Secularism and Tolerance

The recent pronouncements on “militant” secularisation by Baroness Warsi have triggered a flurry of comments, both pro- and anti- in the media. I found this piece by Julian Baggini came close to summarising my own thoughts on the matter. But then today I found this comment by Norman Geras on Baggini’s piece introduced two important qualifications that brought things into focus for me.

Baggini’s central point is something that both Geras and I wholeheartedly support:

Secularism, in the political sense, is not a comprehensive project to sweep religion out of public life altogether… Rather it is – or should be – a beautifully simple way of bringing people of all faiths and none together, not a means of pitting them against each other.

It all goes back to how we understand the core secularist principle of neutrality in the public square. Neutrality means just that: neither standing for or against religion or any other comprehensive world-view.

Geras then states two reservations with Baggini’s thesis: first, concerning Baggini’s claim that ‘we are obliged to talk to each other in terms we can share and understand, not in ways that are tied to our specific “comprehensive doctrines”‘. Geras thinks that no such obligation exists; we may not be persuasive if we do not use terms that we can share and understand, but that is not the same as making it an obligation.

Geras’ second point concerns the tenor of Baggini’s last paragraphs, where he (Baggini) is asking “us secularists that we be more relaxed towards religion, not acting as its enemy. It’s a plea for a more tolerant attitude than some militant atheists today display”. I think Geras puts it very well when he says:

Though (once again) I know what motivates his saying what he does, and share his feelings about a certain kind of relentless discourse of hostility towards religious belief and religious practice, I also think the plea for tolerance in this matter ought to be bounded by clear limits. There are believers who, in the name of religion, act to silence, harm and sometimes indeed kill others, and there is, unfortunately, a lot of this sort of thing about. No secularist is obliged to adopt a relaxed attitude towards it. On the contrary, in defence of freedom of belief, they should be intolerant of it. Secularism, just like genuine liberalism, does not entail tolerance of the appeal to religion to justify intolerant, cruel or murderous ends.


About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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