By RAY ARGYLE
Thomas Jefferson, writing to worried Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut in 1802, pledged that his administration would adhere to the “supreme will of the nation” on behalf of the rights of conscience and the free exercise of religion. The First Amendment, he said, had built “a wall of separation between Church & State.” America would have an impenetrable barrier to religious involvement in affairs of state.
One hundred and eighty years later, on April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II gave royal assent to a new Canadian Constitution at a rainy outdoor ceremony in Ottawa. It contained a much heralded Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteeing “freedom of conscience and religion” while asserting that Canada was founded on “principles that recognize the supremacy of God.”
Both countries had set out to build secular and humanist societies. The United States, to all appearances, rejected any role for religion in its founding documents. Canada, in contrast, subjected itself – at least titularly – to God’s will. It guaranteed public funding of Roman Catholic schools and accepted the Queen’s role as head of state and “defender of the faith,” as symbolized by the Anglican Church.
Move forward to 2021 and a world slowly emerging from a global pandemic. What do we find? In the United States, relentless Christian evangelical attacks on secularism; in Canada, almost universal public acceptance for secular social policies. Arrived at free of religious interference, Canada guarantees, among other secular rights, freedom of choice (abortion rights), the right to medically assisted dying, medical and recreational use of marijuana, and a long-standing ban on capital punishment.
Ironically, the most contentious secular issue in Canada is not the defence of secularism, but whether the Province of Quebec has adopted too rigid a form of secularism through its ban on the wearing of religious symbols (i.e., the hijab) by public service workers in positions of authority. Civil libertarians see Quebec’s “Act Respecting the Laicity of the State” as an unreasonable curtailment of individual rights.
Around the world, secularism is under siege from religious forces ranging from populist Christian movements in Europe to extremist Islamic elements engaged in terrorist acts. Hindu nationalism in India has fractured a century of secular tolerance of Muslims and Hindus and China – ignoring its own secular constitution – is brutally suppressing its Uighur Muslim minority.
I gained a fuller appreciation of the ferocity of these attacks while researching Inventing Secularism, my biography of secularism’s founder, George Jacob Holyoake. The dangers I saw impelled me to add an epilogue identifying the actors and their strategies behind the assault on secularism which are now mounting around the world.
Thomas Jefferson’s proscription of religious involvement in affairs of state lasted until the mid -20th century. Then, Congress ordered the phrase “In God We Trust” to appear on U.S. currency and inserted “Under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. The third Thursday in May was designated as a National Day of Prayer. A secularist organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sees this contrivance for what it is: “… a vehicle for spreading religious misinformation and fundamentalist Christian doctrine under the aegis of the government – precisely what the framers [of the Constitution] were seeking to prohibit.”
These largely symbolic acts, while contrary to the principle that religion should have no place in lawmaking, stand today as minor irritants compared to the systematic attack on secularism that has been unfolding in U.S. courts and legislative bodies, and in countries around the world. The flow of public funds to U.S churches and faith groups through executive orders and court decisions, including an undetermined billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief intended for states and communities, is unprecedented in American history.
Under the guise of strengthening individual freedom, recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have enabled local governments to fund and maintain public religious displays, provide access to public funding for certain religious schools, and allow service providers to discriminate among those whose lifestyles or religious principles they find disagreeable. From a humanist perspective, these actions amount to a reinterpretation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment – one prohibiting the “establishment” of a state religion and the other guaranteeing the “free exercise of faiths.”
As an example of anti-secular legislation by various U.S. states, a new Arkansas law would allow doctors, insurance companies, and employers to deny patients necessary healthcare on the basis of religious beliefs. “A person’s doctor or boss should not be able to use personal religious beliefs to dictate the healthcare their families can or cannot receive,” the watchdog group American Atheists said in a statement.
An air of optimism surrounded the first inter-faith meeting held by Pope Francis when he spent five days with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana in February, 2013. It was the first such meeting in the nearly thousand years since the Great Schism of 1054 split Christianity between Greek East and Roman West. The newly ordained Pontiff had brought a breath of liberalism to the Vatican and his ability to communicate church doctrine in simple, homespun ways was impressing Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Any expectation that Francis, as head of the oldest and arguably most influential Christian church would lead his 1.2 billion adherents to a new reality of modern life was quickly dashed. A thirty-point declaration out of Havana confirmed traditional teachings of both the Russian Orthodox and Roman churches. Most notably, the statement marked the Pontiff’s endorsement of a fresh crusade against secularism.
“The transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all references to God and his truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom,” the statement declared. It attacked the “very aggressive secularist ideology” that seeks to relegate religion “to the margins of public life.” It also declared that “Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots.”
Aside from alarming humanists, the declaration troubled some Catholics. Jon O’Brien, president of the Washington-based Catholics for Choice, said it misrepresented the true meaning of secularism. “A secular society is not one in which one religion or religious belief is in any way opposed, but one in which all citizens can practice as they see fit. In a secular society, we can have freedom of religion and freedom from religion.”
Since Havana, Pope Francis has stepped up his assaults on secularism. In 2017 he traveled to Egypt to meet President al-Sisi and defend a “vision of healthy secularism” that he would like to see accepted by Muslim countries. The Pontiff’s remarks made it evident that the trade-off for acceptance of his version of a neutered secularism would allow religion to dictate public policies on issues the Church regards itself and the Bible as sole arbiters. He pressed his attack in celebrating World Mission Day in 2019. “Rampant secularism”, he said, “when it becomes an aggressive cultural rejection of God’s active fatherhood in our history, is an obstacle to authentic human fraternity.”
During Pope Francis’s reign, virulent attacks on secularism have emerged in the American Catholic press. The National Catholic Register, which describes itself as the most faithful Catholic news source in the United States, has blamed secularism for the crimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, declaring “Secularism in any of its guises is deadly.” Its article was headed ‘Beware the Stormtroopers of Secularism’ and was illustrated with a picture of Nazi troops in Poland taking a Catholic priest to his execution. Such hyperbole overlooks the fact that the Nazis defied secularist principles by persecuting a people based on their religious identity, while the Soviet campaign of atheism invaded the secularist right to freedom of religion.
This preoccupation with secularism is consistent with Pope Francis’s staunchly conservative theology, despite occasional flashes of liberality. Having cheerfully asserted that atheists should follow their conscience and can still go to heaven if they approach God “with a sincere and contrite heart,” Pope Francis also spoke tolerantly of same-sex relationships. “Who am I to judge?” he replied off-handedly in answer to a question about a gay priest. More recently, he has warned that priestly celibacy must be strictly adhered to and on other issues has reflected traditional Catholic views: opposition to abortion, birth control and gay marriage, denial of the right to assisted death, and restrictions on the role of women in the Church. Pope Francis has dealt with child sex abuse, a phenomenon endemic within the Catholic priesthood, by ending the edict imposing secrecy on anyone reporting sexual abuse, and has ordered church leaders to report sex abuse cases and sex abuse cover-ups.
In the United States, the deep strain of religiosity running through American politics has encouraged militant Christian evangelists in their determination to apply religious tests to civil legislation, and to gain public funding through means that violate the First Amendment. A 2020 survey by the respected Pew Institute had half of Americans (49%) saying the Bible should have at least “some influence” on U.S. laws, with more than a quarter (28%) holding the view that the Bible should take priority over the will of the people. Well known examples include denial of LGBTQ rights, restrictions to abortion, withdrawal of funding to organizations like Planned Parenthood, and cancellation of foreign aid to countries permitting family planning (a policy reversed by President Biden).
In such an environment, politicians are generally reluctant to express a commitment to humanist values. There are exceptions. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, declined to attend the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast and just over a dozen Democrats make up the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Its most recent recruit is Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Muslim. Its perhaps most notable member is Rep. Jared Huffman of California who has declared himself a “non-religious humanist.”
Between 2017 and 2021, President Donald Trump and members of his cabinet came down consistently in favor of evangelical political positions. According to Mat Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a legal advisory organization, about ninety per cent of fundamentalist goals were achieved under the Trump administration. “He’s been the most pro-religious freedom and pro-life president in modern history,” Staver told the Associated Press.
“We will not let anyone push God from the public square,” President Trump declared. American states began to require schools to post the slogan In God We Trust on classroom walls. The State of Mississippi, in design of a new state flag, dictated it bear the same words.
These challenges to secularism were echoed in U.S. Attorney-General William Barr’s claim, made in a speech to the University of Notre Dame law school, that “militant secularists” were behind a “campaign to destroy the traditional moral order”.
Appointments to the Supreme Court by Republican presidents – in power for 24 years between 1981 and 2021 – have securely embedded conservative and pro-religious views on the nation’s highest judicial body. Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch, Brent Kavanagh and Amy Coney Barrett tilted the Court further to the right.
The United States faces anti-secularism on other fronts, including white Christian nationalist groups like the Proud Boys and the instigators of QAnon who participated in the January 6 putative insurrection in Washington, and neo-Nazi groups of the type that gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to defend a Civil War monument and chant “Blood and Soil”, a Nazi rallying cry.
Secularists have welcomed the election of Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, as President. But they look with concern on his repeated invoking of God and prayer and his description of America as a nation “sustained by faith.” Such comments are seen as a contradiction to the separation of church and state and an expression of disrespect to the nearly one-third of Americans – atheists, agnostics and other non-religious – who hold dissenting views.
Blasphemy prosecutions abound across the Muslim world. They provide a convenient legal process that near-theocratic states employ to control dissent and repress humanist expression. The connection with secularism as known in the West may seem remote, but every charge of blasphemy is an offence to secularism and everything secularism stands for – democratic rule, human rights, religious freedom and freedom from religion, the exclusion of religion from public life, and government non-involvement in religious natters.
In Bangladesh, human rights advocate Rafida Bonya Ahmed and her husband were attacked by a machete-wielding gang enraged by his online anti-religious, secularist comments. Police stood by as he was murdered. Appearing before a U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs subcommittee, she identified 83 countries with blasphemy laws carrying penalties of fines, torture, imprisonment, and death.
While blasphemy – showing contempt or lack of reverence for God – is considered a major crime in Muslim countries, apostasy – abandoning the faith – is considered an even greater offence. Ten countries impose the penalty of death for apostasy.
An Asian nation beset by the disintegration of secularism is India, where the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has embarked on policies that repudiate the country’s long secularist tradition. The BJP’s policies are having the effect of turning religions that did not originate on Indian soil – notably Islam and Christianity – into alien essences. The most controversial is a Citizenship Act that provides for refugees who came to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal to be given expedited access to citizenship – providing they are not Muslims. A U.S. government commission on international religious freedom has called for punitive measures against India, citing a “drastic turn downward” in religious freedom.
Across Europe, secularism is under siege in many nations. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party has imposed a near-total ban on abortion, criminalized sex education in schools; and equated homosexuality with pedophilia. The German state of Bavaria mandated that government buildings display a crucifix to show the region’s “social and cultural identity.” In Hungary a populist government led by Viktor Orban has cracked down on the press and driven the Central European University, a research-focused institute founded by billionaire George Soros, out of the country.
Turkey, once the most secular of Muslim nations, has almost totally abandoned secularism under a government that has repudiated the policies of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk”, who initiated modernization of the country in the 1920s. After jailing opponents and gaining control of most Turkish media, President Recep Erdogan has openly called for re-establishment of an Islamic state. In a dramatic move toward this goal, the historic Hagia Sophia, a secular museum since 1936, has been restored as a mosque. Within a month the mediaeval Church of the Holy Saviour, one of Istanbul’s most celebrated Byzantine buildings that has been a secular museum for more than 70 years, was also converted into a mosque.
England and France also have been affected by the strains of anti-secularism. The two countries have taken different historic paths to secularism but both have suffered terrorist attacks – notably the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan Concert bombings in Paris and a London subway bombing and an attack on a Manchester concert venue in which 22 people were killed. These events traumatized people in both countries, although the victims were far fewer than the 3,000 who died in New York on September 11, 2001.
Secularists in the United Kingdom accept, reluctantly, the role of the Queen as head of its established church, but wage an unrelenting campaign to remove religious control from state-funded schools. They also oppose the appointment of the 26 Church of England bishops who sit in the House of Lords, pointing out that Iran is the only other state where the clergy are represented as of right.
Attacks on secularism, if not vigorously opposed, will lead inevitably to a world of less freedom and more oppression. A more positive alternative has been articulated by George Jacob Holyoake, the English social reformer who invented the term secularism in 1851. Writing in his groundbreaking Principles of Secularism, he saw it a duty to promote “the immediate and material welfare of humanity … amid whatever diversity of opinion may subsist in a Secular Society.” This is the challenge secularism still must meet, if it is to withstand the attacks of resurgent religious forces throughout the world.
Ray Argyle is author of Inventing Secularism: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake, published by McFarland & Co, USA.. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.
References and Resources
- Featured Image Courtesy of: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/only-secularism-can-save-us-from-extremism/10098134
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