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What do we mean by secularisation?

In light of the entry of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, into a major political ruckus today, and the response, I think it’s more than worthwhile asking this question. Some signs on my Twitter-stream were worrying to the extent that I got the distinct impression Williams was being pilloried for expressing an opinion at all. Even Mark Ferguson, editor over at LabourList seemed to reflect this prejeudice:

Then there’s a wider issue – do we really want to encourage religious leaders to become (party) politicised? It’s one thing to express concern about rising levels of poverty (for example), but altogether different to attack the democratic basis on which a government has been formed. Religious figures are important because they speak with the authority of the church. They don’t have a “personal capacity” in which to speak. This is a perhaps unfair, and almost unique, aspect of their calling, but it’s a matter of fact. People listen to Rowan Williams because they believe he speaks with the authority of the church – and the church shouldn’t be attacking a democratically elected government for the way it was formed.

Mark makes many mistakes in his article but the cardinal one is the assumption that Williams actively expressed support for Labour, which he didn’t. The second is the restriction of William’s right to a personal capacity and the third is not to judge his remarks on their merits. Imagine the outcry if somebody had said, for example, that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was wrong to challenge the legitimacy of apartheid government. Logically, that is where Mark’s position leads us – that he was wrong too because religious figures cannot challenge the intrinsic legitimacy of a government. Williams is right – this government has no mandate for what it is doing and Labour should say this more often.

This leads us to a broader question about what secularisation — it’s not the cleansing of people with religious faith from political discourse and indeed political life. If it was, then I would not support it because it would be inherently undemocratic. Rather than a secular state, you would be creating an oppressive atheist state much like the former Soviet Union.

There is a complete difference and separation between a secular and an atheist state. A secular state is one in which the state and state policy are religiously ‘blind’ because religious institutions have no formal legislative power. Therefore, it would be quite right in this context to strip Williams of his place in the House of Lords. In a secular state, all religious groups and those who have no faith would have equality.

We have to be careful we don’t cross the line when we advocate secular reforms and start effectively excluding groups from politics purely because of what they believe.


  1. Carol Wilcox says:

    I think there are some non-atheists who would agree with the removal of CofE Bishops from the second chamber – islamists, for instance. So I don’t think this is a good characterisation of an atheist state. Personally, as an atheist, I would like to see representatives from all religions plus other moral philosophers as part of a non-elected second chamber.

  2. Carol,

    Sorry if it wasnt clear but I was clearly meaning the removal of bishops from the House of Lords was a secularising measure, not a symptom of an atheist state.

  3. Shaun Cohen says:

    I agree there should be no place for Bishops etc in Parlaiment. The Church of England should be disestablished.
    Neither should there be any state funding of faith based schools.

  4. Shaun,

    Completely agree on that one – that’s a secular state.

  5. Bill Oldroyd says:

    I think there is a great deal of sense in ensuring that religious faiths with substantial followings are represented in a second chamber.

    Equally if there are organisations to represent atheists and agnostics.

    Consideration should also be given to other organisations such as trade unions, public service bodies and major charities being automatically represented.

    A second chamber would benefit greatly from a set of views that do not originate within mainstream political thinking. We need people who can place a mirror on government actions.

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