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.