By Stephen Evans
Stephen Evans is Chief Executive of the National Secular Society in the UK and a regular media commentator on the role of religion in politics and public life. He is also a keen ultramarathon runner. In this article, he argues that British people want a secular country.
In a recent global survey on religion, 66% of Brits agreed with the statement "Religion does more harm in the world than good". It’s not hard to see why. History has shown us time and again that when religion intertwines with politics, discrimination, conflict, and the erosion of civil liberties follow.
A quick glance around the globe reveals the enduring dangers of religion-infused politics. Anyone tuned in to current affairs will be able to think of numerous instances of the effects of religion’s influence on political life. The intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of the negative consequences that stem from religious beliefs being intertwined with political, social, or territorial disputes. Islamist terrorism, once concentrated in Muslim-majority nations, has gone global and now targets the values and stability of western democracies. In theocracies such as Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Islamic rule brutally suppresses women and personal freedoms. And the stymieing of LGBT equality and reproductive freedom in the United States, Latin America and Eastern Europe showcases the threat which Christian nationalism poses to human rights and dignity.
Despite this, most people in the UK remain tolerant of religion. 73% regard freedom of religion or belief as an important foundation of society and 88% say they are tolerant of people with different beliefs to them. What they’re less inclined to tolerate is the imposition of other people’s religion on them, or society.
One of the great ideas of the Enlightenment was the separation of religion and state. This core secularist principle has had a civilising effect on human societies and it is now a fundamental concept in many liberal democracies.
Secularism provides a common ground where people of all faiths, as well as non-believers, can engage in public discourse and debate matters of common interest. It encourages cohesion and cooperation, enabling a pluralistic society to operate on shared values and principles, rather than divisive religious dogmas.
In an increasingly diverse and multicultural society, secularism provides a framework that acknowledges and respects this diversity, while promoting equal treatment and opportunity for all. By adopting a secular approach, governments would remove a major impediment to the formulation of public policies based on rational arguments, evidence, and the collective interest.
Keeping religion out of politics doesn’t banish believers from the public square. Those motivated by their religious beliefs have just as much right as anyone else to participate in the political process and express their views. Nobody can realistically expect them to "leave their religion at the door". But attempts to impose personal religious beliefs through the political process, or justify positions using religion-specific rather than universal values, is likely to prove unpopular and wholly unpersuasive.
Although in western democracies, the days of being able to justify a position on the basis of it being for or against "God’s will" are over, that's not the same as saying religious believers must keep their faith entirely to themselves. As the political philosopher John Rawls puts it: "Reasonable comprehensive doctrines, religious or non-religious, may be introduced in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due course proper political reasons – and not reasons given solely by comprehensive doctrines – are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are said to support." In other words, individuals can introduce any belief in public political discussions, whether it's based on religion or not. But it's essential that, eventually, they also provide solid political arguments that are widely acceptable and not just based on their personal beliefs.
Secularists simply ask that governments stay neutral on religion, and steer clear of basing laws around religious precepts. In a secular democracy, decisions which affect all of us need to be justified in terms of commonly held reasons and values, rather than religious preferences. No section of society should have privileged input into government, and religious interest groups should have to put their case across on an equal footing to others.
Which leads us to the United Kingdom, where the separation of church and state is still to be achieved. The Church of England cleaves to its status as the state church. Our head of state is required to uphold the Church’s doctrine and privileges. Twenty-six of its bishops sit as of right as legislators in the House of Lords. Perhaps this degree of religious privilege helps to explain why laws requiring a daily act of Christian worship in schools remain in place, but a law to allow those experiencing unbearable suffering an assisted death (which the bishops are united against) remains out of reach.
Despite religious leaders’ claims to the contrary, secularists’ advocacy for a government free from religion is not an attack on religious freedom or an attempt to undermine faith. Rather, it is a call for the protection and preservation of individual freedoms, the promotion of social cohesion, and the effective functioning of a diverse society. By maintaining a neutral stance towards religion, governments can act as fair arbitrators, fostering inclusivity, and ensuring equal treatment for all citizens, regardless of their religion or beliefs.
Secularism offers the only sensible framework for governing pluralist societies. With Britain becoming increasingly secular but also more religiously diverse, keeping religion and politics separate will be key to achieving and maintaining a free, fair and peaceful society.
If you're new to secularism and not sure what it's about - click here to watch a short video.