It’s time to start connecting the dots.
I went to the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year event on Saturday 17 March 2012.
Considering the attendees were intolerant, aggressive, militant political activists holding stridently dogmatic views (for example: all humans have the same legal rights and responsibilities regardless of their religion, if any), the day passed off unbelievably smoothly. Peter Tatchell was the very deserving winner of the annual award and there were more NSS honorary associates than you could shake an incense stick at.
Sometimes it’s easy to get depressed about the secularism project (I mean from the perspective of a secularist rather than a Pope or a jihadist). I literally lie awake some nights wondering how we can communicate with a man-made object hurtling towards interstellar space at approximately 38,200 mph whilst the dignity and rights of the species that launched this loyal, mechanical puppy into the unimaginable nothingness of the cosmos are routinely violated on the basis of theologies of various flavours – all of which are indigestible. I guess as a species we’re not too good at multi-tasking. (Maybe we’re not that intelligent, either: it takes us a year or two to perfect the delicate art of controlled excretion.)
Let’s focus on the positives:
1. The council prayers judgment has really got people thinking about the role of religion in a democracy. When I have spoken to people about that judgment – people who aren’t necessarily interested in secularism – their initial reaction has often been not to agree or disagree with the judgment but to express disbelief that prayers formed part of a council’s formal agenda at all. Many people simply weren’t aware of this, and they almost seemed embarrassed, as democratic citizens, when they discovered it was happening.
2. The debate about equal marriage for homosexuals is another key issue, and my position is that disestablishment and secularism generally is the only possible way of balancing freedom from discrimination against freedom of religion. Dr. Rowan Williams has announced he will be hanging up his cassock (or whatever it’s called, I really can’t be bothered to google it), and as the satirical website Newsthump announced here, the Church of England has started the search for its next raging homophobe. This appointment will be made by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, presumably when they have nothing of any importance to attend to. If, as is likely, the Church whinges about the political interference in this appointment if they don’t get who they want (and since when have all members of any church agreed about anything, anyway?), secularists will be able to say very calmly:
“Funnily enough, we agree with you: politicians should not interfere in your affairs. How about, in return, you don’t interfere in political affairs?”
3. Maybe this is not strictly part of the secularism project, but one cannot help notice that Queen Elizabeth II isn’t getting much younger. I believe most people – be they monarchist, republican or indifferent – would probably agree that Her Majesty has been, and continues to be, a rather good head of state (although her recent not-so-subtle contribution to the council prayers debate was highly undignified). In my view the diligent manner in which she has generally discharged the constitutional duties forcibly bestowed upon her has skewed the debate about the monarchy, or at least ensured it is not a hot topic, precisely because she has been such a well-behaved little queen. A monarch’s normal retirement date typically coincides with his or her date of death, and when the Queen’s time finally comes her son, Charles, will take over the family business. As his mother would have reigned over us for so long at that point, and because all kings are mortal, Charles will have only a very limited time to play on his throne. He will be in an awful hurry to make his mark on history. This time pressure, blended with his complete inability or unwillingness to keep the royal trap shut or to expel anything of significance or coherence when it is opened, will remind people just what an unforgiving lottery the institution of monarchy really is: like religion, anything a monarchy gets rights is generally through luck. Assuming Charles sticks faithfully to the script and makes a complete prick of himself, it is inconceivable that a discussion about how we select our head of state could take place in a vacuum, with no analysis of the head of state’s dual role as supreme governor of an established church. Bring on Charles III, I say. (I am not advocating or condoning regicide.)
4. The metaphor usually employed when discussing constitutional change in this country is that of an oil tanker attempting to alter its course. But this need not be the case in practice. The recent change to the rules of succession, although there are legislative hurdles still to be cleared, was relatively quick and pain-free. Why? Probably because the merits of the argument were simple and formidable: people cannot accept that someone’s gender should count against them when assessing their ability to govern a democracy. It doesn’t require much additional brainpower to conclude that someone’s religion or lack of it should not count against them, either.
Of course, religious institutions and leaders will not give up their privileges easily; the powerful generally don’t. The image I have in my mind, though, is of a precarious structure in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, just about maintaining its structural integrity in the face of overwhelming odds. One rusty screw starts turning, then another, then another. Before long Sir Isaac Newton is doing the rest, and only Usain Bolt with a helping hand from Ben Johnson’s pharmacist can outrun the approaching shadow. When the end finally comes for religious power, maybe it will be very sudden.
Speaking to my fellow secularists on Saturday, during the meal and afterwards at the bar, one of secularism’s key strengths was apparent: as secularists we strive to create a political and legal framework that protects the lawful rights of everyone – even of those people with whom we disagree strongly, such as religious extremists. Which is considerably more than they do for us.
Never mind the achingly transparent hollowness of ‘Do unto others’ or ‘Love thy neighbour’. As secularists we do better unto others. And we love thy enemy.