What is a secular society? Fundamentally it is based upon two basic principles:
The state should exist independently of any and all religions.
All are equal under the law regardless of their religion or beliefs.
However, despite research within the 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey which seems to show that by far the single biggest faith group in the UK are those without a religious faith (49%), significant criticisms have been made that militant secularism is attempting to destroy religion.
Critics of secularism often claim it oppresses faith groups, is anti religious and promotes atheism. Theists have made some fairly harsh criticisms of the concept of secularism. Some examples of this are:
“the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity” – Baroness Warsi
“You want to have two guys making out in front of your 4-year-old? It’s OK with them. A guy smoking a joint, blowing the smoke into your little kid’s face? OK with them. And I’m not exaggerating here. This is exactly what the secular movement stands for.” – Bill O’Reilly
But these criticisms fail to adequately account for what secularism really means. So let’s look at it’s real defining principles.
Secular Society Definition:
Essentially a secular society separates the operation of state legislation from religion. This does not mean that the state can not be influenced by religion, as some anti secularists suggest. A secular state does not deny religious communities within it the right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion. In fact, in a secular state, religious groups have as much right to lobby and influence state legislature as anyone else.
However, in a secular state, religious groups do not have a unique privilege to do so. For example, in what is a secular society, the UK, the Christian faith have a uniquely powerful voice within the state legislature. There are 26 seats reserved for representatives of the christian faith within the House of Lords. Furthermore the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland are recognised as, so called, state religions.
Given that recent studies show that less than 42% of the UK population describe themselves as Christians, with less than 17% attending church at least once a year, secularists argue that there is no reason to bestow this unique law making power upon what is actually a religious minority.
However, contrary to the criticisms of critics such as Baroness Warsi, secularists do not claim that Christians don’t have the right to be heard only that their rights do not outweigh those of any one else. Similarly UK secularists do recognise the historical significance of Christianity in British history. However they argue that there are a great many cultural and religious influences that have shaped and continue to shape modern Britain who are not afforded any unique legislative power.
Far from discriminating against religion a secular state actually protects religious freedom, including the freedom not to be religious. An oft made criticism is that secularism is synonymous with atheism. This is a complete fallacy.
Atheism is simply the absence of a belief in deities. It is not a belief system at all. However, in a secular state, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on grounds of their religion or their rejection of religion. As a consequence many atheists, who may object to the very concept of a state religion, identify with secularism. However secularism itself does not promote atheism or any other religious view, quite the opposite in fact.
A secular state would mean that all religious beliefs are protected and any and all individuals will have the right to observe their religion providing that their observance does not impinge upon the rights of others or contravene the law.
For example forced marriage is illegal in Britain but many cultures and faiths practice arranged marriage. This is perfectly acceptable within a secular state. However where that arrangement involves the abuse of or coercion of an individual to marry against their will the state can intervene. This has nothing to do with the oppression of religious freedom but is simply a matter of the law.
The core tenet of secularism is to uphold human rights regardless of religion, ethnicity, sexuality, age, disability or gender. So if someone asked me, “what is a secular society?” I would say it is a suggested framework for a successful democratic society and not an attack upon anyone’s religious or philosophical freedoms.