Ilm 2 Amal
Angry nonbelievers assume ‘the religious’ have no access to reason – so all they do is repeat themselves, loudly.
Reading Julian Baggini’s lucid defence of secularism in the light of three years of comments on Cif belief, the point becomes obvious that among the people who most misunderstand it are the militant atheist secularists. But who are they?
There are three kinds of people in Britain today who might be taken for militant secularists: that is to say people who are not just themselves unbelievers, but have an emotional investment in the extirpation of religious belief in others. There are the adolescents who have just discovered “rationality”; there are gay people who feel personally threatened by traditional monotheist morality; and, in this country, there are parents frustrated by the admissions policy of religiously controlled schools.
About the adolescents, there is nothing to be done. Some will discover Richard Dawkins the way that others discover Ayn Rand. Large confident solutions to all the world’s problems, which are only held back by the stupidity and self-interest of the old, will always appeal to teenagers. Most of them will grow up and those who don’t will grow old and never hear the younger selves who’d call them tragics.
The position of gay people in this culture war seems to me historical and contingent. All of the main monotheistic traditions contain strong and contradictory currents of opinion about homosexuality, ranging from unremitting hostility to much more understanding and sympathy than was found in the secular world until recently. My own feeling is that humanity will win out here. I could be wrong, but in 20 or 30 years’ time we will know.
The position is different with church schools: it’s also uniquely British. But arguments about prejudice are different from arguments over resources because resources are finite. My possession of a prejudice may or may not impoverish you, but, either way, it doesn’t enrich me. My possession of a place in a good school in a bad system is entirely different. It enriches me to the extent that it deprives you.
This works both ways. It means that for every loser in the present situation, whose child does not go to the school of their choice, there is a winner, probably several winners, whose children do. That makes it much more difficult to change.
This fact has nothing to do with religious belief. It arises from the general failings of the school system, and the fact that education is to some extent a positional good. We all want our children to be above average. One indication of this is the way in which voluntary controlled religious schools, where the selection is in the hands of the local authority, and thus democratically influenced, take fewer children on free school meals than voluntary aided ones, where the religiously appointed governors decide selection policy.
That will continue to be an issue, because the people who gain from the present system have votes just as much as those who lose. But it won’t be resolved. Nor will it ever seem terribly important on the wider agenda.
None of these groupings are large enough in themselves to threaten the future of Christianity, or of Islam, in this country. But they make a useful enemy for politicians such as Lady Warsi.
Their real offence, though, is that they don’t understand the rules of secular debate. I know that this will appear a contradiction in terms: how can a secularist misunderstand the rules of secular debate? But Baggini’s definition provides a way to understand this. A secularist, he says, is someone who appeals to natural reason, and not to divine law. And this kind of reason is by definition something shared by both sides in the argument. But the militant secularist takes for granted that “the religious” have no access to reason. There can be no reasoning with his opponents. All he can do is to repeat himself more loudly until the idiots understand.
This is a character trait, rather than a set of beliefs. It’s certainly not confined to atheists. George Carey has it to an excruciating degree. And, of course, in Britain today, no militant has the power to persecute his enemies with the force of law. But that’s not because we’re nicer than other people, but because our political system is better.