What is secularism?
Posted on July 15, 2011
The latest question posed by The Guardian in its “Comment is Free” section is: “What is secularism?” David Pollock has logged one of the better responses, arguing that secularism is essentially about two things: government neutrality and naturalistic public policy. Below are relevant passages to support these two positions, though I encourage you to click through and read the entire article.
1. Government should be neutral towards religion and atheism.
… the state, the law and the public institutions we all share must be neutral towards different religions and beliefs. On questions of profound disagreement and deep sensitivity where there is no agreed way to establish the truth or falsehood of the claims made variously by Christians, Muslims, humanists and everyone else, it is quite wrong for the state to throw its weight behind any one particular religion or belief. This neutrality is what is meant by secularism. It is a political principle applicable to states: a secular state may be supported by religious believers and be the home of widespread religious belief. Indeed, secularism is the best guarantee of freedom of religion or belief – but the enemy of religious privilege. It must be distinguished from a secular society, a term that suggests a society that has distanced itself from religion.
2. Public policy should be based on natural world reasoning and evidence (i.e., science and reason, not holy texts or faith).
What secularists do say is that in debates on public policy purely religious arguments should carry no weight. In a Voltaire-like defence of freedom of expression, we absolutely do not wish to suppress or forbid such arguments being voiced – but we do say that by convention they should count for nothing in the minds of politicians and decision-makers. By all means let the religious argue, say, against assisted dying with warnings of a slippery slope – an argument we can all understand and assess – but if they argue that life is the gift of God and that it is not for us to take it away, then in the process of public decision-making their words should be ignored. Such arguments cannot be legitimately admitted in a society where there are so many competing beliefs that reject its very premises.
Let the religious draw their motivation from their religion, let them encourage each other by citing its doctrines, but let them in the public square speak in a language everyone can understand. Similarly, no atheist should expect any attention to arguments premised on the nonexistence of God.