Now is no time to lose faith in secularism


Occasionally, late-night TV delivers one of those eye-popping moments that jerk you out of your Jason recliner. The ABC program ‘The Big Picture: With God on Our Side’ delivered such a moment a couple of weeks ago when it showed George Bush defending his childcare policy. ‘Heck,’ said the Prez (I’m paraphrasing from memory here), ‘the handbook on raising children has already been written.’ He grabbed a Bible, which happened to be handy, flourished it. ‘And you can’t improve on that!’

I couldn’t believe it. I was horrified. Perhaps I’d dozed off and was dreaming.
But then I’m the kind of person columnist Frank Devine recently described as ‘secular fundamentalists’, those who have, as Frank sees it, ‘been squeaking and clutching their skirts, like neurotic virgins frightened by a flasher’ over the mere existence of Family First, and the appearance of God in our own recent election campaign.
An amusing coinage, but I’ll wear it.

Secularism is, after all, fundamental to democracy and freedom. On the other charges, I demur. I don’t fear Family First, or a burgeoning evangelical community in Australia. An outbreak of church lamington drives can only improve the quality of my life. No one expects to see John Howard digging around in Revelations any time soon looking for a monetary policy.
But I do worry about Australian secularism: the thought that we might allow one of our greatest achievements to drift away truly makes me clutch my skirt.

As you’d expect, Frank Devine’s raspberry-blowing use of ‘secular’ has some scriptural authority. Secular, says The Shorter Oxford, is used ‘chiefly as a neg. term, with the meaning non-ecclesiastical, non-religious, or non-sacred.’ But the good book leaves it up to us to determine whether ‘secularism’ is pejorative: ‘1. The doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state.’

Fiercely anti-religious states like the former USSR tend to get confused with secularism and so give it a bad name. In fact, secularism isn’t anti-clerical. It’s the spirit of secularism which allows us to worship as we please. Secularism is what makes going to church, mosque, your dreaming tree or the ouija board, safe.

It is the spirit of secularism that gives church leaders their rightful voices in public debate, and guarantees state funding for our faith-based schools. And as an atheist, I rely on our secular tradition to ensure that Frank Devine can only talk about flashing me, and not actually do it.
A wonderful thing, in other words.
But secularism is looking a bit tired, both here and abroad. Why?

Perhaps the problem is that secularism is usually defined as that which it thankfully isn’t: theocracy, or milder variants thereon. By that account, secularism means -and only means – we can shop wherever we like without being heckled by Mullahs or Moonies. To quote Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?

There’s a strangely complacent feeling abroad that the Western liberal way of life is somehow philosophically empty. Paul Berman concluded his magnificent essay in The New York Times Magazine last year on the ideas of the Islamist scholar Sayyid Qutb with this thought:
It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas – it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb …
The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas?
Strikes a chord, doesn’t it?

Not just with those of us yearning for some deeper meaning, but with hard-headed internationalists too. Historian Eric Hobsbawm notes: ‘a society consisting of an otherwise unconnected assemblage of self-centred individuals pursuing only their own gratification (whether this is called profit, pleasure or by some other name) was always implicit in the theory of the capitalist economy.’

In the aftermath of our historically value-less election campaign, there’s been a lot of soul-searching, and even some searching for a national soul. Frank Devine argues – rightly, I think – that it is the electoral muscle of Christian groups in US national politics which forces moral issues into that national debate. ‘For us, domestic issues in politics means economics.

To Americans domestic issues include moral issues – the morality of war, of abortion, of social exclusion.’
But religions do not have a monopoly on ethics or morality. And at this moment in history the world could do with less theology in its politics, not more.
The spirit of secularism might be a good place to start looking for that national soul and a platform for moral debate.

There are profound values implicit in secularism. Secularism puts laws derived from the common consent and moral standards of the people above partisan values. It remains splendidly indifferent to sectarian pushiness; it is instinctively suspicious of latter-day tin-pot theologies (take your pick: management theory, economic rationalism, interest-rate worship…) It prefers doubt over certainty.

For that reason, secularism is not flashy or heroic. No cavalry charges. Secularism can look like an unworldly footy umpire: long-suffering, hesitant, difficult to provoke. It produces some eye-rolling gems, such as the decision of the Royal Navy this week formally to recognise Satanism as the religion of one of its sailors.

When it does get heavy-handed, as in France recently, with the insistence that public school students do not wear visible religious symbols, it can come off looking like a bully.
But take the Salman Rushdie case. When Iran’s Ayatollah woke up one morning, scratched himself, yawned, and condemned to death a citizen of the free world, secularish Britain might have been forgiven for boxing his ears.

Instead, it muttered about what a poor show it was to condemn a fellow to death, but really, couldn’t this dashed Rushdie just keep quiet?
Yet Britain spent a lot of money keeping Rushdie alive. He’s still alive today. Just as importantly, and in a similarly bumbling, diffident, mealy-mouthed way, Britain’s secular liberalism avoided a lasting breakdown in relations between British Muslims and the wider community.

Bumbling, prevaricating, trying to find consensus, live-and-let-live waffling: that’s how secularism does its profound work. Secularism is good at the difficult stuff: like working out how to share the real world.
Perhaps secularism seems so bland as a moral idea because of the way that liberal democracies like ours settled on it by default, gently prising God’s fingers off the statute books, slowly absorbing its principles into various laws and rights.

We seem to have ended up with secularism because there was no other fair way of managing equal citizenship in a plural society; no other reasonable way to share a globe overrun with jealous gods. Secularism doesn’t seem to stand for anything.
But of course it does. Secularism embraces all of us in its insistence on fairness here and now on the beautiful, benighted Earth we share, not in the afterlife which we don’t.
In Australia we’re lucky that secularism provides the moral atmosphere of our political life. But we need to keep an eye on it. It can be undermined, even in well-meaning ways.

So that, for instance, while the overwhelming majority of the public works performed by religious groups in this country are extremely valuable, and often performed by selfless volunteers, things like social services policy or provision must never be left up to groups which do not answer to all of us.

Secularism: the rule of law equally over all citizens in this life, not the next. Now that’s something to believe in.

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