Tag Archives: secularism

Book Review: Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams

This was one of those books I picked up on the off-chance as I was browsing round a bookshop one lunchtime. I was aware of its existence a little while ago, when it seemed to cause a minor stir among some Anglicans but it seems to have little longer-lasting impact. The first thing to note about it, however, is that it’s not a book that Rowan actually set out to write. Instead, it’s a collection of transcripts of various sermons and lectures he gave between June 2002 and February 2012. Much of the vernacular used for a public address has been kept; in fact, I’m not certain how much editing was done to the transcripts at all, apart from the staff at Bloomsbury occasionally omitting spaces whenever they thought italics were most appropriate, something I hope they will correct in any subsequent print runs.

As the title suggests, the book is largely about how issues of faith and religion play out in public life. The lectures have been ordered by theme, rather than by the order in which they were first given, so as to try to give some kind of coherency to discussions on a quite wide variety of topics. The first two parts of the book, which are the longest and, I think it’s fair to say, the most intricate, are about secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism and the different ways these are perceived, coupled with Rowan’s own thoughts about which is the right path to walk down.

If anything though, these chapters could be skipped, as Rowan summarises it all very nicely in the Preface. The rest is more filling in the details. Crucial to this point of view is the distinction between what he refers to as “procedural secularism” and “programmatic secularism”. The former is a stance where no religious (or non-religious) position is given undue privilege in places of public life, such in government or media. The latter is (though Rowan, if I recall from those early chapters correctly, does not use the phrase) “aggressive secularism” – a term that is too often used, more often than not, incorrectly. It denotes the idea that religion ought to have no place in public life; it should be out of sight, out of mind. He does single out the French for having this view, something I have written a little about some time ago.

Rowan advocates procedural secularism whilst rejecting programmatic secularism, as well as those who advocate the latter under the guise of the former. Though he does not mention by name the National Secular Society, the inference is all too easy to draw.

After this opening, which I warn you gets a little turgid, the book moves onto the application of religious (though mainly christian) thinking into other areas of public life. i.e. after having advocated that christians be allowed a voice in a liberal democracy, here is what one influential christian has to say on matters of environmentalism, justice, finance and community.

What he has to say is well thought through, effortlessly sensible and immensely thought-provoking. That said, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Despite the back cover’s claim that he is “the finest theologian in Britain” (a title reader’s of Hannah’s Child may smirk at), there is very little theology here. This more ‘applied’ theology than ‘pure’ theology, to bring in a mathematical analogy. I suppose it is inevitable that the book would appeal to a christian secularist, such as myself, though I would be interested in reading the thoughts of an atheist secularist on the book.

Bideford council and the 2 views of secularism

I have written before about what I believe to be the proper meaning of secularism. Last week, a ruling was made by the High Court about Bideford Council to the effect that prayers would no longer be allowed as an item on the agenda at the start of their meetings. The complaint had been brought about by the National Secular Society (NSS) under a claim that a former council member had been forced to partake in prayers. 

The High Court eventually ruled on an issue that was not brought up by NSS. So far as the case went that had originally been brought, the NSS lost. The former councilor’s human rights had not been breached as had been claimed. The judgment hung on the fact that prayers were not explicitly allowed by an earlier Act of Parliament. They were therefore not considered to be part of the Council’s official business and so the judge ruled against the council.

By extending the logic used in the ruling, if the serving of tea and biscuits at these meetings was not explicitly allowed then they too ought to be banned from council meetings. As has been pointed out by others, the ruling is not as landmark a case as the NSS would like it to be, as the scope is extremely limited.

What it has done is stir up a renewed interest in the role of state and religion which often seems to confuse people endlessly. This, I believe, is that while there is are loads of people who couldn’t give a toss either way, as well as many reasonable moderates, the loudest voices are those with an agenda to push. In this case, we have the NSS on one hand and we have conservative christians (such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey) on the other.  

My own view is that moderate secularism comes about as a consequence of the Golden Rule. Bideford Council never forced or coerced anyone into participating in prayers. Had they done so, I would not have been in support of their defence. If we are to do to others as we would have them to do us, then we should never impose our beliefs or specific “religious” practices on anyone. 

The fallacy that has been used by those who supported the NSS’s case can be demonstrated as follows: Let’s say we have 4 individuals, all with different beliefs. 

1. Prays to Jahweh
2. Pray to Allah
3. Prays to the Flying Spaghetti Monster
4. Prays to no one. 

By misrepresenting the Bideford case as a compulsion to make someone pray to an entity they did not believe in, the NSS portrayed it as person 4 being forced to comply with person 1’s beliefs. This did not actually occur, but if it had then there would be very minor human rights issue (how often have the NSS campaigned against human trafficking?). So while the moderate secularist would advocate that no one party can impose their views on another, the NSS seek as a default that person 4 be allowed to impose their views on all others. This is done by grouping together 1,2 & 3 as being “religious” and then seeking a non-religious alternative as being the view that ought to be predominant.  

In other words, the ultimate aim is to create an out of sight, out of mind political culture. As an aside, it is interesting to note that while it may be reasonable to state that we live in secular culture, the same cannot be said of our political system. One phrase I often hear used to describe Britain is a liberal, secular democracy. Of these 3 words, I don’t think any of them accurately describe our politics. We presently have a Conservative-led government which is demonstrating that it values the pound more than the person, thus dispelling the myth that government is liberal. The head of state, the queen, is unelected and is also outside of the jurisdiction of some laws (for example, she cannot be sued), which shows that the idea of democracy is a joke. Then, to top it all off, the queen is also the head of a national state religion, which puts pay to the idea of the state being secular.


I don’t buy into the rhetoric that says that christians in this country are being persecuted. If so, then you might as well say that a fruit fly buzzing past your ear is a persecution. It does a disservice to those places (and here I am thinking of the Sudan and Nigeria) where people have been murdered for being christians. The particular case in Bideford is really of limited importance. What is important is that the extreme and intolerant voices be exposed for the folly that they put forth, and to actively push to change our politics to become more liberal, secular and democratic, so as to be a fair reflection of the society it purports to serve.

The BC/AD & BCE/CE “debate”

As you may have seen, there was a mini debate that flared up over the last few days in response to an article in the Fail on Sunday about the BBC dropping the use of BC/AD as a label added to years in favour of BCE/CE. There are some very good pieces on the web, and I have referenced these at the foot of this post.

This is something I’ve changed my mind over in the last few years, so I’ll pen down my initial objections and why I am now not really fussed over it.

My objections

I first came across the use of BCE/CE as an alternative to BC/AD about 10 years ago. I can’t tell whether this had anything to do with my leaving a christian school around that time or whether there was a noticeable upturn in the use of BCE/CE as an alternative. If anyone has any statistics (preferably with references) on the relative usage of the terms, then please do point me towards them. I think the debate could be much better framed with more facts and less rhetoric, though the same is true of pretty much every debate I can think of!

At the time, I was younger and a little bit of a fundamentalist. My immature gut reaction was to think that this was stripping Christ out of the language, much as in the same way many Christmas cards are dubbed “Seasons Greetings.” I do still think there is some element of the “out of sight, out of mind” brand of secularism within this, but I do think it really is too minor to get one’s knickers in a twist about.

I wouldn’t mind so much if the terms were replaced with something that actually had some meaning, some reference, that signified an important event. When talking about housing construction in the UK, we often use World War 2 as a demarcation point, with buildings referred to as pre-war or post-war. But Common Era and Before Common Era are devoid of any meaning. I think this may be behind the supposed objection by the Plain English Campaign. I say “supposed” because the Fail only includes one quote from their Press Officer and yet there is no statement on their website about it.

My acceptance

Ultimately, it’s not the end of the world. There is still a demarcation boundary between these two eras, and it would be a very dull mind indeed that doesn’t enquire into why the two are separated. What event was it that heralded such a turning point in how all of history is oriented? Yet there are admittedly problems with the BC/AD system. Not least, it is widely regarded that whoever did the sums on behalf of pope Gregory got them wrong, and that Jesus was probably born in around 6 B.C./B.C.E. There is then the question of whether this is actually an important date for christianity at all. The hinge point is not Jesus’ birth at all, but rather it around the Easter weekend which witnessed his death and resurrection. Of course, there is then debate about precisely when this was, with dates ranging from A.D. 27 to A.D. 41.

I am writing another blog post at the moment on one aspect of the interaction between religion and politics, but for now I will summarise my view that I don’t agree with any group (religious or secular) imposing their system of beliefs on another. Discussion and persuasion are far better means to achieve a goal than dictation. So while the more fundamentalist view may be that this is an imposition of secular values stamping all over their beliefs, you have to recognise that the use of the BC/AD system may be perceived to be the exact reverse.

My opinion is that it should be the goal of the church to preach the gospel. Let the world know the historical facts and our best understanding of the interpretation of their implications. People can then be free to choose whether to accept or reject them.

I don’t consider that this silliness over a dating system is a serious hindrance to that goal.

I was reminded of the introduction to 1 Timothy, when the author writes:

“instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God” (1 Tim 1:3b-4a, NASB)

And on that note, I shall allow it to distract me no further.

Other references

Leading the charge from the newspapers was (unsurprisingly) the Guardian. The case here is made from an FAQ section of the BBC website, though the Guardian links directly to the FAQs, which has no link from the BBC’s religion site.

Blundering in like the hapless modern-day Falstaff that he is, Boris Johnson has written a piece in the Torygraph.

The satirical blog, The Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley, has an excellent take on it.

Probably the best right-wing defence of the Mail’s piece comes from Heresy Corner.

The final, concise, word goes to Phil’s Treehouse.

Of course, there are plenty of others which I may have missed. This is just what I’ve found from a quick perusal of the web.

French-style secularism?

While I was munching breakfast, I came across this story that hit Twitter a few times from the Telegraph, about prayer being banned from the streets of Paris.

What an outrage! This is a suppression of freedom of expression, it’s stigmatising those who pray and discriminating against those of a religious persuasion!

Or is it?

On closer inspection, it turns out the problem is not really about prayer at all. It’s a traffic issue in one particular area of Paris. The headline of banning prayer is a misleading one, as prayer is not really being banned. There is nothing to stop me (apart from the cost of the train fare!) from walking the streets of Paris and praying silently while I do so. I am apt to do this around London quite often, but I doubt many, if any, are aware of this. So this legislation is not supposed to deal with prayer in general, but is solely against Muslims who are too numerous in one area to fit into a small mosque.

This is not an example of the Thought Police in action; the root cause is a gathering of one particular religion in an area that holds up traffic on one day of the week. It would be interesting to visit the scene in question just to find out how bad the issue is. To quote the article, “the prayer problem was limited to two roads in the Goutte d’Or district of Paris’s eastern 19th arrondissement, where “more than a thousand” people blocked the street every Friday.”

However, there are issues raised by this that ought to be considered with due sobriety. For one, there is the understanding (or lack thereof) of the term ‘secularism’ by Claude Guéant. According to the report (if we are trust the content & the translation) “praying in the street … violates the principles of secularism.”

I have outlined my own views on secularism before and why I would describe myself a mild secularist. This, however, seems to completely miss the point of secularism, which is to remove (if there ever was any) religious privilege. One of the architects of secularism was Martin Luther, as his reaction against the overt political power and lack of accountability afforded to the Roman Catholic Church; though it is worth noting that his 95 theses were posted not long after the reign of the Borgias, which is one of the most shameful of periods in Catholicism.

But Luther’s intention was never for an “out of sight, out of mind” approach that we have evident in the thinking of one French minister, and possibly the wider government. It also begs the question why any action needs to be taken on such a wide scale, and why it is not limited to the time and place where the problem occurs.

If the problem was solely due to traffic, then it should have been sorted out as a traffic issue, not as one of religion. I’m trying to avoid going down the “thin end of the wedge” route, but I can’t escape the possibility that some French Muslims may well have just cause to think the wedge was already feeling quite thick by now.

As a side note, there is a march for this French kind of secularism happening in London on Saturday. I couldn’t attend if I wanted to, as there are major engineering works on the routes into and out of the capital this weekend. I won’t say any more about that now, as I can’t better the well-balanced piece that came out of Theos earlier this week.

Out of sight; out of mind – a parallel view of cigarette packets and aggressive secularism

There have been a few discussions recently concerning the future of cigarette packaging and it brought to mind my recent post on the nature of secularism. The current proposal, as I understand it, is to remove any particular branding from cigarettes and to not have them displayed in shops. The end-game, if you will allow me to jump, is to reduce the consumption of cigarettes. The idea is to make them as unappealing as possible. Now, from my own point of view, I still find it pretty hard to see why anyone would want to roll up fragments of a dried weed into a small tube of paper, stick in their mouth and set fire to one end of it. But, my own personal views on the matter aside, what I’m interested in is looking at the parallels between the government’s plan and what many Christians see as an aggressive secular agenda in society as a whole. I will also aim to point out the differences, so as to not appear scaremongering, unreasonable or to possess any other characteristic that could be considered characteristic of your average Daily Mail article. I shall attempt to lay this out in a slightly simplistic manner, though for reasons of my own clarity, rather than patronising of you, since you are almost certainly more intelligent than I am. As ever, if you think I have made any factual errors, or have misunderstood something, then please let me know; I don’t profess to be perfect!

Removal of packaging
In the smoking debate, you will need to know the name of the brand if you are to request it from a shop keeper. If you were to walk into a shop and have a browse around, then there should be no evidence of the existence of cigarettes in the shop, expect for maybe a surreptitious reach under the counter when someone else asks for them. If you see someone smoking on the street (because that’s pretty much the only public place you can do it now) then it should be something of a mystery as to where to obtain these magical fire sticks and what the difference is between one and the other.

In discussions about various religions, there is a parallel of debranding by referring to “religion” as though it is one thing, with the various different religions being merely variations on a theme. In other words it becomes acceptable to ignore the cultural, historical and revelatory nature of the origins of various beliefs and instead to speak of a post-Enlightenment master narrative whereby all religions can be considered to be some sort of mental illness. The aim of this type of discussion is to assume that all religions must, a priori, be false and to start the discussion from that point; if you start from the same position over and over again, you can kid yourself that that is the appropriate place to start from, regardless of the falsity of the proposition.

So in order for someone who is vaguely interested in one or more of the religions will, by societal conditioning, find it harder and harder to know where to start. If one religion is, on the surface presentation, essentially the same as another, then what is there to decide between them? One would have to try out various “brands” to find out what the substance is behind them. But this is a lot of effort for a speculative investment of one’s time and therefore likely to be offputting. So just at the aim with the smoking is to reduce demand for smoking, so discussions about religions as though they are part of a more or less homogenous continuum subverts the ‘real’ discussions, particularly those of comparative studies and serve the purpose of putting off people from investigating religions, thinking for themselves and coming up with their own independent conclusions on the validity of the claims of various systems of beliefs.

There are, however, differences. For one, the smoking reforms are coming from a governmental mandate, whereas as the secular agenda is far more subtle. In spite of various conservative Christians decrying an alleged anti-christian agenda within politics, I would find it extremely hard to imagine a set of circumstances whereby a similar law would be proposed, let alone passed, within the UK to “remove the packaging” from the various religions. Churches can still display crosses (whether empty or full), mosques will still be allowed to display crescent moons on top of them and synagogues will still be able to show the star of David. The closest thing to this sort of legislation being proposed anywhere that I can recall was about a year ago when Switzerland called for the banning of the building of minarets.

Removal from the shop display
In spite of this, the false perception of the homogeneity of religions still assumes that they are out there and in the public eye. At present, smoking paraphernalia is still displayed behind shop counters so that, providing you have the courage to ask for it, you can purchase the said goods. With the proposal to move cigarettes away from the shelves, we have another prong in the government attack on the demand of cigarette consumption. The idea behind it is “out of sight, out of mind.” So whilst smoking is still legal on the street and in the private home, this is a further curb at trying to push it as far out of the public mind as possible. In particular, a key demographic being targeted are the under 20s who may be considering taking up smoking as their expensive and carcinogenic habit of choice. The best way to reduce the demand for a product is to create a culture that is ignorant of its existence. While not going all the way to banning smoking, this is just one step further along that path. I don’t know if I’ll ever see smoking outlawed in this country during my lifetime, but I would be fooling only myself if I thought that this was the final measure taken by any government to reduce smoking via legislation rather than merely a health initiative.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with certain aggressive strands of secularism which want to drive the remaining aspects of religion out of public life. For example, the British Humanist Association has an active campaign against Thought For The Day, a 5 minute religious slot in Radio 4’s The Today Programme. Every now and then, you also hear whinges about the existence of Songs of Praise taking up prime broadcasting time. Most recently there is another campaign by the BHA to try and tell people what they should put on their census forms. The underhanded trick that they have used, though, is the one of the lack of branding mentioned above. It is all about being opposed to any religion by lumping them together and saying that you are not religious. Now I am a christian, but I rarely describe myself as religious. While this may go slightly against Paul (“the mysteries of our religion”) the main use of the term in the New Testament is as a negative connotation denoting those that are bound by rules and those that do the binding as a form of political power; e.g. the Pharisees. But Christianity is not founded on this. Any ‘rules’ per se emerge from the only 2 underlying principles of “love God with all your heart, mind, soul & strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” Anyone who thinks Christianity is a set of rules has not understood it (see Romans 7:6 – plus the surrounding context).

Anyway, minor rant aside, the aim of the BHA census campaign, along with a poll which they commissioned to look at a smaller sample but which they nonetheless profess to be more accurate (could it possibly be because the second poll agreed with their pre-formed conclusions, perhaps?), is to drive religion out of public life. Now while I have said before that there is a fine line between a lack of religious privilege (something Martin Luther was very keen on) and the removal of the face of various faiths from the public arena. The pettiness of the Today Programme campaign shows to what extent this attempt to remove religion has. I have yet to really make up my mind on the inclusion of bishops in the House of Lords. On the whole, I lean towards not having them there, but then I would not single them out as an object of prejudice in the manner of the BHA. If any change is to be made to the Lords it needs to be wholesale and non-discriminatory. There is also the matter of how important a role they actually play. In any televised proceedings, I have not seen any bishops present, let alone speak. And I think they have rather better things to do with their time.

Yet this does differ from the smoking reforms insofar as the attempt to marginalise different faiths (and Christianity in particular) is not government-led. It is led by small, vocal, sections of society who are intolerant of those whose opinions in certain matters differ from their own. While this country has a distinct and well-evidence christian heritage, in spite of what various revisionists may claim, this is a secular state. Different faiths co-exist almost entirely peaceably with one another and faith communities lead the drive in charity and volunteering. I am happy that we don’t have a supposed theocracy, where a fallible person is appointed as an unquestionable authority acting in loco deus. But what I do not agree with are attempts to make those who practice various religions/faiths/systems of belief into social pariahs. Though ideas of freedom of expression and democracy are not inherently biblical, I don’t think there can be many of us of a liberal persuasion that disagree that they are fundamentally good things. In order for the fair balance allowing religions and beliefs to operate freely within a secular framework, there has to be an absence of privilege and prejudice in relation to these matters. It is increasingly evident that organisations like the BHA and NSS are not really acting as balanced as they would like to think they are. In the name of removing religious privilege, they are instead acting as prejudicial bodies, pandering to the phobias of their constituent members – not unlike some churches!

So what shall I say then? It seems clear to me (and I hope I have been clear in my written communication to you) that there are parallels between the marginalisation of smokers and those of adherents to particular belief systems. The key difference is what is the subject of official legislation and what comes about from a less clear-cut, societal pressure, epitomised by certain scaremongers with their own agenda. But underneath this there is a difference of substance. I can imagine the scoffers thinking “Ah, but one is a carcinogenic menace to society that serves only to meet an irrational craving. And the other is smoking.” In reality, and here I speak only of Christianity, the difference is of life on the one hand and death on the other, and I’d rather walk down The Way of Life.

Secular, humanist christian

I thought it’s about high time I wrote a little about something that’s been on my mind for a few months and which ought to be said, though I’m not sure if I’m the right person to be saying it. The problem as I see it is essentially a loose understanding of precise terminology. In particular, there are 3 words that banded about (by both christians and opponents of christianity) and often intermingled, which often leads to unnecessary upset, nitpicking and a general diversion away from the key issues being discussed; something which I fear is more often less than fruitful and which leaves neither side with a high opinion of the other. So what are these 3 words? Secular, humanist and atheist.

One of the reasons why I feel personally involved in this is because, of these 3 words (when considered as adjectives), I would like to describe myself by 2 of them. However, I am hesitant to do so, for fear of being misunderstood and needlessly ostracised. I shall attempt to deal with them one by one where I shall, out of necessity and brevity, omit some discussion before going on to look at the links between them that cause so many misunderstandings and arguments. To aid the discussion, I would like to draw your attention to two additional words that I think help and which have helped me a lot since I came across them. They are emic and etic. When describing characteristics and behaviours of groups of people, emic is a self-description (i.e. a way that the given set of people tend to talk about themselves). Etic is effectively a third party description used by those who are not part of that group to describe and characterise it.

So, in alphabetical order:

1) Atheism/atheist

The most common definition I hear put forward by Christians is that atheists believe there is no God; in other words this is an etic description. However, this is a positive assertion which is not emically asserted by many atheists that I have come across. They prefer to consider themselves as a-theists; that is, via a negation of the term theist. However, I have then heard many different versions of what defines and characterises a theist. If you want a good laugh, then read through the introduction to John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, in which his extremely narrow-viewed definition rules out, inter alia, Jews, Catholics and Muslims who are all classified as atheists. I wouldn’t recommend the rest of the book, as it is largely full of creationist rubbish.

So while it may all be very good and acceptable to define oneself as the negative of something, it helps if the thing you are negating is itself well defined, otherwise you’ve made no real progress at all. The way to get around this is for atheists to posit that a theist is someone who believes there is at least one God. The negation of this is then someone who does not believe that there is at least one God. As a side note, I do not agree with this definition as it seems to incorporate deists, pantheists and panentheists, which I regard as belonging to a rather different school of thought to theists. Where people get confused is by equating this definition of atheism to the first statement at the start of this section. But they are not equivalent and for the simple reason of the existence of one further group of individuals: agnostics.

Agnosticism is probably the best defined term, even if it is also the most unsatisfactory philosophical worldview. It is simply the admission that one has not made up their mind on the question of the existence of God. It is this group of people that the atheists want to bring under their ‘envelope’ by definition via negation, thus rendering agnostics a subset of atheists. Under the etic description of atheists as those who believe there is no God, agnostics and atheists are distinguished and the former can no longer be considered a subset of the latter. So it would seem most fair to me to ask this group who is being tussled over whether they prefer to be considered atheists or whether they want to inhabit a space of their own. Now I must confess that I have not had the opportunity to commission any significant research on this matter, so the only evidence I have to hand is my own personal experience and a selection of relevant writings that I have read. Yet of what I have been exposed to in this respect, there is an overwhelming agreement that agnostics do not consider themselves to be atheists and often view atheists and theists with equal contempt, being as they both make assertions which are not backed up by naturalistic evidence. So it is on this basis that, in spite of likely objection, that I believe that defining an atheist as simply someone who lacks a belief in God is not particularly helpful or suitably precise. This would incorporate not only agnostics but also a large swathe of people who just don’t care or think it about it that often.

I am often amused on some forums when I see some atheists say that they never think about the issue of God, yet when you look at their posting history, the only threads they post on are those relating to “religion” and very little else. So it seems somewhat ironic (if not a little dishonest) to pretend that matters of religion don’t matter to them if that is all they talk about. So my working definition of an atheist is someone is someone who has considered the possibility and made a firm decision that they do not believe. This then excludes the agnostics and those who don’t care enough to give it a moment’s thought. Anyway, time to move on to something a little more interesting…

2) Secular/secularist

This is an area in which I feel there is a lot of confusion, but which could be remedied in part quite simply. The first thing to recognise is that there is a broad school of secularist thought and that secularism is not best described as one absolute thing in and of itself. To that extent, you can get mild secularism, extreme secularism and a variety of ideas in between. Now of course, I don’t mind the term being used as a generality, but in some conversations, there can be cross-purposes if one person has in mind a particularly extreme form of secularism and another has in mind a milder form, yet they continue to use the same language.

So what I shall aim to do here is to lay out what I understand by secularism, what is extreme, what is mild and whereabouts I stand. For in general, I would describe myself as a secularist, however I would not consider ever joining or contributing to an organisation such as the National Secular Society (NSS) as their practical mandate seems to overstep the bounds of my own point of view. By practical mandate, what I mean is how their actions, publications and public statements reflect the collective thinking of the organisation. This is distinct from any written statement of principles, articles of incorporation or similar such foundational writings, since the day-to-day realities do not always bear these out. The difference is akin to a company whose motto may be to serve their customers, but whose practice is to extract as much profit from their customers as possible.

In fairly broad terms, I would say that “mild” secularism simply does not invoke any religious maxims in public life. In other words, it’s a case of “carry on as you were,” where no religious institutions or persons are given special prominence solely on the basis of their religious affiliation. One particular proponent of this form of secularism was the German pastor, Martin Luther. His variety was largely a reaction against the political power and deference given to the highly corrupt catholic church. Unfortunately, this particular institution seems not to have learnt any lessons from the Reformation and still today it harbours criminals in its ranks and protects them in what has become a shame that is felt by association by Christians worldwide. A more “extreme” form of secularism is that which attempts to deliberately exclude anything religious from public life, with the subtext “out of sight, out of mind.”

Probably nowhere are the problems associated with a misunderstanding of secularism more apparent than with the multiple-mindedness prevalent in American society. Leaving aside the cranks of the Tea Party and their ilk for a moment, the formalised structure of the US constitution has caused little but trouble since it was first codified. Given that it starts “We hold these truths to be self-evident” it seems ironic that the president has to formally appoint a judge whose job it is to instruct the government as to the interpretation of this document. Anyway, I could go on about how daft the constitution has become but I shall try and restrain myself. What I want to focus on is the 2nd amendment which dictates the separation of church and state. From my perspective, on the east side of the Atlantic, it appears that the Americans have lost touch with the reason this was put in place. At the time, it was state interference in the church that caused the pilgrim fathers to flee England and seek a freer place to worship. Many modern proponents of secularism seem to have forgotten this and act and speak as though it the main worry was church interference in the matters of state. Views of this kind tend to view secularism as the complete opposite of theocracy. Now, I am no advocate of theocracy, on purely practical grounds. Governments have to be administered by people, whether it is in the name of the people they govern (as in democracy) or in the name of God (as in theocracy). The trouble comes with the fact that either way, you are still relying on fallible people – and don’t let anyone you tell you that the pope’s infallible, the evidence simply disproves that!

3) Humanist/humanism

Lastly, we can come on to the term which is probably the least common in terms of modern usage, though I stand to be corrected on that; I speak only from the evidence of my own experience. Similar to the preceding section, there are a variety of different meanings that people hold when they hear the term humanism or humanist. For a brief illustration, please see this, taken from Wikipedia:

Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. The term can mean several things, for example:

1. A historical movement associated especially with the Italian Renaissance.
2. An approach to education that uses literary means or a focus on the humanities to inform students.
3. A variety of perspectives in philosophy and social science which affirm some notion of ‘human nature’ (by contrast with anti-humanism).
4. A secular ideology which espouses reason, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making.

When many Christians hear the term humanist, I think it is fair to say that they jump to the 4th definition. Unfortunately, this version is the most misleading. One of the clues as to why is the fact that the description of it as a “secular ideology” which, given the discussion above, makes it quite hazy and non-specific. It also smacks of not being humanism at all, but is rather more akin to a Randian Objectivism. Now definitions 1 and 2 are quite specific, but are specialised to particular fields of interest which are not the point of our current discussion. Probably the most accurate would be definition 3, although I still have issues with it. What is a far more fitting view of the heart of humanism is this:

“To recognise that humans occupy a special place within the world, and to celebrate and protect that position, valuing all humans and human life.”

So, for me, to be a humanist is to ensure that human beings are not placed second to anything else within the world. So I do not agree that we should promote animal rights over and above human rights, nor should humans be exploited for profiteering purposes. Now you might think I am being anti-environmentalist, but I am not. The environment is that in which we live, so we have a duty to look after it in order to ensure our long-term survival.

In fact, all of humanism can be summed up in two very short motifs: “Love other people just as you love yourself” and “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”

I just wonder if the British Humanist Association would be willing to recognise this or whether they would reject these two statements, given that they would probably be aware of their origin. The fact is, Christianity is a humanist religion. People are at the heart of it, whichever way you look at the matter. So when I see a definition like def 4 from Wikipedia, it is plainly obvious that this definition of humanism has been hijacked.

The changing nature of words.

In all this, I am conscious that words change their meaning over time and that some modern definitions may be quite far removed from what they originally mean. For example, one word that is not often used but which does crop up occasionally is “meek.” Today, it is often interpreted as meaning something that it rhymes with: “weak.” Whenever it is used, it is usually in conjunction with the word mild, as in “meek and mild.” To many modern listeners, this is a form of parallelism whereby two words are used to describe broadly the same thing. However, this is quite different from what the word originally meant. The early meaning of the word was as “strength, contained” or “power under control.” So to describe someone as meek was a shorthand way of saying they were very strong of character but at the same time did not lack self-control. So in this context, “meek and mild” is not a parallelism, but rather a much fuller description using two things that do not always seem to go together. The closest analogy I can think of is “sweet and sour,” although maybe my thinking that was influenced by what I had for dinner last night!

So with that said, what can we say are the “real” meanings of our words in question? I know this is semantics but I think it is important as failure to understand one another is probably the main reason for civil discourse to descend into uncivilised (and unnecessary) argument. To be honest, I don’t know how to answer that last question simply. I do like referring to original meanings, but at the same time to ignore the modern interpretations seems churlish. So when I speak or write, I shall try and define my terms as best as I can. The one caveat in that is obviously that I am not omniscient, and am therefore on a lifetime of discovery. So where I may use some terms there will be times during which I cannot grasp the full meaning of it (e.g. reality). I hope that you will forgive me for this shortcoming and that it does not impinge too much on your understanding.

The links between the three:

There is a sketch I recall from one particular episode of The Simpsons which demonstrates a particular viewpoint which may, unfortunately, not be uncommon in certain sections of American society. The Flanders’ boys are playing some sort of Bible Cluedo and state that the crime was committed “by the secular humanist in the museum with misinformation.” For secular humanist, they held up a picture of a guy with an open-necked shirt and a short, scruffy beard. Misinformation was represented by a dinosaur and the museum was just a museum front. The point was partly about creationism but what struck me was the equating of the secular humanist with an opponent of Christianity.

So where did the notion come from that secular and/or humanist imply atheism? As shown above, there is no logical reason why this should be so, given the core heart of secularism and humanism. It is perfectly possible to be a mild secularist and at the same time hold true to, say, one of the major monotheistic religions. Take the example of the nation of Turkey as an example. This is a secular state with a Islam as the national religion. It is not a theocracy, but is governed on democratic grounds, where any person of any belief may enter into the national politic. No religion is given special dispensation or is specifically discriminated against by the state.

It seems to me that the answer is that which I mentioned above at the end of the section on humanism: these terms have been hijacked by many, though not all, of our atheist friends. The common usage of the terms secular and humanist have been used in conjunction with atheistic overtones so much that an association is built up in many people’s minds so that there is a meshing of the ideas. It is a little like a rather insidious form of advertising, where a corporation wants to associate it product (in this case atheism) with something virtuous and desirable (e.g. secularism and humanism). The same is true, similarly, of the term free thinker, whose hijacking has been brutal so that it now means almost the opposite of the sum of the words that comprise it. Instead of meaning someone who’s thinking is free, it is now taken as a euphemism for an atheist, and specifically that anyone who indicates that they are in any way religious is ruled out as being a free thinker. But does this stand up scrutiny? Well, the hallmarks of those who think freely is that they are able to come up with their own conclusions. These need not necessarily be different from everyone else’s, but they do not accept on blind trust whatever they are told. (For a further discussion on how blind trust plays no part in christianity, please see my essay, Doubting Thomas And A Scientific Approach To Theology.) But the key is that you will end up with slightly different answers, nuanced by different interpretations of the facts and evidence at hand. So if christians were not free thinkers then what we would expect to see is a uniform belief across Christendom and complete agreement on all matters. Is that what we see? Of course not. A basic opening of the eyes and of looking through history will inform you that people have not always agreed and that people are free to believe and think for themselves. The only exception to this was the catholic church in the middle ages, which was not so much a church as a political body that was intent on clinging onto power in an authoritarian manner. But this was not enough to limit free thought, as the Reformation showed.

So how shall I conclude? The only way to change the usage of words is by repetition and by being as precise as possible. If anyone talks to you and throws about words such as those mentioned above, ask them what they mean by their usage, challenge them. When you use them yourself, check that your audience understand what you mean by them; don’t leave it for them to misinterpret you. So, with all that said: I think I can now safely define myself, without being grossly misunderstood, a secular, humanist christian.

Book review: Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I decided to read this as a follow-on from his excellent The Cost of Discipleship, which is in my opinion, one of the greatest works of Christian apologetics. Knowing Bonhoeffer’s biography, it is obvious that this was his last work before he was murdered, and at times the retrospective knowledge that I had whilst reading it made me cry, especially when Bonhoeffer was hoping for a release in the not-too-distant future.

That said, the start is joyfully mundane, writing to his parents, requesting various reading material, how to keep fit in a prison cell and the joys of cigarettes. He moves on to more correspondence with his niece’s husband, Eberhard Bethge, who later went on to be Bonhoeffer’s biographer. There is a lot here which conveys much more of his humanity and compassion, along with recognitions of his own failings and foibles.

Some of the letters stand out more than others, and these tend to be when Bonhoeffer is questioning the status quo of christianity. He reveals that he was, in the true definition of the terms, a secular humanist, only without the atheistic connotations that we have come to associate with the phrase in recent years. His rejection of religiosity is something that his highly welcome although the evidence of this taking hold as popular thought until much later, with the likes of Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis being the modern expansion of this school of thought.

The only criticism I would have is in the translation. Bonhoeffer was fond of using latin phrases in his writings, but the translators have only included the english translation sporadically, so I had to keep looking up a lot of them, as they were not phrases in common use.

It is an immensely thought provoking collection and I cannot think of anyone I would not recommend this book to.