As you may have guessed from my recent article about faith schools in the UK, I am a secularist. As one who considers myself a spiritual person, I believe that all of us, both religious and non-religious alike, would be much better off in a secular UK. Why is this?
Firstly, I believe there are some misconceptions surrounding the word “secularism,” which may be why you hear so many people call themselves “atheists,” “agnostics” and “humanists” but rarely “secularists.” In fact, I think the majority of people in the UK share the founding beliefs of secularism without realising it. So what exactly is secularism?
What secularism is NOT
Firstly, secularism is not the same as atheism, agnosticism or humanism. The latter three represent people who do not follow any religion, do not believe in any gods, or at least do not live their lives according to any religious doctrines. In contrast, secularists are not necessarily non-religious – there are those, like me, who enthusiastically follow religion – but they believe deeply in the individual’s right to follow whatever religion they wish – and the right to not follow any religion at all. Secularism is attractive to atheists and humanists, but it is certainly not limited to those who do not follow a religion.
Secondly, secularists do not believe in the abolition or prohibition of religion. On the contrary, secularism promotes freedom of expression of the individual – and that includes freedom of religion. And secularists certainly don’t want to abolish our beloved British festivals and traditions that are rooted in religion, such as Easter and Christmas!
What secularism IS
As defined by the National Secular Society (NSS), secularists believe in “the strict separation of the state from religious institutions” and that “people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.” These are the two founding principles of secularism. The goal of secularism is therefore to promote equality between people of different religions and no religions, and to defend the freedom to believe, or disbelieve, whatever religious teachings you wish. As the NSS explains, “Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike.”
Some of the ways in which the NSS works to make the UK a secular society include campaigning against religious affiliations within state schools, religious practises engaged or promoted by the state, and censorship of expression due to religious concerns. You can read their full charter here.
Why do religious people need secularism?
Just as secularism grants freedom from religion, it also grants freedom of religion. It gives everyone the right to worship freely – and ensures that no religion is given a more privileged status in society than another.
I invite all Pagans reading this to imagine what a secular Britain would look like. Our children would no longer be indoctrinated by their school into a different religion to the one we practise at home, because Church of England schools and other state faith schools would no longer exist. And the advantages that children attending faith schools might gain in doing so, due to the inequality of funding, would also no longer exist. Pagan handfastings would have equal status to church weddings. With the Church of England no longer exerting its currently considerable power over the government, we would no longer need to fear that the political decisions might be made in the best interest of Christians but to the detriment of Pagans. And by having equal status in the eyes of the law and state to Christianity and other major religions in the UK, some of the discrimination and prejudice that Pagans face would start to disappear.
I also invite all Christians reading this to think of the benefits they would gain from a secular Britain. It would shift the balance of power away from the very highest elite in the Church, back into the hands of the people. It would force the Church to become more democratic, as its followers would have a much larger stake in the Church’s future. It would also force the Church to become more transparent, helping to eliminate some of the terrible scandals that have happened within the Church over the years due to the secrecy surrounding its processes. It would lead to a society filled with greater tolerance and more brotherly love between one another, a central Christian principle. And it would bring the focus of the Church back where it should be – on individuals working to live a moral life within their society according to the teachings of Jesus Christ.