Debate: What secularism really means

Submitted by Anon on 16 August, 2005 - 10:28

Some points on Maria Exall’s article in Solidarity 3/76.

What is secularism ?

  1. First of all, it is freedom of conscience.

    A secular state is one which doesn’t try to impose any kind of religious or political or philosophical thought.

    It is not “tolerance” or “equality between religions”, it is law guaranteeing the right of all to be religious in one way or another, or to be agnostic, or to be atheist — and the right to change your mind whenever you want!

    In a secular society the state doesn’t worry about what people are thinking, except when it poses a threat to someone : ie when a man is stoning his wife to death on behalf of an established religious or “cultural” tradition. Or when parents refuse their child medical care on grounds of their faith. Or when parents practice “traditional” mutilation of the genitals of young girls. In such cases, secular law ignores what kind of traditional or cultural or religious motives are involved and acts to protect the oppressed and suffering.

  2. The consequence of that freedom of conscience is equality before the law: the law is the same for everyone, with equal rights for all. This equality is impossible where one cult or one ideology has supremacy by law, even a “soft liberal supremacy” like that by which bourgeois-democratic UK says that the unelected head of state is also unelected head of the official church!
  3. The consequences of all this are:
    • No interference of religion in public affairs. Laws should be established by elected representatives after open public debate, with the aim of satisfying the needs of all the people — not by following the “laws of God” and the unquestionable orders of the clergy!
    • A separation between the public space which is the sphere of politics, and the private space which is the place of spirituality and religion (and not just religion, but all sorts of things things like sexual orientation, lobbies, leisure etc. . .)
    • No support of religious activities or clergy with public money!
    • Freedom of conscience means freedom of speech, of the press, of meeting and assembly — and it also means that religious services, even extremely well attended ones, should not take place in public space.
    • Compulsory education for all, with a curriculum teaches pupils about the universe and how to read, write and think for themselves, not think about God.
    • In Britain today, the fight for secularism and democracy means the fight for a republic.
  4. Something to note.

    In a class-divided society, there will never be a perfect secular state! A state which doesn’t worry about what its citizens are thinking, a state which refrains from controlling the conscience is no longer a real state: it is a state that is beginning to wither away! This can’t be achieved under capitalism. Only a classless society can realise full secularism. That means full and real equality, full and real freedom of conscience. No point trying to work out how long religion will survive and when it will disappear.

  5. And what about the Marxists?

    Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky etc wrote a lot of good things this subject which can be summarised as following: we fight against all kinds of oppression, and anything that helps to shield and perpetuate oppression and exploitation is we reject! Everyone who wants to fight for a better future, for reforms, for freedom and emancipation, is on our side whether they think they’re going to Heaven or Hell!

    We deal with the religions views of our fellow workers and activists in the same way that we deal with other reformist or backward views: with patient explanation, with education, with arguments, not with constraint or ultimatum or disdain, but without making any concession on ideas. We teach with arguments and look to the impact that struggle has on people’s outlooks

    But if religious bigots want to stone women or gay people to death, if communal sectarians want to burn the churches of other communities, if racists want to lynch ethnic minorities, if bigots want to bomb clinics where abortion is provided, if the Nazi SA wants to stage a book burning, if the Holy Inquisition wants to exterminate heretics… then we put aside our patient arguments and organise mass self-defence. We fight ideas with ideas and weapons with weapons!

    My point is that there is a world of difference between these expressions of barbarism and the problem of how we relate to other militants who are under religious influence in the struggles and mass mobilisations where we meet them. The first thing we should talk to them about is the purpose and course of the ongoing struggle. After that, not before, we can talk about materialist philosophy and present our full worldview to them.

    A few days ago, on the Arte channel, I saw a good documentary on the problem of the landless in Brazil. I now have some respect for the Catholic priests of the “Commission Pastorale de la Terre”, who gave concrete help to the peasants and the landless against the big landowners and their gunmen — far more than I have for the so-called “Trotskyists” who sit in an office with Lula and do nothing to help the poor and oppressed.

    In July, in France, François Xavier Verschave died: he was not a typical leftist a Catholic Third-Worldist militant, who dedicated his life to exposing and denouncing the crimes of French imperialism and the Fifth Republic in Africa. Whatever our disagreements with him, he was a comrade, a brother in arms.

Olivier Delbeke

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