The National Secular Society want secularism, but what does that mean?
The current paper edition of the Catholic Herald carries my interview with the president of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson. This was commissioned by the editor as one of a series of interviews the paper is running in which the Catholic Church encounters its critics.
The NSS has recently published a Secular Charter, much of which a Catholic can support. For example, secularists want the state to stop interfering in religious matters in which they have no competence. This seems absolutely right to me. Luckily for us, the Catholic Church in the UK is not in any way subject to the state, unlike the Anglicans. You may remember David Cameron telling the Anglican Church to “get with the programme” over women bishops. That the Prime Minister should make his views on doctrine known when acting in his capacity as prime minister is simply outrageous. But Britain has a long tradition of state interference in religion, going back to before the Reformation. Hence, if we were a secular country – one in which the state was entirely neutral with regard to belief – then we would be free from this embarrassing posturing from our elected leaders.
So, really there is no real quarrel about the autonomy of the secular as such, nor can they be. The real flashpoint in the Secular Charter is going to be the question of state-funded Catholic education. This in turn opens up another question: what would a purely secular education look like? What exactly are the values that underpin secularity?
When I spoke to Terry Sanderson about Christian Democracy, he asked why democracy needed any adjective in front of it. It seems quite clear to me, though, that democracy as a method of choosing a government and governing is not necessarily bound to produce good outcomes: even when a majority of people vote for something, that does not necessarily make that thing good of itself. In practice, I know, evil legislation rarely is imposed by a free and fair vote; usually when people are given a free and fair vote, they choose something that is good, but not always. A huge swell of popular opinion carried Britain into the First World War – a disastrous decision by politicians that nevertheless had enormous popular backing. The crowd on Good Friday voted for Barabbas to be set free and for the judicial murder of Jesus. Another overwhelming decision, but a very bad one.
Popular decision making, like any sort of decision-making, has to be informed by values if it is to be morally good. So you do need an adjective before democracy – Christian democracy, social democracy, and so on. Democracy without an underpinning value system and without a strong commitment to human rights becomes just another form of oppression – the oppression by the majority of the minority. In fact a values-free democracy would be the worst tyranny of all, in that the minority would have no recourse against the justification “This is what the majority wants, just accept it and shut up!” And indeed that is what much of out public conversation boils down to nowadays. If you lose the vote, you are told to get with the programme. Even if you win it too, in the case of the women bishops.
If a democracy tries to run on empty, the effects are catastrophic. Look at the democratically elected Berlusconi! Again, recourse to the secular alone cannot really guarantee fairness. All the Soviet bloc countries were secular, but they were hardly just and fair societies or the sort of place anyone would rationally choose to live.
As for Christian Democracy, my contention – and it is backed up by much historical evidence – is that Christian values enhance democratic government, and do not diminish it. The Federal Republic of Germany is a Christian Democrat nation, not perfect, but not a bad place to live.
Terry Sanderson is not just a secularist, he is also an atheist. You do not have to be the latter to be the former, and some atheists are supporters of religion in some forms, seeing it as socially useful. The NSS supported the “Protest the Pope” campaign, which was, Terry Sanderson told me, directed at Benedict XVI personally: it was the perceived dogmatism of the man Ratzinger that they wished to contest, not the office of Papacy. What it was about Benedict XVI that riled them so particularly, I was not able to discover (by that stage in the conversation, we were running out of time). I pointed out that Benedict XVI was no more dogmatic than any other Pope. I wonder if the strong antipathy that he aroused among secularists was in fact a backhanded compliment? Were they protesting against this Pope because they saw him as a threat? Did they see his presentation of the Christian gospel as a particularly dangerous one, that is, dangerously enticing?
Finally, as I reflect on the experience of meeting Terry Sanderson, I have to say that ours was a friendly meeting. Some readers may take the view that I should have played hardball with Terry. Well, I did not, and that was a conscious decision, and one that I think paid off. We both came away with something from the meeting, I hope, a greater mutual understanding. Playing hardball is largely counterproductive. In this I have the backing of no less an authority than St Francis de Sales, who said that one catches more flies with a single drop of honey than one does with a whole barrel full of vinegar.