One of my most deeply-held convictions is of the benefit of having a secular state. It is the best protection against excesses committed in the name of a belief system, which applies as much to the oppressions of atheism as to those of any religion.
Let’s distinguish between secularism on the one hand and anti-religion on the other. I’m not arguing against religious beliefs as such. It is always important to safeguard freedom of expression, which has to include the right to follow any religion of one’s choosing; but, it’s just as important to guard against the dangers of allowing any particular sect to gain supremacy in terms of official status or privileges.
Why that has to be is really very simple. If you have anything else then you have created different categories of citizenship, which carry with them a stratification of society. Them and us . . . first and second class . . . winners and losers.
No established or national church, therefore. No Anglican prayers in Parliament or – God forbid – Anglican bishops in the House of Lords by right. No religious symbols in public buildings, nor any need for the US to have to debate that issue endlessly.
As an aside, but also on a topical note in the UK: if affirmation, rather than swearing on some work of scripture, is generally agreed to be acceptable, then why not simplify things greatly by dispensing with the latter completely? Let us all affirm and have done with it.
Equally true, however, is that there is no level playing field achieved if all you do is replace religious oppression with the atheist equivalent. The Dawkins’ mindset is as much of a danger as any other. Taking religion out of all public life is not the same as prohibiting it entirely. Making religion private has also to mean respecting people’s privacy.
Let me be free to practise my religion without having ever to justify it, or even having to disclose it at all.
I don’t want my police officer or public official to be wearing a religious badge or symbol (or a political one, for that matter) when in uniform. What they do when not on duty is their business, however. That has to be more than a platitude: it’s vital that all sections of our diverse community feel able to participate in all fields of activity and that in practice they actually do; there cannot therefore be a division into religions classed as acceptable and others deemed not so. Include atheism as a religion for this purpose.
You might argue that secularisation of the state does not rule out giving a special status to bona fide religious organisations (e.g. tax breaks) and to their clerics (e.g. exemption from jury service), so long as we treat them all the same. The problem with that is: who gets to say what counts as a religion? As soon as you have an official arbiter of this kind, we’re back to making distinctions, avoidance of which was the whole idea in the first place.
Even the notion of an objective test, such as a minimum number of adherents in order to qualify as an officially acknowledged religion, is flawed. In the 2001 census across Great Britain, for example, 404,179 people entered “Jedi” as their religious denomination – more than for each of Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism – making it the fourth largest reported answer. There couldn’t have been more than a handful who intended this as anything other than a joke, however, which fact serves as ample demonstration of the difficulty when dealing with self-reported data.
Forget all that, because you’ll never get it right. You simply can’t tell who is a Jedi and who’s a genuine adherent.
No recognition at all; it’s the only way to go.
The 2011 figure for England & Wales was 176,632, which downgraded Jediism to seventh place.