19 February 2012
In Defence of Secularism
Bishop Tim Stevens, writing in his February's Mercury column, worries about the erosion of Christianity from public life. He suggests that secularism, i.e. the separation of the church and state, threatens the whole fabric of the church. However, one only has to take a look across the pond to America to realise that a secular constitution will not impede the practice of religion, in fact quite the reverse! As the bishop mentions in his article, the ruling on council prayers will not prohibit groups of people from praying before council meetings, if they so wish. The ruling just upholds the right of individuals in office not to be forced to take part in religious practices. Personally, I would not dream of forcing my own ideology upon others.
I suspect that the real reason for advocating keeping the church and state together is that this arrangement best suits the interests of the church, as the religious customs of the state help to promote the church’s message and give it credibility it would otherwise not enjoy. The bishop’s position is, therefore, not motivated out of fairness for other religions and beliefs but purely out of interest for his own church. It is true that the constitutional arrangement between church and state is a long established part of our history. However, so was public hanging. Simply because an arrangement has been present for centuries does not mean it is fit for the 21st century.
Secularism is not about getting rid of Christianity. In fact, secularism serves to protect all religions equally and to defend the right of people to practice whatever faith/belief they wish. What secularists are against are the privileges the church enjoys, which are purely down to an accident of history, rather than anything else.
I think the church is behind its own decline - not militant secularists. For example, the church has been slow to change the format of its services, which are not that appealing to the younger generation. Maybe this failure to change is due to the fact that the activities of the church here are largely subsidised, like some nationalised industries were. In America, churches don't own assets, like land etc., so have been quicker to adapt to bring in revenue.
Nobody seems to be discussing the fact that the decline in Christianity has not been as great as the decline of the Anglican Church. The difference is that a great number have moved into the happy-clappy set of the new evangelical churches.
The revival of the fortunes of the Catholic Church, against a background of appallingly widespread child abuse by sex-starved priests, can be attributed to Eastern European immigration, while the many Christians from Africa and the Caribbean favour the evangelical churches and weirder forms of Christianity where witchcraft still pervades daily life.