Eric Chester makes a contribution to the ongoing discussion and debate in the RCN about secularism
The demand for a secular republic has always been central to the struggle for socialism. All too frequently state power is used to bolster a specific religious orthodoxy, with those who adhere to other religions, or to no religion at all, finding themselves the target of discrimination and repression. Nineteenth century bourgeois revolutions, such as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, raised the demand for a separation of church and state, and significant steps were taken toward that goal. Nevertheless, an established church remains entrenched in most countries, receiving special privileges and state subsidies to reinforce its hold on the populace.
In this context, the call for an end to all state funding, either direct or indirect, for any religious institution is essential. One consequence of this demand is the banning of all state subsidies to faith base schools of every religious belief, and an insistence that state schools be totally free of religious indoctrination. Certainly in Glasgow, where Catholic parochial schools are widespread, and where the state school system promotes Protestant religious teaching, a genuinely non-sectarian and universal school system is long overdue.
Still, the demand that the state should not finance any religious institution is only one component of a socialist program to establish a secular state. In my view, socialists need to start with this fundamental principle: No one should suffer any disadvantage, or gain any advantage, from holding to a religious belief, or holding to no religious belief as either an agnostic or atheist. Each person living in a secular republic should be treated equally, and every law and regulation should be applied to everyone on an equal basis.
This might seem to be a self-evident principle, but it has far-reaching implications. This can be seen in examining several situations that remain controversial. In the United States, the Amish insist that their children should not be cajoled into going to high school, since, after all, they would be exposed to other teenagers who hold very different views, and who engage in activities that are forbidden to the Amish. Thus, the Amish insist their religious freedom is being violated by the enforcement of truancy laws. In fact, the Amish are demanding that their religious beliefs entitle them to flout laws that apply to everyone else.
In another current controversy, Orthodox Jews and Muslims insist that the animals they eat are to be killed according to a protocol that is otherwise illegal. They are convinced that their religious beliefs exempt them from laws and regulations intended to provide a minimum of protection to slaughtered animals. These regulations are reasonable, and should apply to everyone.
Then there is the issue of the burkha. Some Muslim women believe that their religion prescribes this form of dress as the basis for modesty. Women should have the right to dress as they please, but there are certain situations in which everyone is expected to be present with their face shown to public view. Many banks insist on this for security reasons. In most judicial trials, jurors can observe the facial expression of witnesses. Again, if the rules are reasonable as applied to the public as a whole then religious beliefs should not be a sufficient basis for exemption.
Of course, those who hold to the established religion frequently assume that they are entitled to special privileges. In the centre of Glasgow, the use of microphones and audio amplification equipment is sharply limited. Nevertheless, street preachers expanding on the virtues of the bible are permitted to spend hours blaring their hollow pieties at random passers by. It is just taken for granted that Christian preachers have rights granted to no one else.
In Glasgow, a metropolitan area of over one million, no buses run on Christmas Day. The bus system depends on subsidies it receives from the local government, so this act of religious discrimination is, in effect, establishing Christianity as the official religion. Mass transit is a basic right. It should be available on every day, even on a religious holiday.
Creating a truly secular society will not be easy. As socialists we need to resist religious sectarianism in theory and practice. Religious creeds when they involve the holding of certain beliefs concerning a deity are completely protected as the expression of one form of ideas. Those who hold religious beliefs should be able to advocate them through writings and speeches. Believers should be able to hold religious services and celebrate their distinctive holidays.
The problem begins when believers argue that their religion requires them to take certain actions that infringe on the well being of others. As socialists, we need to be very clear that we can not accept such expressions of religious beliefs. Believers can only engage in religious activity to the extent that it does not harm others, or require the granting of special privileges not available to others not holding these religious beliefs, or holding no religious views at all. The fact that the religious dogma of some sect requires certain actions is irrelevant to whether or not it should be legally permitted, or sanctioned by the society as a whole. If this is not the case, then the society is not truly secular, but rather a theocratic state
We have a long way to go before we live in a genuinely secular society. At every level, from the immediate realities of every day life to the purely conceptual, the implicit assumption remains that religion, and specifically Christianity, is an integral component of the cultural mainstream, and, thus, must be defended and provided with privileges and subsidies. Those of us who are not believers need to stand firm, while firmly presenting the case for the secular alternative to religious orthodoxy.