Secularism, Schmeckularism

A survey released this week (see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/23/no-religion-outnumber-christians-england-wales-study ) confirms two things I already knew.

One is, that as the headline makes clear, those in Britain who identify as Christian are now in the minority. The other is that the C of E’s press officers either still cannot understand the meaning of secularism, or are deliberately misrepresenting it and blurring the lines between religious belief/religious privilege and secularism, atheism and humanism.

Just to be dictionary clear on this …

Atheism is the outright rejection of the idea of gods. Humanism (more precisely in the 21st century secular humanism, to differentiate it from that historic phase in Christianity when theology centred on the human rather than the divine) displaces gods for a “faith” in the essential goodness of human beings. Secularism absolutely defends freedom of belief while opposing religious privilege. It appears that for some Christians the privilege is so “normal” (as is their denial and oppression of all other religious belief systems) that they view any challenge to privilege as an attack on the belief itself. In actuality, while run by atheists and humanists, the National Secular Society does not require members to be “non-believers”, and indeed has always had Christian members and supporters (including clergy) who share the core belief that Britain is not a secular society as long as there are Lords Spiritual and a formal link between the state and the Church of England.

But something other than career Christian ignorance or dishonesty worries me too. This is an argument I have seen elsewhere on atheist forums (and only last week heard in a discussion I attended on Bertrand Russell, who while seen as an atheist intellectual always carefully referred to himself as agnostic) getting triumphal about the British public turning away from organised religion, but attacking more precise non-religious thinkers who they (wrongly) see as “sitting on the fence”.

While on the one hand I am certainly worried by Christians who are so dogmatic that they won’t entertain the notion that their god might not exist, I am equally worried by atheists who would refuse to examine any evidence that there might be one. Both extremes seem illogical.

The true scientific attitude, as the devoutly irreverent prankster Robert Anton Wilson always maintained, would have to be to stay absolutely agnostic about absolutely everything. I am agnostic about the idea that pigs might fly. I am agnostic about the idea that there might be an omnipotent deity. Both seem highly unlikely at present, but 50 years ago who could have imagined the internet?

I can retain a sense of wonder and optimism about the world without needing to believe the wonder is due to a deity’s design, but if it helps you personally to retain that optimism by thinking it is, although the evidence hasn’t been uncovered yet, then if you’re not harming anyone else, what business is it to anyone else? I defend the freedom to mock you, but just as resolutely mock atheist fundamentalists like Dawkins who refuse to stay open to the notion that one day all we thought we knew will prove wrong, or that something even more wonderful than the current world might be possible.

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