03 April 2015

Secular schism and dogma

One of the weaknesses of religion is the tendency to lay down dogma and create schism (well illustrated by the Life of Brian scene about the People's Liberation Front of Judea etc.). Unfortunately Secular Societies can exhibit the same weakness.

Our strapline demonstrates the problem - “for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination”. Some Secularists prefer to concentrate on promoting “an inclusive and plural society”, leading to accusation of appeasing the religions by those who prefer to concentrate on campaigning for freedom from “religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination”.

Going back in our history this dichotomy was the cause of a split in the secular movement in the 1860s when many of the secular groups formed in the 1850s disappeared. To quote from “A Chronology of British Secularism” (G.H. Taylor 1957):

“Is the theoretical attack necessary or advisable? That was the problem which did more than any other single factor to split the ranks. Roughly speaking Holyoake said No, Bradlaugh Yes. The former, in his earlier career, often broke his own rule and attacked theology, but as time went on he became more concerned with the fruits of secular philosophy than with its theoretical basis. In his (unpublished) reminiscences Sidney Gimson, son of Josiah Gimson of Leicester, has referred to Holyoake's readiness to placate liberal clergymen for the sake of advancing on common ground.” 
N.B. George Holyoake defined “Secularism” in 1851 and Charles Bradlaugh was the founder of the National Secular Society (NSS) in 1866. Both spoke at the opening of Secular Hall in 1881.

Today, at the national level, this difference is demonstrated in the differing priorities of the NSS and the British Humanist Association (BHA) – Leicester Secular Society being affiliated to both. The BHA is overtly atheist and secular, yet includes in its objectives “The promotion of understanding between people holding religious and non-religious beliefs so as to advance harmonious cooperation in society”.

The NSS by contrast is indifferent as to religious belief but campaigns energetically for a secular state, concentrating on opposing religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.

Currently there has been some controversy over whether or not members should have been involved with the King Richard III re-internment (which can be seen as a community event) or support the reform of the hospital chaplaincy service to make it fully inclusive. My personal preference was to ignore the Richard III hullabaloo and I think that the NHS chaplaincy service should be replaced by properly qualified pastoral support workers. If organisations (including the religions) want to encourage volunteers to act as hospital visitors (subject to proper guidelines) I would not have a problem. However I accept that other secularists can have a perfectly valid differing view.

Some members advocate setting out the “doctrines” of secularism in motions to special meetings and accepting the decision of the majority. Democracy (the worst form of governance apart from all the others, to paraphrase Churchill) means that the majority dictate to the minority. Within a country this works as it is very difficult to leave. In a voluntary society, if you set down narrow requirements that your expect all members to adhere to, many will simply not renew their membership and others will decline to join. Consensus is a much better way to move forward.

Many members take pride in our opposition to fascism. The word derives from the ancient Roman “fasces”, which consisted of  is a bound bundle of wooden rods, sometimes including an axe with its blade emerging. This represented the authority of the civic magistrate and was used for the corporal and capital punishment of those who failed to conform with the rules of those in authority. The point being that whilst an individual rod was weak, a tightly bound bundle or rods is strong. In its modern political incarnation it represents enforced control and conformity of a population (and in some cases, such as the Nazis, racial conformity) which is deemed to give such a society strength.

It would be ironic if Leicester Secular Society were ever to adopt such an approach. I'd suggest that we should welcome diversity and debate within the Society, uniting around our core principals, but not being too prescriptive as to the way in which we expect members to behave or the ideas they espouse.

John Catt