Q: What Does ‘Secular’ Mean? A: It Means ‘Normal’.

Our words can be our most powerful weapon.

What a train wreck of a week for freedom of speech.

A few strokes of a cartoonist’s pen and a perfectly reasonable desire for a calm discussion about Sharia law led to threats of violence and the cancellation of the talk.

Personally, I am offended at the idea that only the religious can be offended. Nevertheless, I do not threaten people with violence and nor do I expect (or want) the law to silence those who merely offend me. I specifically don’t want that.

I used to work with a thoroughly likeable and professional colleague who was fond of telling me how, “some things are too important to be left to management” (when I was a manager). I tend to agree. Similarly, I believe some things are too important to be left to politicians and in this category firmly belongs freedom of speech.

If you think our politicians can be trusted to defend freedom of speech on our behalf then you really need to get some help, and quickly. And if you think you can rely on journalists, think again. With some highly notable exceptions, when it comes to Islam they will either self-censor out of ‘respect’ or they will actively criticise, condemn and mock those who bravely exercise what charred shreds of freedom of speech they still possess.

Please try and come along to this rally in central London on 11 February organised by One Law For All (details still being finalised).  I’ll be there.

Since starting this blog about a year ago I have, as you might expect, become interested in the actual process of writing. I find it a reasonably smooth process provided I have something to write about; the idea of sitting at a desk to write about an as-yet-undetermined topic is alien to me and one I would probably find unpleasant and stressful.

Once I have jotted down a few bullet points about a topic on a scrap of paper, though, I can get motoring, formulating my thoughts on the screen as I type. I wouldn’t say I just vomit the thoughts and then tidy up the mess, but I suppose I just did. You can probably think of a more elegant metaphor, assuming you’re charitable enough to think my writing is worthy of it.

Whenever I stumble upon a nice piece of writing from history – be it from a writer of fiction, politics, science or anything – I am awe-struck at the lucidity and eloquence of the writer. For whereas I spew some thoughts onto an electronic device and then restlessly yet effortlessly cut and debase them with a few clicks of a rodent, or with Ctrl shortcuts, I realise my predecessors did not have this luxury. The costs to them of such a process, in terms of their time, materials and probably also their mental stability must have been quite prohibitive, so perhaps they first had to formulate their thoughts clearly in their head and then expel them, rather than expel them and then formulate them. Who knows? Maybe, who cares?

Words are incredible. They do much more than just convey their natural meanings to us. They can also subtly encourage us, deliberately or otherwise, to associate certain virtues or vices with, say, certain ideologies.

For example, the term, ‘religious freedom’ – especially in the U.S. – seems to have been hijacked by religious organisations whose idea of religious freedom is the provision of unencumbered freedom and privilege for their exclusive consumption at the expense of serious harm to others (both religious and non-religious). It is, however, the model of secularism, and not theocracy, that provides civilisation’s best shot at religious freedom, its stated aim being to ensure no-one is advantaged or disadvantaged because of their religion or lack of religion.

Another common tactic of religious power-seekers is consistently to use secularism with a pejorative: militant secularism, aggressive secularism, intolerant secularism, and so on. Although the mere use of an adjective to describe a thing does not endow that thing with the intended quality, this can unfortunately still have a lasting effect over a period of time on those who are impressionable or unaware of the relevant arguments.

By contrast, failure to use certain terminology to describe a noun does not mean the noun magically rids itself of the relevant quality. For example, I need not say, ‘institutional child abuse-covering Vatican’ every time I refer to that dysfunctional, inhumane organisation. It is what it is regardless of how I might choose to describe it.

I read a while ago – sorry, I can’t remember the article now – that many people instinctively turn away from secularism because they know ‘it has something to do with religion’. If that’s accurate it really is a tragedy because they might be exactly the type of people who would be interested in secularism and who would support its aims.

It is not my intention to unleash an asymmetric PR war of wordspin because I believe the arguments for secularism work well on their own merits (and that in principle any argument must work on its own merits and not rely on the dark arts of spin), but perhaps we need to use the word ‘secular to mean…‘normal’. Because that’s really what it means.

I have linked to this interesting definition of secularism before, which defines the concept of secularism (in the third paragraph from the bottom) as, “the desire to see a society organised around a common language” (for the purposes of law, politics, etc).

That article also refers to, “a language that is accessible to everyone”. That means no goblins, no wizards, no fires of hell, no rustling up an Earth in seven days, no son of a carpenter who is his own father, and no divine revelations which may or may not have been imparted to cave-dwellers who might have been mentally ill and/or stoned off their mediaeval arse and/or just megalomaniacal liars. If you must insist on using that kind of vocabulary then fine – it won’t be a criminal offence or anything like that (you see, freedom of speech is a good thing) – but you and your argument will be granted precisely as much respect as you and your argument grant my intellect and my desire for rational, evidence-based discourse that everyone can comprehend – even you. Especially you, in fact.

I have on occasion seen ‘secular’ used in this ‘normal’ sense but maybe we just need to pick up the pace every now and then where it is appropriate. We need to refer, simply but powerfully, to our ‘secular courts’, because that is what they are. We need to refer to our ‘secular police force’, because that is what it is. We need to refer to our ‘secular government’, because that is what it (sort of) is. Hopefully, given time, at least some floating voters will realise that secularism is really a desire for some goddam normality in our state institutions and our legal/political interactions, and they might take a deeper interest in it.

One last thing. It annoys me when our politicians can bring themselves to talk of secularism when discussing other countries, primarily because they have concluded this is the least volatile way of saying, “we don’t want those Islamists in power”. How refreshing it would be if they could, just sometimes, use the language of secularism for the United Kingdom – the country that we in our infinite wisdom as voters have elected them to govern.