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Secularism: the best defence of religious freedom

I am not quite sure where the Almighty stands on the mechanics of proportional representation or qualified majority voting in Brussels. Nor, having read both the Bible and the Quran from cover to cover, am I clear as to divine opinion on the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Given that the job of any the European Union constitution is to regulate these matter, the case for such a document including explicit reference to God – as demanded by Baroness Warsi in the Daily Telegraph today – is tenuous.

Yet Britain’s first Muslim woman cabinet minister advocates just that as a means of resisting the ‘rising tide’ of ‘militant secularisation’. Many of the claims her contribution contains are questionable, as is its principal conclusion.

We live in a country in which a minority denomination within Christianity is privileged as an established religion, with the head of state acting as its supreme governor, and places reserved in the legislature for its representatives. So long as these arrangements stay in place, the contention that secularism dominates political life is laughable.

Moreover, acts of religious assertion have risen dramatically over the last decade. The numbers choosing to wear clothing that signifies particular religious affiliation has risen dramatically, for instance. Nor do I have a problem with that. I mention it merely to counter the broad brush assertion that secularism is the only game in town.

Even if we admit that it is on the increase, the use of the adjective ‘militant’ is pure hyperbole. Secularism is not, for instance, enforced at the point of a gun. Nor is the labour movement balloting workers on indefinite all-out strike action is support of the right to blaspheme.

Although Baroness Warsi does not mention it as such, much has been made of the well-publicised recent court case bought by the National Secular Society against Bideford Town Council, which debars it from holding prayers before meetings.

Contrast the resort to legal action with the violent mass pickets that forced the closure of a play deemed offensive to the Sikh faith in Birmingham a few years back. Some might deservedly call that ‘militant religiousity’. Care to comment, Baroness?

Most risible of all is the idea that the instincts of secularists are intolerant and essentially similar to those of totalitarianism. To come up with arrant nonsense like that on the day she pays a state visit to the Vatican is particularly outrageous.

Or perhaps Baroness Warsi is just unaware of such regimes as Franco’s Spain, Tiso’s Slovakia or Pavelic’s Croatia, which had no difficulty in combining elements of fascism and Catholicism, while sometimes murdering and repressing adherents of other faiths?

Secularism in the correct sense of the word is tolerant by its nature. The separation of church (or mosque, or synagogue) and state is the precondition for the maximum exercise of religious freedom and the minimisation of tension in a multicultural society.

That governments should neither encourage nor discourage religious belief is a point that should appeal to the thinking believer and the atheist alike.

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