Connie Basnett explores the recent rise in Secularism in the UK.
An atmosphere of hysteria surrounds the topic of religion, with recent events in Iraq, Gaza and Israel adding fuel to the fire. This perception is only briefly explained by terrorism since the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks. There is a common view in the West that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is the greatest danger faced by liberal societies since communism in 20th century. For many writers religion has fuelled violence and oppression throughout history until today.
But now there has been a shift in common perceptions that now focuses on the topic of secularism. People with faith say secularism has become an aggressive and intolerant force in the United Kingdom. Many believe that secularist beliefs are becoming more of a threat to liberty than religion has ever been. Conservative party chairman Lady Warsi speaks of her “fear” that “a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies”. Yet Atheists say that 9/11 motivated them to speak up against organised forms of religion and Islam has clearly prompted several questions on the topic of religion.
Along with the apparent rise of a secular culture this is combined with the increasing number of self-identified atheists in the UK and across Europe. Damon Linker, senior correspondent for The Week, commented on the secular attitudes that define our current era, he writes, “When liberals act that way, they run the risk of turning themselves into latter-day Jacobins, the anti-religious zealots who dominated the French Revolution during its most radical phase.” John Gray, a British philosopher, states some forms of atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam.
Has secularism really been just as much as a threat as religion? In Gray’s book, Gray’s Anatomy, he talks of Adolf Hitler’s use of anti-Semitic demonology in his persecution of Jews, “it was the Nazi belief in a race as a scientific category that opened the way to crimes without parallel in history.” Was Hitler’s Nazi Germany linked to ideas of atheism? Or is this too farfetched?
Did radical versions of secular thinking contribute to the development of Nazism or communism? Many writers believe atheists tend to leave out these tragedies in their arguments that religion is the main contribution to all conflicts in history. Recent events, as mentioned before, make it hard to argue against this idea. The recent Trojan horse issue in Birmingham schools has further fuelled liberal intelligentsia in stating the problem is religion. This has led to calls for religion to be completely cut out from schools, again is this extreme?
Having been to a Catholic primary school myself I must admit I spent half my time reading bible stories, singing hymns, saying prayers and learning nothing about any other forms of religion. Do I think going to a catholic primary school helped me in any way? No I don’t, it just left me feeling a slight animosity towards a forced catholic religious education. Maybe that’s personal preference. But when my ridiculous primary school teacher told me some people didn’t believe in religion because, “they had dug so far in the ground and flew so high up and didn’t find hell or heaven” I knew I had to leave.
Secularism is a very specific principle that works within the bounds of public and political institutions. As long as they operate without granting privilege to any religious view, secularism has nothing to say about how religious the rest of society or individual people should be. Religion in the past has had its ways of thriving in secular states. I don’t think we will be seeing the last of it anytime soon and especially not at the hands of secularists or atheists.
By Connie Basnett
[Image Credit: Roberto Venturini]