One of the common themes that arises when discussing politics is the issue of religion within political discourse and legislation. For every person who argues for the separation of church and state, there’s another who decries the removal of prayer from schools. There is a lot of debate over the level of influence that religion should have within the political realm—whether the government should be strictly secular or not. But I would like to argue that secularism1 is a cause that everyone—religious folks included—should support.
Let’s be clear about one thing right from the start: secularism is not the same as atheism. Like atheism, secularism is a lack of endorsement of any particular religion. But unlike atheism, secularism is a neutral stance on all religious issues, whereas atheism advocates a particular view (that those religions are probably wrong). To put it in chocoholic terms, the religions would advocate a preference for milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or white chocolate as the most delicious kind; the atheist would say they don’t care for chocolate at all; but the secularist would say they have no preference for any particular type of chocolate. And they certainly wouldn’t declare National Dark Chocolate Day.
I think it seems pretty straightforward that secularism would benefit non-religious people, but why exactly should religious people support it? I think there are several reasons. The first is likely most obvious: non-majority religions can certainly benefit from a secular government. Which would be better for a tiny population of Jews: a secular government, neutral on matters of religion; or an explicitly Christian government? Or which would be better for a tiny population of Christians: a secular government, or an Islamic government? The answers seem pretty clear. Religious oppression is manifestly evident from history, with seemingly every religion in existence having experienced at one point or another some form of oppression from governments which actively advocated a different religion. The religions were forced underground, practicing in secret, and in some cases the adherents were compelled to flee the country to escape genocide. And even in countries with little risk of these extreme cases, a secular government will still refrain from inconveniencing you with religious activities that are irrelevant for your own beliefs. No matter what religion you practice, if you do not enjoy the majority, you are likely much better off with a secular government.
I had a teacher/principal in my private Christian high school who enjoyed imparting wisdom (read: religious indoctrination) onto his students. I no longer agree with much of what he said, but one of his remarks in particular I still hold as true. In spite of running a tiny private school that struggled to make ends meet, he often said he did not want government assistance. At various times, there would be discussion on the news about funding religious schools, but he pointed out that if religious schools accepted government funding, they would also have to accept more government influence about what was taught. He believed it to be important for his school to remain free from government influence.2 By keeping church and state separate, not only does the church stay out of the state, but the state also stays out of the church.
I think that is an astute point, and a second reason for religious people to support secularism. A secular government makes no demands of its religious citizens other than to uphold the common law of the land. The only time when the two come into conflict is when a religion includes rituals or other actions that violate these laws. (Child sacrifice, for example, wouldn’t cut it in most countries.) Otherwise, the religion is free to do as it pleases without interference, and in return, the political realm remains free of interference from particular religions.3 So, for religious people who enjoy being able to practice their religion in peace, secularism holds the key.
A Sect of Self-Interest
With these points in mind, it seems to me as though the only real reason not to support secularism is because you wish for your own religious beliefs to have explicit preference in your country. I have heard the argument that governments should reflect the views of the majority when it comes to religion. But even in a “Christian nation” where the majority of citizens are Christian, that doesn’t mean that the minorities’ rights to religious freedom should be ignored. As an analogy, the majority of Canadians are White. Does that mean that the rights of people of other races should be ignored? Or that we should introduce White-favourable policies? Of course not. Rights are universal, and they must be respected even when a large majority exists.
So the idea that one’s own religious beliefs should have preference in one’s country strikes me as incredibly selfish. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Can you imagine the uproar from Christians if Canada instituted policies endorsing Islam? (Actually, there’s no need to imagine; there’s already an uproar here and elsewhere from the alleged threat of sharia law.) Can you imagine having your tax money spent to fund Jewish schools? How about having your tax money spent on a giant statue of Buddha to put on Parliament grounds? Or imagine being a non-believer and having your tax money spent on funding the Catholic education system. This right here is an appeal to basic human decency: Use your empathy and put yourself in anothers’ shoes. Think about what it can be like when your own government (the people who are supposed to represent you) endorses, through word or deed, another religion over yours. Think about what you might feel if your own government spent money to indoctrinate your children with religious beliefs different from your own. A neutral playing field is the only way to ensure fairness and respect for everyone’s rights. To advocate anything else is advocating one’s own selfish gain over others’ loss.
Some Final Words
Secularism is not the monster it is often made out to be by various religious pundits and pastors. It does not prevent anyone from practicing their religion. One example that immediately springs to mind is the uproar that occurred when the US and Canada took out public prayer from schools. I still get the occasional email forward about it. But the fear-mongering about “not allowing anyone to pray in schools” is simply unwarranted. Nothing is stopping any student or teacher from praying to God as an individual act. All these laws did was to prevent official public prayer time. And think about it: I’m sure the Muslim parents weren’t happy that their children were being told to pray to Jesus, and the non-religious parents certainly weren’t enthused either. Having a secular government, then, does not prevent the private practice of one’s religious beliefs. All it does is remove it from having official, public status and authoritative endorsement. Religions have managed to survive and thrive with much less.
- When I use the term “secularism” here, I mean it in a somewhat restricted sense. It would be more accurate to use the term disestablishmentarianism, but that is just too much of a hassle to write out. At any rate, in the context of this article I will use “secularism” to refer only to the separation of politics and religion. I wouldn’t expect religious people to endorse the broader form of secularism that would include the removal of religious influence from society at large, so I won’t be discussing that here. [↩]
- Of course, he was very inconsistent with this point. He wanted government to stay out of his school, but yet he often decried the failure of the government to uphold traditional Christian values. One wonders if he ever noticed the double standard. [↩]
- Of course, this is in an ideal world. In the real world, even countries with explicit rules about the separation of church and state still often have annoying intrusions from both parties. But that doesn’t negate the importance of an ideal to work toward. [↩]