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Secularism isn’t optional for democracy. It’s essential.

By Megan Manson

Megan is head of campaigns at the National Secular Society in London. She previously worked for the Japanese government promoting cultural exchange and language learning. She has long been active in local interfaith initiatives. In this article she explores why secularism is required in a democracy.

Democracy and secularism are like violin and bow. Without one, the other doesn’t really work. The National Secular Society’s own story illustrates the fundamental importance of secularism to democracy. We were founded by Charles Bradlaugh – a Liberal Party politician and an atheist at a time when it was still taboo to even question the doctrine of the established Church of England, let alone deny it.

Bradlaugh was elected Member of Parliament for Northampton in 1880. But when it came to swearing the oath of allegiance required to take his seat in the House of Commons, he refused. The oath had to be sworn before “almighty God”, which to Bradlaugh would be insincere; how could he swear to a God he didn’t believe in?

Bradlaugh sought a compromise by requesting to make a solemn, secular affirmation instead, but the House refused. This situation was only resolved in 1886 when the Speaker finally allowed him to take the oath. Bradlaugh's Oaths Act 1888 later allowed MPs to make an affirmation instead of an oath.

To this day, MPs have the right to choose either to swear an oath to God or to make a secular affirmation in which they “solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm” their allegiance. Naturally, many non-religious MPs take the affirmation, and many religious MPs do so too. This includes MPs who are Quaker, Methodist, Muslim, Sikh, and even evangelical Christians like Fiona Bruce who have theological objections to swearing an oath to God. In advancing the rights of atheists, Bradlaugh advanced the rights of everyone, of all religions and beliefs.

The story of Bradlaugh’s struggle to enter Parliament demonstrates that applying secularist principles to politics – such as the idea that parliamentary procedures should not be centred on Christianity or any other religion – is crucial to effective democracy. Forcing MPs to swear an oath to God before they could represent their constituents was an intolerable barrier to the democratic process. By adopting a more secular approach – permitting a non-religious affirmation – Parliament took an important step towards a more equal, inclusive, and liberal democracy.

Progress in the UK looks similar to that of other liberal nations: the state has grown more democratic as it has grown more secular. At the time when atheists and freethinkers such as Bradlaugh were challenging religious orthodoxy, advocacy grew for universal suffrage, social justice and free speech. It’s no coincidence that Bradlaugh and other NSS members were some of the leading figures in these movements.

The link between democracy and secularism is as clear today as it was in Bradlaugh’s time  – especially when we look at countries where liberal values and human rights are in decline. Take Afghanistan, the least democratic country in the world according to the 2023 Economist Democracy Index. Since taking control in 2021, the Taliban have brutally imposed their fundamentalist Islamist ideology on Afghanistan and stripped the country bare of civil rights. Under this strictly patriarchal religious regime, women’s participation in public life is virtually non-existent, and public executions and floggings are used as punishment for crimes including theft, “illegitimate” relationships or violating social norms. The Taliban have even recently announced that women who commit adultery will be publicly stoned to death. Many media outlets have been forced to close, with journalists being detained and tortured. Religious minorities are persecuted, while being an atheist can be punished by execution.

Another Islamic theocracy, Iran, ranks similarly low in the Democracy Index. Its government is overseen by a “Guardian Council” of unelected Islamic clerics, while sharia forms the basis of law. To “blaspheme” against Islam, to have same-sex relationships, or to leave Islam is to risk the death penalty. Women and minority groups also face persecution in Iran, as highlighted in 2022 by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the regime’s morality police, who detained and tortured her for allegedly wearing hijab incorrectly.

It’s true of all theocracies past and present: the more power we give religion, the more rights, dignity and even lives we rob from humanity. In countries like Afghanistan and Iran, oppression flows directly from an unholy marriage of religion and state.

The UK’s democracy is clearly in a much better condition. But while we live in an increasingly secular society, with fewer people than ever belonging to a religion, we do not yet live in a secular state.

Just last year, an enormous and ostentatious display of power and privilege marked the union of two of the least democratic aspects of our state – the established church and the monarchy. Despite a coronation being legally unnecessary, Charles was crowned in a high Anglican ritual in Westminster Abbey, costing the taxpayer around £100 million. The rites required Charles to kneel before the Archbishop of Canterbury and swear an oath on the Bible that he will uphold the Church of England’s privileges as the established church.

Charles’ status as “Supreme Governor of the Church of England” and “Defender of the Faith”, as affirmed in the coronation, reminds us that the Church of England is still very much a state religion. In an arrangement uncomfortably similar to that of Iran, the Church is given 26 seats in the House of Lords for its clerics. These unelected bishops can, and do, use this position to further their agenda: opposing same-sex marriage, resisting greater access to reproductive healthcare, and making sure all state schools continue to be legally obliged to hold daily acts of Christian collective worship. Sittings in both Houses of Parliament even open with Anglican prayers. No other religion or belief group can boast such privileges.

Some argue that because the Church of England is comparatively benign these days, its privileged political position somehow acts as a bulwark against more aggressive, fundamentalist religion – for example, Trump-style Christian nationalism, or radical Islam. In fact, the opposite is true. Our state's deference to the Church of England opens the door to more reactionary religion. When we give privileges to one religion, other religions demand privileges for themselves. And it can be very hard to say no – especially to religions which are particularly motivated to seize power.

One of the most significant threats religion poses to democracy in the UK and elsewhere is “blasphemy”-related extremism. In the past three years, we have seen teachers forced into hiding, children receiving death threats, councillors losing their positions, academics hounded out of their jobs and cinemas cancelling films, all because of accusations of “blasphemy” or its close cousin, “Islamophobia”. Whilst hatred and bigotry targeting Muslims and other religious minorities is a genuine problem, “Islamophobia” accusations are weaponised not to crack down on hate, but to silence criticism, ridicule or any other undesired speech about religion.

England and Wales ditched their blasphemy laws in 2008. Scotland’s blasphemy laws were officially abolished this April. But this vital move to secure free speech about religion will mean nothing if we let blasphemy laws return by the back door under the guise of the “Islamophobia” concept. Incidentally, blasphemy laws remain on the books in Northern Ireland, where religion holds greater sway over public life than elsewhere in the UK.

An established church does nothing to combat these new, complex religious threats to democracy. Its presence merely creates unnecessary division. As long as there is one religion favoured by the state, there can be no equality amongst citizens.

The solution is to cut the ties between religion and state by disestablishing the Church of England. This move would benefit not only the state, but also the Church. At the end of the March, the Church in Wales saw the 104th anniversary of its disestablishment; a day which is celebrated as a gain in independence and freedom for Welsh Anglicans. Growing numbers of Church of England clergy and laity are also beginning to look at disestablishment in a similar light.

Disestablishing the Church would complete the work of Bradlaugh and his fellow secularists and freethinkers, who understood all too well how state religion obstructs democratic progress. Tied together, our state and Church hold each other back: cut them loose, and the Church will be free to pursue its mission without state interference.  And this is essential if the state is to sail into the 21st century as a truly modern democracy.


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