Praise God but defend secularism

The debate of the role of church and state is still alive and well in the 21st century. I read the following Financial Times editorial, which provides a number of examples to expand upon the debate. For now, I’m just reprinting the article:

“Praise God but defend secularism”
“As a platform for those of all faiths and those of none”

When a severely brain-damaged young woman in Florida becomes a battle-ground between family and doctors, the courts and Congress, over ‘the right to die’, when the soporific British election campaign suddenly ignites emotively over the UK’s abortion laws (‘the right to live’) or when France (and bits of the UK and Germany) get convulsed over the issue of Muslim headscarves (‘the right to freedom of religion’), there are at least two things we chould strive to remember.

The first is that such intrinsically difficult and divisive issues must be approached with a degree of humility. The manipulation of the tragic Terri Schiavo case in the US by the Bush administration and the religious right, the artificial polarisation and tabloid-isation of the abortion debate ahead of the British elections and the Jacobiin zeal of France’s headscarf ban show little of that.

The second thing to remember is the past. At the cost of centuries of bloodshed and cruelty, the world has evolved a system of procedures to guarantee the right of personal belief within the duty of tolerance towards other beliefs. The alternative was for us to carry on killing each other. Alongside a certain humility, therefore, we need a large does of memory. Yet it sometimes seems we lack both.

Where this is most evident is among Christian and Muslim extremists working actively to fulfil morbid predictions of a ‘clash of civilisations’. But these habits of mind appear to be catching. Amnesiac as we are, we risk becoming tolerant of intolerance.

Take the Schiavo case. It raises a host of constitutional and legal issues, about the relationship between the US federation and the states, or whether legislators are being hijacked by litigators. But what is peculiarly repellent about this case is they way one side wants to use it to emote publicly and with bug-eyed religiosity about the sanctity of life. The issue is not whether life is sacred — worth debating though that may be in light of the Bush administration’s willingness to countenance war and judicial killing — but whether Mrs Schiavo is alive or, as her doctors said and Florida courts accepted, permanently oblivious to the world around her.

Militant secularists should also be a good deal more cautious. France, which with countries such as Turkey and Mexico shares a modern history of anti-clericalism, believes it is upholding its republican tradition of laicite by outlawing ostentatious symbols of religious affiliation. In practice this mostly means headscarves. but it is arguably as inopportune for France to ban them as it would be for Turkey’s neo-Islamist government to try to reinstate them. This is simply not a wise moment to tinker with religious sentiment.

Spain, improbably, may start illustrating this. Despite its leap into democratic modernity since Franco died 30 years ago, the gathering confrontation between church and state is busily exhuming the religious as well as political divisions of the civil war, the ‘two Spains’ of 70 years ago.

In the US, religion is at the heart of the so-called cultural wars, but in Europe, and for very good reason, there is still an embedded mistrust of overarching belief systems. That bitterly acquired wisdom should be the foundation stone for an inclusive brand of secularism. Such secularism should be a platform offering equal rights to those of all religions and those of none. With or without God, or even somewhere inside what Pascal called a ‘God-shaped void’, the real meaning of secularism is tolerance.

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