Eric Pickles needs a lesson in what secularism is (and isn’t)

Eric Pickles's comments on 'militant atheists' belie an ignorance as to what secularism is, writes Matthew Broomfield.

Eric Pickles’s comments on ‘militant atheists’ belie an ignorance as to what secularism actually is, writes Matt Broomfield

“We’re a Christian nation”, Conservative party chairman Eric Pickles recently told the party’s spring conference. “We have an established church. Get over it. And don’t impose your politically correct intolerance on others.”

These comments belie an ignorance of the rights and freedoms available to religious believers of all denominations under a secular system. He is not alone in failing to understand the positive impact of constitutional secularism on liberal democracy.

What secularism is:

1) Unifying.

Narendra Modi, the Hindu Nationalist expected to triumph in the ongoing race to become prime minister of India, has a track record of nurturing anti-Muslim sentiment. In 2002, an anti-Muslim massacre in the state of Gujarat (where Modi is chief minister) resulted in over 1,000 deaths.

At the time of the pogrom, Modi did little to check the violence, and spoke out against opening relief camps for those affected. Last year, he said he cared about the deaths of these Muslims as much as he cared about a puppy being run over by a car. If he is elected, he will have been borne to power on a tide of anti-Muslim sentiment. Secularism insists that there is no place for this type of sectarian hatred in public discourse.

2) Accommodating.

The exam watchdog Ofqual and the Joint Council for Qualifications are currently meeting with Muslim groups to discuss the possibility of moving exam dates in 2016, when they will clash with the day-long fasts of Ramadan. A secular system allows for compromise: Muslim pupils have the right to engage in the private religious practice of fasting and the right to take their public exams at full strength, yet at the same time they must not be allowed to gain an unfair advantage over non-Muslim pupils.

This dialogue between faith groups and the government is an often-overlooked aspect of state secularism. It recognises the importance of religious belief on a personal level, and seeks to accommodate all belief systems into society without allowing them to negatively affect state policy or the rights of other citizens.

3) Profitable.

If religious institutions were subject to the same rules of taxation as other organisations, they would contribute significantly to the national economy. There may be as much as $100,000,000,000 of untaxed church property in the United States, and Nebraskan senator Ernie Chambers has recently tabled a motion to try and access the currently untaxable wealth bound up in the roughly 3000 untaxed religious properties in his home state. The Church of England alone is worth around £5,000,000,000, and a secular reform of religious taxation policy in the UK would allow the government to tap into this wealth.

Ultimately, perhaps Pickles might best be persuaded by the bottom line, as the religious institutions of Britain follow Biblical precedent and render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Secularism is not:

1) Atheism.

It merely gives atheism an equal footing alongside other belief systems. The aggressive anti-theism of the Hitchens-Dawkins axis (the ‘thuggish hard left’ Pickles referred to in his speech) has little to do with secularism.

2) Extremist.

In his speech, Pickles aligned secularism with the extremist doctrines of the English Defence League and militant Islam, saying “they’re all as bad as each other”. In reality, secularism is not a religious or political ideology at all, so much as it is the absence of any one dominant ideology.

In Saudi Arabia, new measures introduced by King Abdullah redefine terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”. It is a long way from prayers in local council meetings to this totalitarian subjugation of religious minorities, but secularism exists to safeguard against religious extremism, not “appeasing” it – as Pickles claimed.

3) Intolerant.

In the wrong hands, it can undoubtedly be abused in order to infringe the personal rights of citizens. “There is no reason for religion to enter the public sphere; that’s the law,” Marine Le Pen told RTL radio in France, in an attempt to justify the National Front’s plans to force Muslim schoolchildren to eat pork.

The issue here is that what an individual has for his or her lunch is not in any sense a public affair, in the way that it would be if all children were forced to eat halal meals. Secularism encourages rather than denies individual choice, and recognises that religious institutions have a role to play in society. Its focus on the separation of church and state simply serves to prevent any one belief system from affecting the rights of other individuals.

Le Pen’s brand of virulent Islamophobia is a poisonous ideology in its own right, and has no more place in the secular public sphere than Sharia law.

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40 Responses to “Eric Pickles needs a lesson in what secularism is (and isn’t)”

  1. Dave Roberts

    He as moved against Lufur Rahman in Tower Hamlets though so that’s a start.

  2. Simon Watts

    As an Agnostic, ( I don’t know if there is or isn’t an intelligence behind the creation of the universe, I see no proof either way and see no extra validity in either belief) I am rarely afflicted by religious bores. Most religious people seem to have the manners to just state that they believe and not try to convert me. Modern evangelical Atheists however are tedious, tedious people who bring their beliefs up at every possible moment and ouse insufferable smugness,

  3. Paine in the USA

    Respectfully disagree. If the religious bores don’t bother you, but the “evangelical” Atheists bother you- you must live in a very Liberal mecca, i.e. sheltered from the indoctrinated. Out here in the real World the Religious will not just bring up their beliefs, they will make you abide by the rules of their faith. The Atheists, thankfully shed a light of reason on an otherwise Theocratic USA. If 60% of the USA believes the World is 6-10k years old.. whose smugness would you rather hear?

  4. Simon Watts

    “Out here in the real world” The USA. I live in the UK. 90% of us don’t give a flying… We have more important things to worry about, like whether we can pay our bills. And enough natural reserve not to lecture others on the unknown and unprovable. Because we don’t think we have a direct line to the mysteries of the universe, because we are just normal arseholes.

  5. Paine in the USA

    Normal or not, you proved my point. Thank you for playing.
    BTW.. everyone has a backyard.

  6. Simon Watts

    Don’t get me wrong, religion being rammed down your throat is equally annoying. But I think Atheism is falling into the same trap. And the advantage of not believing in something is not having to care or worry about it. Not suffering from it or having to force others to share your belief or lack of belief by ranting on about it. I don’t believe in theism or atheism. It’s all a bit arrogant.

  7. Paine in the USA

    O.K. I can’t resist.. All of those Feminists forcing their “equal rights” crap on me gets old. I hate hearing it. They should stay home and the man should get the available job,. or those (1960 here) segregationists ranting about blacks and whites sharing bathrooms and school rooms.. I’ve had enough of that arrogant equality shite.. I could go on… Hopefully you catch my drift.

  8. Simon Watts

    OH GET A BLOODY GRIP! Your wages limited cos you’re an Atheist? Anybody arresting you and beating you with a club cos you sat in the Theist seat on the bus? You not allowed a vote cos you dont believe in God? Gangs of Jesuits and southern Pastors roaming around in pickups ready to lynch your unbelieving ass? No! It’s worse! They might tell you that if you don’t believe, you’re going to Hell, which you don’t believe in anyway!
    Comparing your “struggle” to the suffragettes and the civil rights movement. That’s just offensive.

  9. Paine in the USA

    You boring, dumb, thick Brit (sorry, but unfortunately for you, it is true), you have never been to the States- Disney World and Times Square don’t count. I’ve lived in London and Dublin, so listen up fool.

    The most recent study was conducted by the University of Minnesota, which found that atheists ranked lower than “Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’ Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.” The results from two of the most important questions”

    This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society…

    Atheist: 39.6%

    Muslims: 26.3%
    South Carolina, Article 17, Section 4:
    No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.

    Arkansas, Article 19, Section 1:
    Atheists disqualified from holding office or testifying as witness.
    No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.

    Mississippi, Article 14, Section 265:
    No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.


    “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”

  10. Simon Watts

    But no one is actually murdering you with the active consent of the law are they? Or enslaving you? Not my fault you live in a nuthouse, but comparing the rights of Atheists with the struggles of women and black people is damned offensive. You may get flak from others, on this page, I hope so. And you’re a bigot. End of discusdion

  11. Edwin

    What a silly person Simon Watts is to bring in the relativity of prejudices. If somebody steals my car the loss is not ameliorated because somebody had their life savings stolen. I am a Brit and I do agree with Paine. If some atheists are smug and like to talk about atheism how does that negate their arguments?

  12. S Cruise

    “Modern evangelical Atheists however are tedious, tedious people who bring their beliefs up at every possible moment”

    Says the agnostic who brings up his beliefs at every possible moment.

    Yes, most religious people – especially here in the UK – don’t wear religion on their sleeves and try to foist their beliefs on others at every given opportunity. The majority of atheists are just the same. However, the element of religious folk who do attempt to foist their beliefs on others – generally or through law – shouldn’t expect a free pass. An atheist, agnostic or theist has every right to voice his or her opinion or disagreement with such people. If a theist says god exists, I should have the right to say I don’t see any good reason to believe that. If a theist says god exists therefore you can’t work Sundays or eat pork, or says you have to pray when you attend a civic council meeting, I should have every right to state my disagreement – and I should have the right to work Sundays, eat pork and not pray to something that doesn’t exist to me.

    Religion has a great deal of privilege in this country; privilege that you probably aren’t aware of. As a secularist, not as an atheist, I oppose those privileges that the religious are given with a free pass. We should all be treated equally. And no religion should be given special status or privilege in government.

  13. S Cruise

    “And the advantage of not believing in something is not having to care or worry about it.”

    I agree. Unfortunately, a lot of people do believe – and a number of those people are doing all they can to gain power and privilege in government where they can easily deny you rights, undermine education, health-care, you name it. Both atheists and theists have to guard against that.

  14. Martin

    Except it seems he is receiving NO flack. Seems most folk agree.
    You don’t seem to understand what agnostic means either. It is not some halfway house term in between atheist and theist. YOU whether or not you like it are an atheist my freind. If you are not a theist you are by definition an atheist.
    A/theism refers to what one believes.
    A/gnostisism refers to what one knows, or can know.
    They are both different terms. A/gnostic is almost a useless term Id argue that no one knows. Regardless that they claim to know.
    Id also argue that the only reason the religious are no longer hanging, burning or otherwise disposing of “heretics” (in most now civilised countries) is due to the fact we now have secular laws and sensibilities.
    The sooner we rid ourselves of these patently ridiculous old divisive myths and simply view them as stories from a by gone age the better off we’ll all be.
    Not that I would legislate it. But as we now have the internet it seems these beliefs will eventually die a death as education and information become easier to access.
    Lets hope it doesn’t take too long before they are in the minority everywhere. Not just here in the UK and Europe.

  15. Scepticsailor

    Simon Watts — how often do you get atheists knocking on your door trying to talk you out of your beliefs? The religious here are doing it all the time. Two days ago I was accosted in the street by Mormon nutcases. I ask them to do a deal — don`t bring their religious crap to me and I won`t try to talk them out of their delusions.

  16. Scepticsailor

    Simon Watts — how often do you get atheists knocking on your door trying to talk you out of your beliefs? The religious here are doing it all the time. Two days ago I was accosted in the street by Mormon nutcases. I ask them to do a deal — don`t bring their religious crap to me and I won`t try to talk them out of their delusions.

  17. Simon Watts

    Here we go, the semantics bomb. Agnostic is what I call myself. I do not believe in God, I do not disbelieve in God. I do not believe in the judgemental, illogical nature of religion. I do not like the finality of Atheism. Now call it what you want to call it, but I have distinct differences of views from theists and Atheists.
    Now as to the persecution of Atheists in the US. If you want to compare this to the Womens movement, the civil rights movement and the sufferings of women and racial minorities through the ages, I would call you a very rude word. I would also draw your attention to the two greatest Atheist nations this planet has produced. The Soviet Union and Communist China. They had a great attitude to religious people didn’t they? Genocide by slave labour camps.. Is that happening to Atheists in the US? No? Full of shit mate, full of shit.

  18. S Cruise

    “I do not believe in God, I do not disbelieve in God.”

    Well that makes a lot of sense.

    “I do not like the finality of Atheism.”

    Finality of atheism? Not sure what you mean. I have an absence of belief in god’s existence because I have no knowledge or awareness of a god. I find no good reason to believe otherwise. That’s all atheism is; it doesn’t say anything else about what I may or may not believe.

    “Now as to the persecution of Atheists in the US. If you want to compare this to the Womens movement, the civil rights movement and the sufferings of women and racial minorities through the ages, I would call you a very rude word”

    In the UK, when it was a Christian nation, atheists were persecuted, imprisoned & executed. Later they had their children taken from them – and they weren’t allowed to take a seat in parliament unless they made an oath to god.

    If it wasn’t for the work of civil & secular rights groups – that included atheists and like minded Christians – those things would have never changed.

    As for the suffering of women, especially during the 19th and early 20th century, maybe you should read up on some of the laws established by Christians preventing women from taking their abusive husbands to court, from voting, owning property, wearing trousers, getting credit, etc.

    Much of their suffering was caused because of religion.

  19. Paine in the USA

    Simon, I suspect you’re very young and not quite educated in general, but especially when it comes to religious fundamentalism around the World. If you had any insight at all you would understand my comparisons to Suffrage and Civil rights were intended to illustrate how we progress through social evolution. You missed the point entirely!

    Now, call me what you will, but I am not a bigot. I said “You boring, dumb, thick Brit (sorry, but unfortunately for you, it is true),”

    My assessment of you is established and it seems that others agree.
    I started off by stating “I respectfully disagree” because I write of knowledge you obviously do not possess. What ever little Utopic world you live in – is not the real world (I REPEAT). I admire and agree with Dawkins, Hitchens and others from England who grasp the magnitude and danger of a religious world.
    The tediousness ranting, as you would call it, from the Atheist is something you should be thankful for. Living in a secular world doesn’t come easy. Please read more.

  20. Paine in the USA

    Thank you Edwin, Little Simon obviously hasn’t been exposed to the power of religious indoctrination and how it effects public discourse. I too am a Brit, I have been living in the USA for most of my life. For this reason I see the danger in confusing religious faith with respect.. On the contrary, otherwise intelligent people believing in Bronze age myths hurt society as a whole. Look at the extremists of the Islamic World and how the moderates will not chastise them for their fundamentalism. Their scientific prowess was capped off around 1200 AD due to the adherence of the religion. It is disgusting, and it should disgust the little Simon fellow.

  21. Paine in the USA

    Dear Simon, anyone who has taken an elementary look at this issue wouldn’t dare bring up the USSR,Pol Pot, etc. Chestnut. Were those secular nations? No mate. State run ideology is akin to religion in that its inhabitants have no voice in what they can say or believe. Your augment is sophomoric at best, probably moronic. You are digging a deeper hole. Please read.

  22. Paine in the USA

    I have a feeling Simon Lad is religious, it sure seems to be.

  23. Fortuna

    “The aggressive anti-theism of the Hitchens-Dawkins axis”. This shows that the author has actually swallowed the religious propaganda lie of the ‘aggressive atheists’, making an otherwise good article an utter fail.

  24. Sun

    Oh god. Every time I see Matt Boomfield I want to punch a cat.

    There are numerous problems with secularism, not to mention he has piss poor understanding of it. (and no I’m not Christian. I do enjoy the holidays). I’m not going to go into everything.

    I don’t have the time to get into all the specific but listen up moron. If secularism meant you think it meant then there would be no Christian holiday by the philosophers who invented the term. Secularism isn’t supposed to deconstruct the native dominant cultural religion. Also secularism wasn’t really part of England to begin with. There is a still a Church of England. You should know your bloody history. You obviously ignore culture. Even the US founding fathers when the created secularism in the US still put their hands on bibles in inauguration, had the word god on currency and national holidays, etc.

    Which leads me to my final point. Why secularism is stupid. Besides the fact that it creates balkanization and sectarianism, it is deconstruct the cultural institutions slowly over time in this idea that a country is supposed to be neutral and anything should just happen.

  25. Shatterface

    When Dawkins straps a bomb to his chest or Hitchens kills his daughter for dating a non-atheist I’ll revisit this site and apologize for calling this author a fuckwit.

  26. Shatterface

    Secularism is the separation of church and state. All else is theocracy.

    If you are worried that secularism threatens your religious rights – rather than religious privilege – feel free to fuck off to a theocracy where you would be a minority religion and let us know how you get on.

  27. Sun

    You obviously lack reading comprehension.. Did you know that? Your simplistic view is retarded.

    If that is what secularism meant why did those who invent it have a national cultural holiday to specific religions, or currency denoting specific gods, or swearing oath of office.

    It fosters a development by allowing various minorities to do what they want and creating the basis for eventual sectarianism.

    Hell even the Church of England proves that secularism is virtually impossible in the UK. You should know your own country. Smash your head against the pavement, let me know if that helps.

  28. Shatterface

    Using disablist terms like ‘retarded’ rather reveals the hatred of the Other endemic to the theocratic mind.

  29. Sun

    That would be you because I’m not a theocrat as already mentioned above. Keep jerking off to your jesus Richard Dawkins and Hitchens believing you’re a tough guy against Christians.

    At least I’m honest about my hatred, whereas you are too cowardly to admit yours.

  30. Shatterface

    Sure, owning up to your hatred of disabled people makes you a great person. Jesus will suck you off in Heaven.

  31. Sun

    Well everyone needs hobby, my hobby is mocking retarded atheist who think that anyone who disagrees with them is a theocrat.

    Don’t use words your mommy never told you about.

  32. Sun

    >Claims to fight against Christian homophobia
    > Uses homosexuality as an insult to demean people
    >Likes to think himself a moral superior person with stupid worlds like disablist.

    I’m glad to know you’re interested in my sex life. Does thinking about Jesus sucking in Heaven get you hard? You must have a subconscious urge to spite what you claim not to believe in.

  33. Shatterface

    Your debating tactic seems to be based on the idea that making an arsehole of yourself is a trump card.

  34. Sun

    “You’re against secularism!!!111! You must be a theocrat!1!!!!”

  35. Shatterface

    I think if you are going to accuse me of homophobia suggesting the thought of Jesus blowing you ‘gets me hard’ is a bit of an own goal.

  36. Sun

    Well, I’m fine with such insults whereas you pretend you’re against it but are too stupid to realize when you make insult another in that fashion. If it wasn’t for me you would have still thought yourself “clever.”

  37. Shatterface

    Right now there’s an Internet full of people a lot less stupid than you I can be arguing with.

  38. Sun

    Oh the mocking goes right over your head. I was paraphrasing you.

    K, little boy, go back to watching Hitchen or Dawkins on youtube for your “intellectual” needs. Or better, enjoy believing in Jesus sucking people off in Heaven. Whatever gets you through the day.

  39. Lee Turnpenny

    ‘[Secularism] merely gives atheism an equal footing alongside other belief systems.’

    Strike that nonsensical statement.

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