Why a Secular State is a Better State
There are few sights more excruciatingly painful than that of Michael Gove pitifully leaning over the lectern trying to explain the significance of Ramadan and why it might be particularly hard for Muslims celebrating this year, due to social distancing measures.
I have always found it uncomfortable seeing politicians try overly hard to appeal to any particular religious group, I have always seen it as blatantly disingenuous. Politicians briefed for 5 minutes before producing a token video for their twitter feeds screams ‘mere formality’ rather than real sincerity. Religion should be left to the religious leaders, and politics to the politicians.
That brings me to the purpose of this post – to argue that religion has no part to play in the affairs of the state.
1. Why Secularism?
Secularism is not anti-religious. Secularism is the only way a multi-cultural, fantastically diverse society can flourish, giving people of all faiths and none equal footing. It encourages tolerance, education and diversity. The clearest example of the bias towards Christianity within the legislature of our society is the 26 seats in the House of Lords reserved for the most senior Anglican bishops - the only other country to ringfence seats in its legislature for clerics is Iran. This archaic bias towards Christianity is no longer a fair representation of the demographic of our country and it needs to change.
In the 2011 census, 59% or residents in England and Wales described themselves as Christian when asked ‘what is your religion?’, down from 72% in 2001. I somehow question whether this figure will be above 50% at the time of the next census. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, in 2018 70% of people aged 18-24 said they have no religion. It is clear that Christianity within the UK is dwindling. The UK has a pluralist religious landscape, and for so long as the Church and State remain intertwined, the state cannot truly function in the egalitarian manner it should.
2. Secularism and Education
In the UK, children begin primary school aged five. Many primary schools in the UK are faith schools – which discriminate in terms of employment for staff, and admissions for children who, to reiterate, are five years old. Five-year-old children are discriminated against by state-funded institutions because they are the ‘wrong faith’.
Now let’s take a hypothetical example: that children from families who support different political parties, or different football teams, or any other easily distinguishable group are separated aged five and educated in exclusive institutions. It isn’t difficult to see the level of unnecessary segregation and needless hostility this would manifestly cultivate in society.
We generally accept that teachers should not be overtly partisan when it comes to politics, why is this not the same for religion? Faith schools have autonomy over their religious education syllabus, there is no obligation to study any religion other than their own. This represents a misfiring of the very purpose of the school system – which should be to educate, not to indoctrinate. The religiosity of a belief should not preclude it from being discussed, challenged and scrutinised in the classroom. All children need to learn about all religions most common to our society, and respect the right to follow any, or none of them.
3. ‘Cultural Christianity’
Purely by virtue of our countries culture and history which is so deeply rooted in Christianity, anyone raised here will, to some degree, be a ‘cultural Christian’. We’re used to our holidays being based around Christmas and Easter. Richard Dawkins, a figurehead of atheism said he liked ‘singing carols along with everybody else’. However, for many these times of year now go far beyond their religious roots. Even for those who are non-religious, Christmas keeps its significance as an important time to spend with family.
The Christian influence within this country cannot, and should not be forgotten – but this does not mean it needs to dictate the future of our country. I am not suggesting that when Prince Charles ascends to the throne that a Holiday Inn function room would be a more suitable venue than Westminster Abbey. Although there is no longer a need for Anglican bishops to be a part of the legislature. The state can sever ties with religion, whilst maintaining a broadly ‘culturally Christian’ way of life.
4. More contentious issues
Dieu et mon droit (God and my right) appears on the royal coat of arms – indicating a God-given right to rule. If the head of state derives their right to rule from God, then what happens when God and the state have no business hanging out anymore?
The roots of secularism in France come from the French revolution. However, it is possible that the monarch could remain head of state and head of the church with them being two distinct, separate entities. Prince Charles did suggest he may adopt the title ‘Defender of Faith’ rather than the traditional title held by the monarch as ‘Defender of the Faith’, although he has since stated he intends to keep the traditional title.
France’s Laïcité (secular state) does not permit ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols including the hijab, the kippah and ‘large’ Christian crosses. I believe this to be excessive, although the justification being that these symbols create a barrier to us seeing each other as mere equal citizens, rather than religious individuals.
A Secular State is one that works for everyone. A state that isn’t biased towards Christianity from the top down. A state that permits all faiths and none. A secular state would be a better state.
I welcome any thoughts on this post.