Secularism is hostile to state religion, not religion

Separation of church and state is a basic democratic demand bitterly resisted by the British establishment, writes Eddie Ford

The state's right hand

If you were to believe some sections of the establishment, a terrible threat to the British way of life has emerged. A peril so deadly that the beloved customs and rituals which define us as a nation could be swept away - relegating centuries of glorious history to the rubbish heap.

What is it? A new wave of Polish plumbers or armies of New Age travellers? Underground Islamist terrorist cells maybe? No, “fundamentalist” secularists and “aggressive” atheists, we are told - of which Richard Dawkins is the ultimate personification, of course. The secular bogeyman. For example, this fear or paranoia was recently articulated in the pages of the high-church Daily Telegraph - where else? - by baroness Warsi, the Tory Party co-chairwoman. She painted a near nightmarish picture of a British society suffocating under a rising tide of “militant secularisation” that was reminiscent of “totalitarian regimes” - where “religion is sidelined”, “marginalised” and increasingly “downgraded” in the public sphere.[1] Warsi may be a Muslim, but she found it “astonishing” that the European Union constitution makes “no mention of god or Christianity” - as if you could “extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations”.

Instead, she argued, Europe needs to be “more confident in its Christianity”. However, the secularist rot has gone deep - so much so that in “recent years”, she writes, a succession of governments have “undermined” and even “attacked” religion/faith: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Major, etc are all presumably to blame for this insidious spread of irreligion. Now, if we are to believe the baroness, this “militant secularisation” is eating away at British society like a cancer. Apparently growing in size, its aggressive and intolerant advocates can pop up anywhere - spreading their alien and dangerous doctrine. Even in places where you least expect it.

Council prayers

Such as Bideford. Yes, you heard right. Bideford in North Devon (population 14,599), where the New Year’s Eve tradition is attempting to run across the Long Bridge in the time it takes for the bells at nearby St Mary’s church to chime midnight and whose only claim to fame, perhaps, is that Stuart Anstis - one-time lead guitarist with black metal band, Cradle of Filth - went to school there.

What so rattled the establishment and its loyal press was the decision on February 10 by Mr Justice Ouseley in the high court to rule in favour of Clive Bone, a former member of Bideford council and a local hero to some if not for others. Supported by the National Secular Society, Bone - a life-long atheist - objected to the fact that five years ago he was summoned to prayers as a formal part of the council’s duties (ie, item number one on the agenda). Indeed, he was “shocked and horrified” when he first discovered that prayers were said at the beginning of every council meeting - and that you had to participate, regardless of whatever belief or non-belief you had. However, when proposing that the practice be ended, he was voted down twice by the council.

In Bone’s opinion, quite correctly, such a system of institutionalised Christianity was authoritarian and inherently anti-democratic. For him, a regime of compulsory prayers - apart from turning everyone into a hypocrite - sends out the wrong signal: that local government is just for “particular types of people” and “not for everyone”. Especially younger people, Bone explains, who may lose all desire to get involved in local politics or stand for elections when they hear about such anachronistic nonsense.

Justice Ouseley agreed with Bone and the NSS. Or, rather, he ruled that whilst the holding of prayers did not breach ‘human rights’ or equality laws as such, Bideford council had no statutory powers to hold prayers during council meetings. Specifically, Ouseley decided that local authorities have no powers under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers as “part of a formal local authority meeting” or to “summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda”. Continuing, he said that prayers before a formal meeting of such a body are lawful, “provided councillors are not formally summoned to attend”. In other words, the state - local government in this case - could not or should not impose a religious duty (or burden) upon an individual or discriminate in favour of any faith or denomination. Believe it or not, not everyone in Bideford - or every other small British town - is a Christian.

Naturally, Keith Porteous Wood - the NSS’s chief executive - welcomed the “ringingly secular decision” made by the court. If Ouseley’s ruling was acted upon throughout the UK, stated Wood, then “no-one will be disadvantaged” or “feel uncomfortable” in performing their duties as an elected councillor in meetings. Inclusivity, not exclusivity. Wood is hoping, along with communists, that the high court judgement will act as a precedent - given that as many as half of local councils in the UK are believed to hold prayer sessions as part of their formal proceedings. With regard to Bideford, the prayers were actually minuted. Absences noted.

However, Bideford’s secular revolution has generated outrage, both locally and nationally. Instant theocratic counterrevolution, UK-style. The Christian Institute, which has given “financial support” to Bideford town council, lamented how the practice of saying prayers at Bideford council meetings dates back to the days of Queen Elizabeth I and how “extraordinary” it was that Justice Ouseley - and the NSS - believe that local councils “have no lawful authority to choose, if they so wish, to start their formal meetings with prayers”. It bitterly added that the “logic” of the ruling is that councils would also be “going beyond the law” if they “decided to start each formal council meeting with the national anthem”. If only.

Tony Inch, a Bideford councillor, was more forthright about the “shock” ruling. Such decisions are “eroding the whole basis of Christian life” in the country, he claimed, making out he was “baffled” that anyone could object to prayers being said. After all, he went on, on the evening before the judgement a group of Quakers was invited to attend the town hall - who led a few minutes of contemplative silence. “This is what we do” in Bideford, he declared, a happy town where “all faiths are welcome to come along and say prayers” at council meetings and other ‘official’ occasions. But in his bucolic description of town life where everyone dances around the Maypole - cider with Tony - there seems to be no place for non-believers or atheists.

The mayor of Bideford, Trevor ‘man of steel’ Johns, was blunter - “Anyone who does not want to enter the council chamber until the prayers are over is being disrespectful to the mayor,” he fulminated, and “until I have a writ or a document in my hand with the seal of the queen then I don’t see why I should be compelled to ban anything.”[2]

The right reverend Michael Langrish, the bishop of Exeter, meanwhile informed BBC Radio Devon listeners about the NSS’s sinister agenda - which was “inch by inch to drive religion out of the public sphere”; a malignant desire to deChristianise the UK. If the likes of the NSS get their way, worried Langrish, it would have “enormous implications” for prayers in parliament, Remembrance Day, the jubilee celebrations, etc. Nothing would be sacred. Urging rebellion against the lawmakers, our troublesome priest said he would “encourage” councils in his diocese, including Bideford, to continue to say prayers before the meeting began. A senior member of the Church of England inciting law-breaking? A theme repeated by his former boss, so to speak, Lord Carey of Clifton - once archbishop of Canterbury - who pronounced, albeit slightly cryptically, that “these sensitive matters can no longer be left in the hands of judges”. Presumably, Carey wants the central government to step in and reverse the Bideford ruling - save the country from atheism and spiritual ruination.

Saviour

If so, then the anti-secularists like Langrish and Carey may have found a saviour in the rotund shape of the communities secretary, Eric Pickles - though maybe only a temporary one. Ringing the alarm, Pickles said the Bideford council case was a “wake-up call” - for reactionaries and small-minded bigots everywhere, he forgot to add. For too long, he ruminated, the public sector has been used to “marginalise” and “attack faith in public life” - in the process “undermining the very foundations of the British nation”. The “right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty”, he added - overlooking the fact that no-one is trying to undermine that right and conveniently ignoring the right not to worship. But such Christianophobia will no longer be tolerated, said Pickles, who announced that he was “effectively reversing” the high court’s “illiberal ruling” on Bideford.

By which he meant he is invoking the Localism Act 2011, which legally enables councils to do anything an individual could do unless specifically prohibited by law. That part proffering to give councils “greater powers” and “freedom” will be brought in early, Pickles fast-tracking the parliamentary order which activates the power on the basis that it will “give councils that want to continue holding formal prayers the confidence and legal standing to do so”. This new power to prayer, to coin a phrase, can henceforth be exercised by all major local authorities in England and should be available to smaller town and parish councils - like Bideford - by the end of March.

Needless to say, the NSS and a number of senior lawyers have cast doubt on the legality of Pickles’ latest statement - especially the implicit notion that the communities secretary has virtually untrammelled powers to pass legislation, almost on a whim. There is a very good chance that the NSS will challenge Pickles, and the British government, in the European Court of Human Rights - adding more grist to the Tory mill and the rightwing press, which will have the opportunity to rage about the Brussels bureaucrats interfering in the ancient British way of life as well as the “militant secularists” and “aggressive atheists”.

Of course, the idea that the UK is drowning under an intolerant secularist-atheist tide is pure fantasy. A fantasy, however, that reveals the insecurity of the British establishment - which cannot abide any sort of challenge to its power or moral legitimacy, not matter how minor or relatively inconsequential. Like forbidding Bideford council from imposing Christian prayers on its members.

In reality, as communists are the first to point out, the UK is far from being a secular state. We have an established church, the Church of England, which has 26 bishops (“lords spiritual” or “spiritual peers”) permanently sitting in the House of Lords on the government benches, no matter how they vote. The head of state is also the “defender of faith” and the supreme governor of the Church of England, thus formally making her superior in status to the archbishop of Canterbury within the church hierarchy. The original Latin phrase, fidei defensor, is referred to on all current British coins by the abbreviations, FD or FID DEF. In all manner of ways, the established church tries in turn to semi-incorporate other churches, faiths and denominations. Even a non-believer like Ed Miliband bends over backwards so as to not offend religious sensibilities - to the point where he ends up privileging religion.

Then we have Warsi’s rewriting of history - an alternative universe where British governments are doing everything they can to suppress religious sentiments. Who is she kidding? Under the government of ‘his holiness’, Tony Blair - first a devout Anglican, then an even more devout Catholic - we had an explosion of faith schools. About one third of the 20,000 state-funded schools in England fall into that category. Some of them converted to academy status - the most notorious example being the four academies that comprise the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, started up the evangelical Christian and businessman, Peter Vardy, and which quite unashamedly taught that biblical creationism is a legitimate “theory” and that evolution is a mere “faith position”. As for Gordon Brown, he never tired of telling us about how his father had been a minister in the Church of Scotland and hence, of course, transmitted his moral righteousness to his dutiful son. The stifling presence of institutionalised religion is everywhere in the UK, from top to bottom, and is central to the maintenance of ruling class power.

Communists, on the other hand, call for the strict separation of church and state - meaning, to begin with, the disestablishment of the Church of England. Which is why we welcomed the initial Bideford ruling, whether it gets reversed or not. In its own small way, that points to the sort of society communists fight for - where the state/government does not privilege one faith or denomination over another and there is a fundamental equality between followers of all faiths and none.

Yet for Marxists this is only half the story. Not being liberals, we do not just want freedom of religion. We want the right to struggle against religious ideas and so - ultimately - freedom from religion. We agree with the sentence recently added to Socialist Worker’s ‘What the Socialist Workers Party stands for’ column - “We defend the right of believers to practise their religion without state interference” - even though it omits the main issue in Britain: the need for secularism; equality between all citizens in the eyes of the state. But what about the SWP itself? What does the ‘party’ think when it comes to the struggle against religious backwardness, an issue which revolutionaries cannot be neutral or ‘diplomatic’ about? Exactly the point made by Marx, of course, in his Critique of the Gotha programme.

As it stands, the SWP’s position is totally one-sided and represents mere bourgeois liberalism - something along the lines of the United States constitution of the late 18th century. Communists have a duty to promote atheist propaganda in order to overcome religious prejudice and ignorance, which in the last analysis diverts the class struggle and is used as an antidote to socialism.

We most certainly do not envisage this as some sort of ‘war against religion’, however - nothing like it. We are adamantly opposed to both theocracies and atheocracies. Nor do we favour the narrow, pedagogic approach adopted by Richard Dawkins at times: the great man who wants to educate the poor, ignorant masses and take them on the path to rationalist enlightenment. By contrast, Marxists emphasise how liberation comes through the collective struggle - the class struggle - to free yourself from all exploitation and oppression.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. The Daily Telegraph February 13.

2. www.thisisdevon.co.uk/Mayor-says-council-prayers-continue-despite-court/story-15245176-detail/story.html.