The recent controversy about the court action to ban prayers at council meetings has brought to light an important issue, whether or not secularists are trying to force religion out of the public arena by using the equality laws. The secularist case seems to be that religion is a purely private matter, and so should be restricted to private life. The consequence of this must be that public matters, such as political affairs, would be conducted in terms of secular [non-religious] values. The rationale for this position is that secularism is a common denominator for all participants in society and that religious ideas are extras grafted onto a common secular basis, and so can be dispensed with.
A stronger version of this view is to believe that religion is divisive and that it should therefore be kept out of the public arena. If we all abided by a common set of secular values, religious squabbles and disputes would fade away and we would have social peace. Of course, this argument would work if we all were Muslims, Christians, Jews or Buddhists, etc, so what a secularist is really saying is that society should have a common set of values, which are obviously his own. This leads us to postulate that this is really secularist proselytisaton dressed up in egalitarian terms.
The religious case is that in using the equality laws secularists are engaging in what is tantamount to persecution of views which they dislike by trying to prevent them from accessing the public arena and are therefore using equality laws for a purpose for which they were not intended and for which they should not be intended.
Religions also point out that religious views are not merely extras grafted onto secularist ideas, as the two sets of beliefs are fundamentally at odds with each other. They derive their views from different sources and they aim for different goals. They live by different values. While there is some overlap, the two systems do not share a common basis, so they cannot agree to work on anything other than a limited set of shared values, so the secularist case is quite weak.
The claim that religion is divisive and that we can esape quarrels by having a common secularists approach is an intellectual sleight of hand, as the secularists are quite wrongly excluding themselves from the clash of ideas. They cannot sit out of the clash of ideas in godlike superiority. They are as much part of it as religions are.
Societies can be divided into ideological societies and liberal democracies. The former privilege one system of belief, be it religious or otherwise. Examples would be the Soviet Union and all communist states, Saudi Arabia, Nazi Germany, whereas the latter would be any society that gave equal scope for all religious and philosophical views to flourish. These societies would follow the general teaching of John Stuart Mill, who argued for minimum interference in the liberty of others to live according to their lights. Paradoxically, Mill was an atheist, but was so tolerant that he has little or nothing in common with the modern secularists who are at the heart of the clash with Christianity.
The problem with the secularist case is that it fails to distinguish between secularism and pluralism. A secularist society privileges non-religious and/r anti-religious beliefs. By pressing for religions beliefs and practices to be excluded from public life they are privileging the secularist belief system and are therefore attempting to create an ideological society in which their views and therefore they themselves are privileged over those whith whom they disagree.Their approach, which purports to be egalitarian, is therefore anti-egalitarian and discriminatory.
Secularists fail to distinguish between a secular society and a secularist society. A Secular society does not privilege religion and allows no religious orgabisations to exercise control over the state, whereas a secularist society orivileges the philosophy of secularism by insisting that the state be run on secularist lines and no religious input into politics should be permitted. Whereas religous beliefs can flourish in a secular society, the secularist society is designed to prevent them from flourishing. It therefore is an affront to equality as it favours one group of citizens and their beliefs over others.
J.S. Mill would have wanted a pluralist society, in which all beliefs, religious or otherwise, are allowed an expression in the public arena and in which all individuals and groups are fully at liberty to express themselves and promote their way of life by peaceful and non-coercive means. The advantage of the a pluralist society is that it allows everyone to be happy and fulfilled, whereas an ideological society, in which one philosophy is privileged, results in someone being happier and more fulfilled than others are. In an ideal society no beliefs should be excluded from the public arena. Strangely, John Stuart Mill, an atheist, is a great help to modern religious thinkers trying to assert their rights. The pluralist society is a society that promotes the happiness and equality of all. It is the one for which we must all strive.
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