement of state power such as currency, sworn testimony, oath of fealty to the state, or endorsements of national pride. The state should not imply any derivation of authority from any religious authority, nor should it express temporal supremacy in relation to religious belief or practice.

9. Political leaders should not express religious preferences in the course of their duties.

10. No religion or denomination should have the power to prescribe, proscribe, or amend civil or common law.

----

1. I agree.
2. I agree.
3. I agree.
4. I think most religious groups would agree with this one.
5. Again, i think most religious groups would agree.
6. Difficult - what about state funerals?
7. I think most would agree, a definition if religion would be required.
8. Very difficult, especially since tradition plays a large part in state functions.
9. Not sure this is workable, it does seem to infringe on peoples rights to express their beliefs.
10. The most important one in my opinion. I would definitely agree with this last objective.

Objectives 1 & 10 are the main objectives i think. The others are disputable.

Your thoughts?

-

[EDIT: *Thanks go to Terry Sanderson of the NSS for granting permission to post the charter in its entirety]

In reply to an earlier post on 31 Mar 2009 10:31:07 BDT
Last edited by the author on 31 Mar 2009 11:03:27 BDT
Andrew,

If your model is the US, I would say definitely not. For a 'strictly secular' society, the religious lobby groups have an incredible amount of power, far more than religous groups in the UK where it is primarily confined to the House of Lords who have limited legislation abilities.

The idea that the UK should become more secular appears to be nothing more than the denial of any power of one group in favour of another. In other words if the National Secular Society were to get its way, it seems that only secular people would be allowed to legislate. In other words one worldview (Secularism) would dominate over all the others (Religions). This does not solve the problem, only exacerbates it.

The NSS is also contradictory about its own goals. On the one hand it denies being atheism in another form (Muriel Fraser's definition of Secularism), but its first principle is that 'this live is the only one of which we have any knowledge' and 'supernaturalism is based upon ignorance'.

Secularism seeks to keep religious beliefs as a private affair, however no religion works like that - they all require believers to go out and spread the 'good news' of their religion, so religion is never going to be private unless it is enforced and that hardly becomes freedom of religion (which we currently have in the UK).

Part of the problem is the perception of what it is to be 'secular'. While I cannot speak on behalf of other religions in this regard, Christianity is religion that believes that God 'has the whole world in his hands'. In other words there is no part of our lives that he isn't interested or involved in and that includes politics and ethics and schools and the lives of every person in the world, whether they believe in him or not.

The NSS seeks to limit the scope of God's influence which I think is an impossible task. This is not to say that I disagree with all of their goals, I just don't think that the methods proposed will work.

And I haven't even had a proper look at the list!

Wayne

In reply to an earlier post on 31 Mar 2009 14:26:52 BDT
Last edited by the author on 31 Mar 2009 14:37:34 BDT
AJ Murray says:
Hi Wayne,

In what way is secularism denying power in favour of another? Secularism and religion are not mutually exclusive. I would say that it is the lobby system itself that is at fault in the US. A more secular state would not restrict religious people from participating in legislation in any way, they would still be part of our democratic process. MPs and Lords would still retain their right to practice their faith and using it to inform their views. Increased secularism in the UK would mean a more decisive separation of Church and State.

In our present system, we have 26 Lords Spiritual that are involved with our legislature. Whilst they do not vote, they do have privileged access to those that do, so there is a limited influence present. These Lords are chosen only from the dioceses of the Church of England, effectively discriminating against other denominations of faith. Would you regard that as fair? We could open up a portion those places to other religious leaders, or we could remove those places completely.

I don't think the NSS denies its support of Atheism, its very clear that they are supportive of non-belief, and are very open on that. The principle that you quote from their site is from the principles of the society itself, not its objectives. You don't have to neccesarily agree with them. Unless you are considering joining? I can see why it would challenge some people, but bear in mind that 'supernaturalism' encompasses a very broad range of beliefs including Wiccan, Sorcery, FSM, Crystal Healing, Cleansing Auras, Necromancy, Shamanism, all sorts of stuff.

At its heart the NSS supports the freedom of expression, and does not feel that any religion should be favoured above another, or exempt from civil law. This is were its goals are similar to the US model, where such freedoms of expression are written into the constitution. If you look at their charter - objectives 1, 4, 5 and 7 are all protective of religion.

If we did adopt the objectives proposed by the NSS, do you think it would galvanise belief in the UK? It could be argued that the state support has made the Anglican Church complacent. By cutting that cord, they would have to be more proactive in the community, attracting parishioners and gathering support from the public at large. The Anglican faith could conceivebly be superceded by a different faith.

In reply to an earlier post on 31 Mar 2009 17:42:08 BDT
Last edited by the author on 1 Apr 2009 18:20:37 BDT
Andrew,

Can I start by saying that I totally appreciate the implications of your last paragraph and particularly agree that State support has probably made the Anglican Church complacent. Nevertheless I do believe that religion should have an open and obvious influence on government, which does appear to be contrary to the goals of the NSS.

Let me give you an example - I believe that the House of Lords should be thoroughly reformed. But it should not include anyone who has been `voted' in to the position. This group of people should be there to provide a stabilising influence on governments who change every few years and to provide wisdom and morals that could be lacking in normal politicians (not that Lords & Bishops are exempt).

My thoughts are that the Lords should be more representative of religious worldviews (and I would include atheism in that), so that while there would be less Anglicans, there would be still a large Christian presence including Catholics, Evangelicals and others. In addition there could and should be Muslims, Hindus, etc. in proportion to the general populace's religious beliefs (perhaps redefined every ten years in accordance with the Census). This could of course mean that we end up with a Jedi Knight in the House of Lords, but it is a risk I am willing to take :D.

In addition to this there should be people who have a proven track record of wisdom, primarily ex politicians, but others from business and who have dedicated themselves to service of the country and/or its people - e.g. People like Richard Curtis might actually fit into this category because of his work on Comic Relief! The aim should be for the House of Lords to provide a set of checks and balances to ensure that legislation is not rushed into for political expedience and who can speak up in a way that might not be agreeable to everyone, but which needs to be said because they have no fear of `losing' a seat at the next election. Sometimes truth should be spoken out, unpleasant or otherwise.
Having had a look at the Secular charter, I have to say that I think that the proposals are designed to reduce any power that religious leaders might have in favour of a society that is trying to avoid any religious influence on its legislation. The question then becomes from where does its moral stance come from? The moral zeitgeist? I don't believe for one moment that popular consensus is the way to go, since morality is likely to end up with the same processes that demand grey bin-liners in place of black or white bin-liners to avoid racism. Or popularly the people are likely to want the return of capital punishment (While I was growing up the majority of people clearly wanted it returned, but politicians voted against it). People's morality is often dictated by what they read, whether it is the Bible or the Sun. Do we really want Sun readers to determine what is right or wrong?

This is why I think that we should have religion involved in politics, perhaps as a moral conscience. I would not want the extremes of the Taliban, nor of the US' moral majority, but I do think that religious leaders should be able to speak and be heard on the subjects and to feel able to do so because they have an imperative to try and create a world in which all can live in harmony. It seems that the Secular charter says more about silencing religion in the affairs of state than the freedom you express, and while this is reciprocated in the fact that the state is not supposed to interfere in religion, in practise that would not happen.

Let me consider each of the list in turn:

1. No established state religion is not a particular problem to me, particularly as I am not CofE anyway.
2. No funding from the state also sounds good in theory, but then it comes down to the nitty-gritty. For example, some churches provide services for the people of their communities that should be provided by the local government. The latter often provide funding for these things recognising their own inability to do anything about the need. However it is clear that Christian groups provide a service with a Christian slant. Denied the funding such services would shut down and few would continue if forced to remove the religious aspects from their charity.
3. I agree
4. I agree (the government still has a bill somewhere that would have forced Easter to be a fixed Sunday in the year, a bit like Christmas - it would never have worked).
5. The first half of this statement is reasonable, and the second already occurs, so it seems strange to mention it.
6. Splitting State and Church as suggested here would be a lot more difficult than people imagine, particularly if atheism is seen as another religion. What about future Star Wars films - would the government be denied in giving them certificates on account of it being interfering in the Jedi Knights' religion?
7. This is the clincher - state actions primarily having the effect of restricting religious practise... Does this mean that the Satanist who wants to affect child sacrifices should be allowed to continue without state involvement? Equally, it is quite possible that secondary effects of legislation would have an adverse affect on religious practices, but that is OK? The recent `Incitement to Religious Hatred' bill from a few years ago would fit into this latter category, most of the principles behind it were sound, but the outworking would actually have made things worse.
8. The idea that the state would be totally devoid of anything religious makes it an atheistic state, promoting a non-religious worldview in preference to a religious one. I don't have any particular preference on this one, but this means that governments cannot sound a note of caution about religions that have excessively bad behaviour, such as many cults.
9. I don't see why politicians shouldn't express their religious convictions. Indeed if they do not, then they are being essentially deceptive to their constituents. Some people would relish knowing that the person representing them would have the same or similar convictions. I would agree that politicians shouldn't abuse their position by using the state to further their own religious agenda, but denying religion (Alistair Campbell's `We don't do religion', for example) seems to be encouraging religion underground.
10. As far as I am aware no religion specifically does have the power to prescribe, proscribe or amend civil or common law, unless you count the fact that the head of the Church of England (the Queen) is the only one who can actually enact laws? Other groups influence the law, even down to the `cash for questions' level, so why shouldn't religion also have some say - whether the state listens to them is another issue.

You said, "If you look at their charter - objectives 1, 4, 5 and 7 are all protective of religion." I would say however that the whole list tries to treat religion as something that should be in a museum - to be looked at and admired, but not touched or changed. No religion is going to thrive in such an environment.

With certain reservations, I think that the UK is in a far better state than some other countries and trying to change it in the way that the NSS suggest will cause more problems than it would solve.

Wayne

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Apr 2009 20:28:35 BDT
AJ Murray says:
Thanks for your thoughts Wayne,

It was a long post so i've split my reply into 2 parts to try and address the issues you raise.

In your first paragraph you write that "..I do believe that religion should have an open and obvious influence on religion, which does appear to be contrary to the goals of the NSS." Did you mean to write "religion.. ..influence on politics"? Otherwise that statement needs more explaining, sorry. It is sometimes surprising that religious beliefs are not discussed more widely in UK politics since there appears no real reason to remain quiet. The goals of the NSS are almost tangental to the debate. I chose their charter because it has 10 basic objectives that would make our government more secular. Secular meaning religiously neutral and with a clear division of Church and State.

You then discuss your reform of the upper house, which is not so much a reform as a continuation of the current system. Lords are already appointed. Your own system keeps that, and in addition, makes selection primarily based on religious preference! Religious beliefs inform peoples perceptions and their opinion, so why not allow it to do just that? You have not made a reasoned argument as to why it should be privileged with unelected positions in a branch of our legislature. You are correct in that the House of Lords should be there to act as a governor on the power of the Commons, but basing that on religious beliefs is not democratic or fair, since minority views can be ignored by a majority belief. You seem to be in favour of adding a layer of unelected Theocracy to our Democracy? I hope that is not so. I would add that truth or otherwise should be informed and reasoned. If you cannot persuade people of 'truth' - then its not that much of a truth, is it?

Current White Papers on reform have favoured an elected second house, although none have passed so far. I would like the house to be smaller than the present 742 members (too many imo) perhaps lower it to 300 and, yes, i do agree that a selection of those with 'wisdom' would be preferred. Not businessmen/women though - i consider that a conflict of interest. I would limit the unelected Lords to 20% , with 80% being elected by public vote. The reason for this is that the current system has the sitting government with the power to appoint Lords to the upper house and i think this leads to a skewing of the politics. Not to mention the corruption already associated with the Honours system itself. I have no hesitation in giving the electorate the vote on this. As the ideal of democracy is to my mind much better than having people in positions of power that are unassailable. Perhaps the unelected 20% could play a purely advisory role with no vote? Its aim could be to inform the peers, and maintain standards of behaviour. If you want an independent 2nd chamber i think you have to cut the link between the sitting government and the appointment of peers. I would never appoint based on religious belief or lack of it. To promote religious freedom, i think you have to prevent the government and state from having a preferred religion, this fact was recognised by the writers of the US constitution.

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Apr 2009 21:41:54 BDT
Last edited by the author on 1 Apr 2009 21:46:11 BDT
AJ Murray says:
Hi Wayne,
(continued)

You assert that the Secular Charter reduces the power of religious leaders, i am not sure where you got that from, it takes away the privilege associated with just 1 denomination. That is kind of the point of it, to remove the preferred religion of the state. The division of Church and State. You then throw in a non-sequitur about the 'moral stance'?

Wayne, you can trivialise the 'moral zeitgeist' as much as you wish, but that IS what decides our overarching morality. Whether you like it or not, it has always been the prevailing morals of the majority that decides our 'moral stance'. I could give you examples from slavery to womans rights. Only in totalitarian regimes does the minority dictate. You then go on a rant about Sun readers? I am not sure what point you are trying to make here...

You want religion involved in politics, but it already is! As part of informing societies views individually. Do you not think that everyone as an individual possesses a moral conscience? People can be informed by the religion they follow and i have no fear of having religious leaders speak on subjects (free speech and all) - but why should they be granted more of a privilege than anyone else? 1 person 1 vote.

(btw i cannot find where the charter advocates the silencing of religion - sorry - you must have misread it.)

1. You agree
2. Okay you are not being clear here - no funding means exactly that - the charity status is unlikely to change (its not given funding as such, its granting a dispensation on tax) Charities do not receive funding by definition. You raised a Straw Man there.
3. You agree
4. You agree
5. You agree
6. I agree with you that this one is difficult. Very much a grey area. I could see this being dropped.
7. Your objection to this one is reactionary in the extreme. By having no primary action to restrict religion you can only restrict religion when it in breach of the civil laws.
8. You are wrong on your reading of this one. No-one would describe the US as an Atheist state. The State is effectively neutral. Neither promoting nor restricting the practice of religion. Cults behaviour would come under freedom of expression, and would only fall foul of the state if they were breaking the law.
9. This does come under freedom of speech - i think this one is essentially unworkable too.
10.No harm is caused by enacting this as a right. Religions influence should be with the people as a whole, not within the levers of government.

Atheists, Jedi's, Satanists are not recognised religions Wayne.

So we could discard 2 of these easily, numbers 6 and 9.
Objective 8 is quite sweeping. I think its largest effect would be on schools under state education. Should we really remove the teaching of religion from state schools?

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Jul 2010 19:41:21 BDT
I would guess that removing the teaching of religion from state would not be a problem as no-one would be stopping churches from teaching it.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Jul 2010 18:14:21 BDT
AJ Murray says:
Hi Kenny,

I can forsee faith schools mounting an objection to removing part of their curriculum. They would have a case too. Beliefs are a human right after all.

But i am uneasy about removing the teaching of religion in schools partly because currently in state education, consideration has to be given to all religions. I think is a good thing that pupils be taught about religions and i would even expand the curriculum to include the Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Sep 2010 16:43:09 BDT
AJ, I don't think anyone is suggesting interfering with or limiting beliefs. I guess if it was an appreciation of a range of religions rather than pushing the views of one in isolation, then that would be an equitable solution.
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Discussion in:  The God Delusion forum
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Total posts:  9
Initial post:  27 Mar 2009
Latest post:  9 Sep 2010

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