Earlier this week we had one of those cultural moments when ideas of atheism, secularism and religion were debated. In an obviously provocative manoever, Baroness Warsi spoke of ‘militant secularism’. Militants like Richard Dawkins rose to the bait, apparently affirming her pronouncements, while less militant atheists like Alain De Botton adopted a more conciliatory tone on twitter. Several people pointed out the oxymoronic notion of a ‘militant secularist’ by incorrectly quoting AC Grayling, who last year equated militant atheism with “sleeping furiously”.
There is lots to be said about this perjorative term ‘militant secularism’. It is a form of victimology that social conservatives like propagate. Sayeeda Warsi has form on such issues, naughtily spreading the ‘Winterval’ myth when she knows it is a lie. It enables bigots, who like to use religion to excuse their prejudices, even when those values are very much at odds with the tolerant philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.
Leaving aside the apparent militancy of Dawkins and his ilk, I think the true sin here was to conflate secularism with atheism. The two terms are very different. While atheism challenges, debunks and sometimes ridicules religious belief, secularism explicitly protects religions. By demanding the separation of church and state, secularism hopes to secure freedom of religion for all faiths as well as those of no faith. This concept is a key pillar of the United States Constitution – the First Amendment guarantees not only free expression, but that no law be made which impedes the practice of any religion. The UK still, astonishingly, retains an Established Church, but nevertheless I am shocked at how easily and how often our debates confuse secularism with atheism. Sayeeda Warsi is not stupid, and I’m left with the feeling that the confusion is actually deliberate and disingenuous.
While all this was playing out in the talk-radio spots and comment pages, I was wandering around the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Also known as the Neasden Temple, it is Europe’s largest ‘traditional’ Hindu temple and is made from 5,000 tonnes of Italian marble. They have a fantastic exhibition on the lower floor of the Mandir, which presents the values of Hinduism, exemplars of those values from the traditional fables, and quotes from such secular luminaries as George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain on the progressive nature of Hinduism. It also points out where the Indian scholars of the last millenium have outflanked Western philosopher-scientists, in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and medicine, which is amusing and enlightening (it even goes out of its way to condemn the sexism inherent in dowry-giving and female infantacide, still sadly prevalent in India).
Overall, it is a very secular exhibition, absent the teleology of most religious discourse. Its not “Hindus should do this” but more “If you do this then you are a Hindu”, which allows those of us who have been brought up outside of the language and rituals of the Hindu religion to still access its values, lessons and insights. Religions are at their best (and, dare I say it, most useful) when they present themselves like this – offering advice without making horrendous truth claims.
More secularism of this sort, please!