Secularism, what it is and why we fight for it

Apparently the term "secularism" was first "adopted" in 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), an Owenite cooperative socialist (N Walter Blasphemy ancient and modern London 1990, p46). Once he began publishing The Reasoner, local secular societies were established nationwide. They tended to see religion as the root of all evil. Though an agnostic, and increasingly craving respectability in later life, Holyoake has the enduring honour of being the last person in Britain to be officially prosecuted for atheism. Holyoake urged the abolition of all religious oaths, as required by law, and the disestablishment of the Church of England. His secularism combined a materialist approach when it came to studying nature with an ethical striving for the earthly perfection of humanity - physical, moral and intellectual. Obviously, secularism, albeit without the name, has a history that long predates 1851. It can be traced, through the enlightenment, all the way back to ancient Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus, Epicurus and Democritus. Secularism also feeds into, and, of course, has been programmatically grounded and put into its proper context by, Marxism. Today secularism has a variety of meanings. Secularism is sometimes associated with the diminishing prestige and power of organised religion and the absence of theological categories in mainstream political discourse. Then there is the growth of scientific knowledge and the so-called consumer society. As a result western European countries are sometimes described as secular. In the realm of philosophy secularism is a rejection of religious ways of seeing the universe - there is no need for god or the supernatural. But when it comes to the state - and that is what particularly concerns us here - things are pretty straightforward. Secularism denotes the separation of religion from the state and abolishing discrimination between religions. People should be free not to believe in god or free to believe and practise the codes of their creed as they see fit (provided it does not harm others). Naturally secularism is flatly rejected by the traditionalists who stand guard over catholic orthodoxy. Doctrine and history dictate that the Vatican cannot concede that religion can simply be a private affair. Their god is "author and ruler" not only of individuals, but also of society. Nevertheless, though the catholic church might in its madder theological moments still hanker after state formations along the lines of Eamon De Valera's Ireland, the fact of the matter is that there has been a long history of retreat and compromise. When forced, the catholic church, is ready to grant that "a secular education in the public schools may be the only possible one" (www.newadvent.org.cathen/13676a.htm). Equally to the point, a wide array of religious people say they would be perfectly happy with a secular constitution - it promises an end to discrimination by one religion against another. Indeed, in the name of mutual toleration, Dietricht Bonhoeffer (1906-45), a brave anti-Nazi and Lutheran pastor and theologian, founded what has been called secular christianity. He took his stand on the cardinal importance of this world, not the next. And the fact of the matter is that many capitalist states are explicitly secular according to the terms of their constitutions. However, communists rightly expose the shortcomings and rank hypocrisy involved with all such claims. No capitalist state has completely separated itself off from religion. Three examples will suffice. Germany: special taxes are collected by the state on behalf of the Lutheran and catholic churches - other religious groups have to go to the bother and expense of collecting contributions from their membership without the state's helping hand. Religious lessons are part of the school curriculum too, but once again only for the two privileged christian denominations. USA: the writers of the constitution firmly rejected any idea of a state religion and the final document omits all reference to god. The US state officially derives its authority not from god, but the people. Not that there was no opposition; religious fanatics prophesised divine retribution because of such irreligion. Significantly then, the first amendment to the US constitution has been judicially interpreted as calling for the separation of church and state (it says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"). However, the supreme court has over the years allowed violations. Church and other ecclesiastical property is exempt from taxation; the US currency bears the national motto "In god we trust"; the pledge of allegiance includes the phrase "one nation, under god"; US armed forces, congress and many state legislatures employ chaplains; and courts often have a crier or clerk who opens proceedings with the words, "God save the United States and this honourable court". And while it has rightly been said that the first six US presidents rarely invoked the blessing of the deity, that is certainly not the case with George W Bush. A born-again christian, he rarely misses an opportunity to drag god onto his side - and following the defeat of their moderate catholic presidential candidate, John Kerry, in 2004, Democrat hierarchs have adopted a much harder religious me-tooism. In his first term Bush established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Federal grants are doled out to approved religious charities which are recruited to fill the gap, as social security provisions are withdrawn, or whittled away, by the administration. With Bush in the saddle, christian fundamentalists also envisage shifting the balance on the supreme court so as to overturn Roe v Wade - the legal judgement that permitted abortion in the US. Not that the rightwing offensive stops there. As explained by Susan Jacoby, the focus on abortion has "long since been expanded into a much larger agenda" and is designed to obliterate the distinction between "god's justice and ours". From the assault on the teaching of evolution to quieter efforts to drive 'liberal' public radio stations off the airwaves, the christian right "tirelessly works to insinuate its values into every aspect of public policy at every level of government" (www.secularhumanism.org/libary/fijackoby_24_6.html). Clearly Thomas Jefferson's metaphorical "wall of separation" between state and church has been shot through with holes. India: rightwing hindu parties and groups, not least the Bharatiya Janata Party, which led the government coalition in Delhi between 1996 and 2004, hysterically campaign against the supposed special privileges granted to the large muslim and christian minorities in 1947. Non-hindus in reality have no privileges. Within limits each major religious 'community' regulates 'personal law'. A practice inherited directly from the divide-and-rule British Raj. This multiculturalism freezes the existence of communal divisions and ensures in particular the continued oppression of women (with the partial exception of the Sikhs). And the fact of the matter is that it is hindus who enjoy a privileged legal position in India, compared with other religions. There are tax breaks for giving to named hindu charities and adoption laws give advantages to them too. State schools often teach hindu religious songs as part of morning prayers. Then there are cities such as Bombay (Mumbai), where housing associations routinely block the sale of accommodation to muslims (information on pseudo-secularism taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudo-secularism). Then there is Britain. Leave aside the blasphemy laws that still ominously squat on the statute books and the government's religious hatred legislation proposed in the queen's speech on Tuesday May 14. The constitutionally established religion of the English part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland remains a nationalised form of christianity. Alongside the Church of England countless coexisting and semi-incorporated christian factions are benignly tolerated - Roman catholicism, baptism, methodism, unitarianism, etc. All have been digested into the status quo. And, needless to say, the political establishment has a beady eye on the mosques and hindu temples. Meanwhile, state, established church and monarchy together form a single organism. The Church of England constitutes what Walter Bagehot calls one of the "dignified parts", as opposed to the "efficient parts", of the constitution (W Bagehot The English constitution London 1974, p4). 'Our' warships and army units are prayed over in the hallowed name of the christian triple-godhead. Archbishops and bishops, the "lords spiritual", sit by "ancient usage and statute" in parliament (Lord Campion [ed] Sir Erskine May's treaties on the law, privileges, proceedings and usage of parliament London 1950, p9). Royal weddings and state funerals are conducted according to high church ritual. And, of course, Elizabeth Windsor, head of state, is also head of the established church. As for the 'impartial' BBC it broadcasts christian services and homilies daily. In state schools our children are taught the miracle stories of the New testament as verity, or at the very least that Jesus was some sort of well-meaning founder of an admirable new religion. So, in terms of the constitution, the idea that Britain is a secular society is manifestly false. Nor has religion been thoroughly removed from political discourse. It came as no surprise to communists when during the general election campaign the leaders of all mainstream parties eagerly lined up to parade their pro-religious credentials. Michael Howard stole a march on the others by making abortion an issue. He was well rewarded with a not very cryptic endorsement from cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Conner. And in his doomed bid to capture the "forgotten majority", Howard reiterated his commitment to 'faith schools' (National Secular Society Newsline February 28). Not that this is a matter of controversy. A dull consensus reigns between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat front benches when it comes to religion. What of Respect's MP, George Galloway? His "deeply held" religious principles were paraded too. As a committed catholic he opposes abortion and euthanasia on principle. Not long before, he also - unfortunately - boasted of his marriage to a "Palestinian doctor", Amineh Abu-Zayyad. Unsurprisingly then, trawling as he was for religious votes, when asked about muslim schools, he said he favoured them .... naturally on the basis of equality. He refused to raise the demand for the separation of religion from schools. Nor was he challenged by the Socialist Workers Party. John Rees was determined to give Galloway uncritical support. At Respect's October 30-31 2004 conference SWP members were dragooned to vote down socialist and democratic principles one after the other. Particular venom was directed against those who called for Respect to declare a commitment to secular values. Not so long ago, amongst communists and revolutionary socialists, secularism was, of course, part of our common heritage. Our programme has always been clear: "No religious schools, no private schools" (CPGB Draft programme London nd, p19). Ditto the 2001 general election manifesto of the old Socialist Alliance. People before profit stood for the "complete separation of church and state, not least to ensure that we all enjoy the freedom to worship, or not, as we choose" (Socialist Alliance People before profit London 2001, p17). Obviously in this context 'church' and 'mosque' mean exactly the same thing. People before profit also included a demand for ending "charitable status and tax privileges" for all private schools - most muslim schools are financed by exploiting the laws on charity (Socialist Alliance People before profit London 2001, p9). Incidentally, unlike the SWP the CPGB regards programme as a matter of the greatest importance. That is why our programme has been exhaustively debated, democratically agreed and is militantly guarded against any attempt to water it down or compromise it. Of course, the SWP has an informal, eclectic, orderless and thoroughly bureaucratic programme - the latest central committee zig or zag. Ours, by contrast, is easily digestible and written down in black and white. Critical minorities can that way hold an incumbent leadership to account before the membership by getting them to judge tactics in light of the programme. Do the new tactics conform with and further the programme? Or do the new tactics run counter to the programme and damage the party's principles? Marxists do not fetishise religion. Wide sections of the population carry with them prejudices and backward ideas and will do so until the last alienating vestiges of class society finally disappear. Holding religious views blunts consciousness, but hardly stops people taking part in the class struggle - including the socialist revolution. Communists therefore oppose all attempts to divide the working class on the basis of religion. Class unity in this world is more important than agreement about the nature of the next world That does not imply an indifference when it comes to the UK's mixed - democratic-prime ministerial-bureaucratic-monarchical-religious - constitution. Quite the reverse. Communists consistently demand the earthly equality of all believers and non-believers. The latter seem to be the real "forgotten majority". Championing the equality of all necessarily means championing secularism. In turn, once again quite logically, that explains why the CPGB energetically supported the motion drafted by Dave Landau for the October 2004 Respect conference. It would have committed Respect to oppose state persecution of, and discrimination against, non-established religions and their followers. Simultaneously, the motion opposed coercive acts and suppression by religious authorities themselves. Respect, the motion therefore said, should strive for a society "in which people of all faiths and none are equal". Concretely that means the complete separation of church and state. Finally, the motion stated that Respect should be a "secular organisation": that is, "open to those of all faiths and none" and "does not favour and is not beholden to any religion or religious institution". A clear, and one would surely have thought, uncontentious statement. But under John Rees the SWP is rapidly changing - for the worse. His - much diminished - machine went to extraordinary lengths to prevent comrade Landau's motion ever reaching the conference floor. However, in no small measure thanks to the CPGB, the SWP's gerrymandering failed, though the motion had to be moved not by Dave Landau himself, but Tom Rubens - a non-aligned comrade from Hackney. Chris Bambery - Socialist Worker editor - was put up to reply It was a defining moment politically. He would be "concerned at Respect calling itself secular". After all secularism has been used in France to justify the islamophobic ban on the hijab in state schools. Therefore one presumes secularism is now a bad thing and should be condemned. Exaggeration on our part? Not at all. During his time in the labour movement in the west of Scotland, where of course religious sectarianism is rife, comrade Bambery claimed he had never known "a resolution being put, saying we are secular". Hard to believe, especially given the loyalist bigotry that still blights daily life in Glasgow. Leaving aside that salient fact, amazingly what he was saying is that socialists would be right in voting against any motion which suggested or demanded that catholics and protestants should be treated as equals under a secular constitution. He even depicted secularism as being somehow akin to favouring discrimination against religious minorities. Further muddying the waters , he rhetorically asked: "Do we have a problem here with people with extreme religious views?" "No", he answered. And to rouse the SWP troops into an artificial frenzy he ended with a final flourish. The "real fundamentalists" are Bush and Blair, who are deliberately stoking up islamophobia (Weekly Worker November 4 2004). Those calling for secularism, he implied, were doing the same thing. He urged and got his vote to defeat the motion on secularism. Bambery put things too crudely as far as Alex Callinicos was concerned. Despite his deliberately Aesopian language, he tried, so it would appear, to do something of a rescue job in his regular Socialist Worker column. Bambery had foolishly thrown the baby out with the bathwater and played into the hands of the CPGB. Therefore Callinicos magisterially defined Respect as "an alliance against neoliberalism, racism and war that unites secular socialists and muslim activists" (Socialist Worker November 20 2004). Presumably that formulation is meant to do a twofold job. Firstly, it credits the SWP as being "secular socialists". Secondly, it excuses so-called "secular socialists" voting down secularism. To create a smokescreen, Callinicos also launched himself against the left in France for defending "a secular definition of the state that refuses to acknowledge that millions of the victims of French imperialism now live in France, and are deeply and legitimately attached to their muslim faith". Unlike a bumbling Bambery, however, a cynical Callinicos does at least admit that there are disputed definitions of secularism. Alex Cowper, of the International Socialist Group - the so-called Fourth International's section in Britain - uses similar arguments. Secularism should not be rejected by socialists. However - and here is the rub - the SWP "correctly opposed" committing Respect to secularism because it is a "broad-based organisation" (Socialist Outlook spring 2005). This miserable approach fails to grasp the simple fact that secularism is not something designed to comfort 'narrow-based organisations' in their unsullied sectarian 'purity'. Secularism is the answer for religious people and society at large - surely a very broad-based organisation. Effectively Cowper counterposes secularism and religion and seems to view secularism as being exclusively for the private consumption of consenting socialists or kept to the pages of Socialist Outlook - which amounts virtually to the same thing. Nor is the Scottish Socialist Party much different. Its 2004 conference voted down an unexceptional motion demanding the abolition of all faith schools. Alan McCombes - SSP press spokesperson and policy coordinator - argued that such a commitment would unleash a reactionary storm. He might be right. Scotland has a deep religious fault line. The catholic church, in particular, would almost certainly urge its flock to join a fanatical crusade against any move towards secular schools, as it has done over abortion. In this case, though, confrontation with reactionary priests has to be avoided at all costs. So McCombes offered an alternative strategy. The soft course of a multiculturalist cop-out. Instead of secularism he recommended religious equality ... not equality between religious and non-religious people. In effect that means refusing to challenge the existence of faith schools and in effect condoning the pollution of schools with all manner of religious festivals and devout overtones. Comrade McCombes's rotten backsliding won the day with the help of the Socialist Worker platform. Particular concern was expressed by SW platform speakers for the sensibilities of their imagined 'muslim community'. The SWP's new-found hostility to secularism was also manifested over the question of Palestine. Chris Bambery may claim to have never come across a resolution on secularism. The poor man obviously forgets the countless resolutions on Palestine moved by ... the SWP. It used to routinely demand the immediate abolition of the Israeli-Jewish state and its replacement by a "democratic, secular Palestine". 'Used to' is the operative term, because at the October 2004 Respect conference the SWP fielded its majority to defeat that very position. Moira Nolan of the SWP proposed an amendment deleting an offending paragraph which contained the phrase, "unitary, democratic and secular state". While we in the CPGB uphold a two-state solution, the SWP has in the past vehemently attacked all such suggestions. Israel, they say, is not, and never can be a nation, and that it is, and will always remain, illegitimate. Suddenly that line changed. "Personally I agree with a unitary state," owned up comrade Nolan. "But it's about entering into dialogue with people" who "might not join Respect if they disagree" with a one-state solution. "We should be one step ahead of them, not 15." On the face of it, her argument seemed to be pretty much in line with what the SWP has been saying on issues like republicanism and open borders: 'ordinary people' are not yet ready to adopt our position, so we must water down or abandon awkward 'shibboleths' in the bid to win their votes. A patronising and deeply opportunist approach. But what the SWP really fears in Respect is not advocating a single-state solution. It is secularism. In Respect it is "muslim activists" who set the programmatic limits ... and what they envisage in Palestine is a single muslim state solution - and that under the rule of an islamic theocracy. The SWP's problem with secularism (along with the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion) is that it is seen as endangering the continued presence of Galloway and "muslim activists" in Respect. Having (rightly) identified muslims as a particularly politicised section of the population, the SWP has concluded that Respect must steer well clear of all mention of secularism. But, as we have explained again and again, is it clearly wrong to counterpose secularism and religion as if they are polar opposites. A ghastly mistake. Be it Britain, Germany, USA, India, Israel, Iran or Saudi Arabia, we communists favour the complete separation of religion from the state. There should neither be the domination of religion by the state nor the domination of the state by religion. The privileged position for one particular cult - whatever it may be - in schools, state institutions and the legal system must be ended. The suggestion that Britain's arcane blasphemy laws be extended to include all religions is for us a complete anathema. There is no supportable case for censorship in order to safeguard religion. Communists do not favour the multiculturalist equality of religions. Multiculturalism is a means whereby the capitalist state divides the working class and manages social conflict. In place of class struggle, religious, cultural or ethnic groups are supposed to compete with each other for the state's favours. Each is considered separate but equal. That in turn means each supplicant group has a material interest in emphasising and exacerbating difference. Logically that leads from Church of England schools to catholic, Jewish, muslim and even black schools. Parents ought to be able to take their children to religious ceremonies and celebrations. The same goes for Sunday schools and their various Friday and Saturday equivalents. Such occasions are a private concern and the state is obliged not to interfere. What is objectionable is using the education system as a means to promulgate and normalise religious superstitions and customs amongst children. There should be no prayers, no hymns, no sermons, no nativity plays, no multiculturalist equal signs between Easter, Diwali and Ramadan. In other words keep religion out of schools. Religion, like geography or physics, should be studied in schools as an academic subject. World history has after all been unmistakably shaped by religious ideas and billions still believe. People should be allowed to worship whatever god, spirit or demon they wish and practise their religion as they see fit - with the sole proviso that it does not harm or adversely affect the rights of others. Equally people should have the right to deviate from orthodox doctrines and established practices without any legal sanctions being incurred. So, from the biggest and most traditional church to the smallest and most obscure sect, there must be freedom of religious observance. By the same measure there must be freedom for the likes of ourselves to deny the existence of all gods and propagate atheism. The secular principle of mutual toleration is thankfully nowadays considered perfectly acceptable by most religious people. Secularism is about equality of all ... including agnostics and atheists. Advocating secularism also goes right to the heart of the UK's rotten quasi-democratic constitution. Secularism rejects as unacceptable the present-day situation whereby a particular religion and a particular religious institution is privileged by the state. Communists demand the disestablishment of the Church of England and a complete separation of religion from the state, and religion from schools. In short: a democratic, secular republic. Does that amount to a declaration of war against religion? Not at all. A secular constitution guarantees religious freedom, including the freedom of religious expression. Without freedom of religious expression it is self-evident that equality is fake - and therefore so to is secularism. So we do not in any way defend or seek to emulate the anti-religious nightmare perpetrated in the name of communism by the Stalinite states. At the most extreme Albania under Enver Hoxha declared itself to be officially atheist. That meant in practice a vicious persecution of believers which was eerily reminiscent of Torquemada's inquisition and paradoxically the strengthening of popular religious sentiments and convictions. Opposition to religion, as espoused by the bourgeoisie in the 18th century, reflected the confidence of a rising class which was convinced that private property, market competition, international free trade and equality before the law offered the key not only to technological, but social progress. Bourgeois rationalists fervently believed that the development of capitalism and the application of science could solve all the problems of humanity. There was no room for religious superstition. Indeed the church was vehemently denounced as a feudal hangover, an obscurantist barrier to human fulfilment. With nascent working class power and a dawning realisation that capitalism was stacking up its own intractable social problems, the previous confidence evaporates. Society as a whole comes to appear uncontrollable. Crises, inflation, wars, strikes, the mass socialist movement, fascism are modern ghouls and demons and have to be explained away. They are accidents, they are caused by foreigners, they are other. In place of implacable anti-clericalism and philosophical materialism there comes irrationality and the end of bourgeois hostility to institutionalised religion. There are still militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Miller. But they are tame voices on the margins with no political purchase. Patronised eccentrics. In order to use religion as a prop, official bourgeois society makes great play of taking ecclesiastical representatives, and their pronouncements, seriously. That way, religion can be used to befuddle and hold back the common people. Not that religion is the principal ideological prop for capitalism. Diluted though it is, commodity fetishism remains and, where that fails, pseudo-science is promoted - today it is genes which supposedly explain male aggression, female underachievement in business, wars, crime, alienation and even homosexuality. Real scientific progress continues, but is visibly narrowed down and held back by the overriding need to maintain profits rather than save human labour. It is also thoroughly perverted - the military-industrial complex, directly and indirectly, absorbs a huge slice of government spending and the ingenuity of countless scientists, technicians and engineers is wasted in developing, not the means of production, but the means of destruction. But as capitalism continues to decline and becomes ever more uncontrollable as far as its controllers are concerned, we find that bourgeois cynicism metamorphoses into bourgeois credulity. The bourgeoisie becomes ever more a believing class. A sense of purpose is gained from the fairy stories of religion. George W Bush, Tony Blair and Osama bin Laden each apparently sincerely believe in the religious creed they espouse. Once the bourgeoisie begins to believe in god and life in heaven, surely this is a sign that its life here below is drawing to a close. Jack Conrad