A state Church is no bulwark against extremism – but secularism is

In his statement outside Downing Street last week, the prime minister was right to recognise the threat posed to liberal, democratic values by Islamist extremists.

But the threat is not new. One need only consider the Rushdie Affair in the late 1980s. The publication of a book deemed blasphemous and offensive to Islam sparked protests, book burnings, and calls for its prohibition – exposing deep divides within British society.

The ugly episode raised serious questions about how to respond when deeply held religious beliefs clash with liberal democratic values and principles of free expression and pluralism. Judging by the responses to more recent incidents in Batley Grammar School and Kettlethorpe High School, these questions remain largely unanswered.

Sunak’s speech contained little to suggest we’re any closer to formulating a coherent response.

Religion loomed large in the PM’s address to the nation. That’s because religious differences tend to be a significant source of the division, conflict, and tension Sunak was talking about. These are the divisions perpetuated and exploited by extremists.

In particular, Sunak’s reference to the Church of England doesn’t bode well. He suggested that the relative success of our “multiethnic, multifaith democracy” was “all underpinned by the tolerance of our established, Christian church.”

In doing so he conveniently ignores the Church of England’s less than tolerant role in the oppression of atheists, religious minorities, women and gay people. the Church’s influence has led to discrimination, past and present, against those who held different religious beliefs, including nonbelievers and dissenters. And the Church’s teachings on sexuality are used to condemn and marginalise LGBT people, whom it still regards as ‘sinful’.

Sunak’s reference to the Church was perhaps a sop to those seduced by the idea that Christianity and an established church offer a bulwark against more aggressive, fundamentalist religion.

But the opposite is true. Our state’s deference to the Church of England opens the door to more reactionary religion. When we give privileges to one religion, other religions, quite reasonably, want those privileges too.

With Christianity now a minority belief, even the Church of England recognises its unique privileges are hard to justify. It therefore uses its influence to give other religions a leg up, in a desperate attempt to keep secularism at bay.

This multifaithism manifests itself in various ways, from the Church’s Supreme Governor, King Charles, seeking to be a ‘defender of all faiths’, to its bishops lobbying for other faith leaders to join them in taking seats as of right in the legislature. The Church’s prescription for society’s ills is more religion in public life. But at a time when huge numbers of Brits are indifferent to or have abandoned religion, and Islamists and other religious extremists are seeking to influence the political process, this whole approach is a recipe for disaster.

Besides, framing the fight against extremism as a battle between ‘benign’ Christianity and ‘radical’ Islam only reinforces the “us versus them” mentality that underpins much of the conflict between religions. This plays into the hands of extremists who seek to stoke division and hatred.

The whole concept of a state religion undermines liberal democratic principles. As Nick Cohen eloquently pointed out in The Freethinker: “In much of Europe the struggle for human rights was in part a struggle over state religion. The Enlightenment was a reaction against the bigotry and slaughter of the European wars of religion.”

The idea that freedom, democracy and human rights all flow from Christianity begins to crumble when you notice how those very things are threatened by Christianity’s proximity to political power.

Here in Britain a state religion persists but is looking increasingly absurd in our increasingly irreligious and diverse society. And with sectarian grievances tearing at the fabric of society, more religion in public life, religiously segregated faith schools, pandering to religious interests and the privileging of religion are unlikely to foster a more inclusive and cohesive country.

But neither will greater cohesion be found by further policing of speech or curtailing civil liberties.

The prime minister’s reference to the established Church in a speech about countering extremism becomes more concerning when we learn that the government is considering broadening the definition of extremism to include anyone who “undermines” the country’s institutions and its values. If the established church is one of the country’s institutions, are disestablishmentarians to be deemed extremists?

Vigilance is needed to ensure the government doesn’t use fears over extremism to silence groups it disagrees with, under the guise of combatting threats to the country’s peace and stability.

So how do we meet the challenge of protecting liberal values and fostering a cohesive society in a diverse and pluralistic nation, in face of growing religious fundamentalism?

Secularism has much to offer. Just ask the Iranians clamouring for it to free themselves from the tyranny of theocratic rule.

At its core, secularism advocates for the separation of religion and state, ensuring that no religious belief system dominates public life or has undue influence on government policies. This principle is crucial in countering religious extremism, as it prevents the imposition of a particular religious ideology on society and protects the rights and freedoms of all citizens, regardless of their religious affiliations.

A secular state would protect individuals’ freedom to practise their faith within the limits of the law, but limit their ability to impose it on others.

A secular education system would ensure state schools aren’t used as a vehicle for promoting religion. Religious and racial segregation wouldn’t be fuelled by the funding of faith schools. Instead, young citizens would be educated together in schools where they learn about the religious diversity around them and the rights and responsibilities of equal citizenship.

Individual human rights and freedoms would be protected and prioritised above group rights.

Freedom of expression would be robustly protected, with everyone being clear that in an open society, nobody has the right not to be offended. Religious ideas would be as open to scrutiny and mockery as any other type of idea.

And charitable status would no longer be bestowed on organisations simply for advancing their religion. As with secular organisations, religious groups would need to demonstrate their public benefit. And those pushing a divisive, hateful or harmful ideological agenda certainly wouldn’t qualify.

If we want a united front against extremism, we need to use a language we all understand. As citizens we share many things. Religion isn’t one of them.

Secularism has no argument with religion as a personal faith that guides individuals’ lives. But sincere believers and nonbelievers alike have a shared interest in resisting its use as a political tool. Arguments that democratic and liberal values are dependent on Christianity are as unpersuasive as they are dangerous and divisive.

We need to find a common language for societies to uphold principles of liberal democracy. The principles of secularism should be part of that.

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