Calling Religious People: Wanna be in my Gang?

What makes a religious person secular?

Having a blog is SO MUCH FUN.

I particularly like the “stats” page, which shows the actual search terms people have used to end up here.

There was a great one the other day:

“What the fuck does secular mean”

It’s rare to see such apparent curiosity laced with impatient aggression/aggressive impatience. Who would have entered this into their search engine, I wondered. Perhaps it was someone who complains endlessly about militant, aggressive and intolerant secularism who has finally decided to discover what it means. If so, credit to him or her for taking the time to do the research.

There are common assumptions or mistakes people make about secularism.

Many people (religious and non-religious alike) often assume religious people cannot possibly support secularism. This is fundamentally incorrect. At its heart secularism is a political ideology which says people of all faiths and of no faith have exactly the same legal rights and responsibilities, which subsequently means the state has to be neutral on religious matters.

It’s perfectly possible for someone to practice a religious faith within these parameters, and many do. What these parameters won’t allow, though, is for the believer to infringe the rights of others (such as not allowing someone to exercise their freedom of speech to criticise or mock the religious ideology), and nor will it allow state sponsorship of that religion (such as the provision of faith schools).

Quite often this misunderstanding of secularism is made in good faith (sorry). It can be really difficult to understand secularism because much of the debate’s terminology is used sloppily and interchangeably. Very specific terms such as atheism, humanism and secularism can be picked at random from a tombola and thrown into a sentence without a moment’s thought, and the mischievous use of pejoratives such as “aggressive” isn’t exactly helpful, either.

Secularists themselves also make certain assumptions or mistakes about secularism. There can be a tendency amongst some secularists to assume a religious person can only be secular if they have a very mild level of religiosity or devotion: perhaps the believer hardly ever visits their place of worship, if at all; perhaps they don’t pray every night, or as many times a day as they should; perhaps they don’t face the right direction when they pray; perhaps they eat and drink things they shouldn’t; perhaps they use electricity at times of the week they shouldn’t; and perhaps they even insert their genitals into places and people they shouldn’t. You get the idea: there’s a vague assumption that the religious can’t be too devout if they’re to be considered secular, and/or that they must have very liberal religious views.

Personally, I think this misses the point. For a believer, being secular is not about the level of religious devotion, or even the religious views themselves. It’s about the believer’s views of how the state ought to treat them and others.

What qualifies someone as headcase material, and what also disqualifies them from being secular, is:

(a) wanting special legal or constitutional privileges based on their religious identity or religious views, and

(b) by definition as a consequence of (a), wanting a legal licence to infringe the lawful rights of others.

Note that this holds true even if the person is only “mildly” or “liberally” religious.

I know people – family, even – who are deeply religious. Daily visits to places of worship. Frequent (and repeated) visits to places of pilgrimage. Avoidance of perfectly edible (and delicious) food for lengthy periods of time. Weekly study of a holy book.

And whilst their thoughts tend to be occupied more by religion than (as in my case) secularism, when I discuss these issues with them we often find we share crucial common ground – once we’ve debunked the common misconceptions and untruths in circulation.

Together we establish they don’t expect, and specifically do not want, special treatment from the state. They just want to practice their religion in safety, free from discrimination and harassment. Which is precisely what I want for them. And together we also establish they have no desire whatsoever to infringe the lawful rights of others. And I don’t want them to, either.

In my book, I reckon that makes us both secular.