The fight for secularism

Submitted by Matthew on 18 April, 2012 - 8:56

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, spoke to Ira Berkovic.

What’s behind the resurgence in self-confidence on the part of organised religion?

In many ways the apparent resurgence is only apparent and not as real as it seems. The situation is that of a diminishing group of individuals shouting louder rather, than a growing group speaking up with increasing confidence.

However, it is certainly true that in the absence of other easily identifiable and self-promoting groupings, politicians are increasingly turning to ready-made religious groups whose leaders, even though they are often self-appointed, can present themselves as speaking for a large group. Perhaps this is a failure of politics.

In the context of the growth of the far-right, and its “anti-Islamic” or “anti-Muslim” edge, how can anti-racist secularists create a political space that allows for secularist, atheist and humanist criticism of Islam (and all religions) while rejecting/opposing anti-Muslim racism?

It is important to point out that many religious people are secularists — that is, they believe that the shared political life of a diverse community needs to be governed in a way that does not disadvantage or privilege people on grounds of their religion or belief.

Religious people benefit from that as it is what gives them the freedom to believe, worship and dissent as they wish — a freedom that does not exist in non-secular states.

Atheist critiques of theistic religions focus on the fact they are not true, and this is very important, but it may not be very important in political terms.

Humanist critiques of religions focus — as well on the question of truth — on the negative social, cultural and political effects of religions. I think this is helpful in distinguishing humanist critiques of religious belief, religious organisations and their effects from prejudiced stances that use criticism of religion as an avatar for racism.

How much of a problem is “official” or establishment multiculturalism — i.e. the doctrine of boxing off ethno-cultural groups into rigid categories, each presided over by some self-appointed “community leader” who will invariably represent a less-than-progressive institution or organisation? How can we develop a critique of that which defends the idea of a multicultural society but critiques this establishment multiculturalism?

It’s a major problem. Increasingly, the Government is offering strong encouragement to religious groups to take on a role in local communities and to local government to welcome such religious groups as “partners”.

Insofar as these arrangements are no more than what would be offered to any local group with strong links with the local community, they might be acceptable.

Religious groups and communities have been singled out by Government as having a special importance and being in need of special attention and assistance, mostly in isolation from other communities and almost always to the exclusion of the non-religious. This is harmful for two reasons.

Firstly because it wastes the opportunity of social cohesion and other community initiatives focussing on the contribution that all individuals and groups in the community can make and generating cohesion that way.

Secondly, because it encourages separatism and communalist politics. If we move the focus from groups towards individuals and society as a whole then I think we can cut through this.

Some of the criticism of the most high-profile secularists, atheists and humanists — most prominently Richard Dawkins — claims he’s just as “fanatical” as his opponents. How do you see people like Dawkins and others in the so-called “New Atheist” movement?

“Fanatic” suggests a person who sticks to their pet theories and prejudices at all costs and in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It seems impossible to me to apply the word to people whose beliefs are by definition provisional and open to correction when new evidence becomes available.

One of my criticisms of e.g. Dawkins would be that he seems to conceive of religious belief as merely a stupid, wrong idea and that if everyone was an Oxbridge intellectual like him then the world would be fine. How can we develop critiques of religion and religious ideas that also understand them in their material, social context and understand the reasons why people turn to such ideas?

Most people who identify themselves as a member of a religious group do so for reasons other than a sincere doctrinal conviction. There is even evidence to suggest that most people who practice a religion are similarly without profound belief.

The comfortable habit of worship and observance, the solidarity of a community — both real and imagined, the cultural loyalties that generates, the yearning for a better life to come or a bigger story of which we can be part: all these are just as important in the adherence of individuals to religious identities.

If you choose to address these as problems than one possible basis for doing so is that they spring from a false idea and so I don’t think that an emphasis on the lack of a foundation for religious belief in reality is a wrong-headed approach.

I have met many people in the course of my work who have had their religious opinions changed by Richard’s books. If you want to address the other motivations that people have for religious identities — those other than sincere belief — I suppose you need strategies that will provide those things that religious people get from religion, like community and meaning.

What can progressive atheists, secularists and humanists most usefully do in the current climate to reassert basic ideas and values against an apparent resurgence of organised religion and religious ideas?

The purpose of the British Humanist Association is to give support to those with non-religious beliefs and to counter religious privilege and discrimination. I think that non-religious people (who in the UK tend to have views that we could call humanist) need to be more self-confident in seeing their own worldview as coherent and respectable, rich in values and in ways of making meaning in life.

I think that secularists — religious and non-religious — need to be robust in making the case for a politics that treats us all as equal citizens of a single community rather than as members of groups, privileging religious categories.

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