Open Letter To Karen Armstrong on ‘The Myth of Religious Violence’

September 29, 2014

Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic sister who has written a string of historical books about religion. Her latest book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence , was published on Friday along with an accompanying Guardian article ‘The Myth of Religious Violence’.

Dear Karen,

In your recent Guardian article you suggest that:

(i) religious conflicts often involve other, non-religious factors (that’s a fairly uncontroversial claim with which I can agree),

(ii) the violence of Isis has ‘nothing to do with Islam’ (I consider the suggestion it has nothing at all to do with Islam silly, but will let it pass), and,

(iii) while secularism has been of ‘value’ to the West, it has a history of being oppressive and unjust, particularly towards the religious, producing a violent fundamentalist backlash.

It’s that third and final claim that I’ll focus on here. In particular I’m concerned with your thought that, while the violence of Isis has nothing at all to do with religion, it’s at least partly a product of an oppressive ‘secularism’.

I’ll start by pointing out that whatever you might mean by ‘secularism’ it’s not what most of those who now self-identify as ‘secularists’ and who campaign under the banner of ‘secularism’ mean by that term.

‘Secular’ has various meanings. When people say the West is becoming ‘more secular’ they often just mean the West is less religious than it used to be. On this use, ‘secular’ means ‘not religious’.

However, political ‘secularism’ is something else. Contemporary political secularists are concerned with religious neutrality. They want the state to be neutral on matters of religion. They want church/state separation. They believe the state should not endorse one religion over another, or endorse religion over atheism, or indeed endorse atheism over religion. They suppose the state should not fund religious schools, or automatically put religious people into positions of political power (any more than the state should be doing this for atheists).

This secular neutrality extends to the law. There should not be one law for the religious and another for everyone else. Secularists say, ‘One law for all’.

Given this insistence on neutrality, secularists are of course as much opposed to totalitarian atheist regimes like Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia as they are to religious theocracies.

Secondly, secularists, in this contemporary sense, emphasize the importance of freedom of thought and expression. People should be free to express their religious beliefs. Religious practice should be protected. Of course the same goes for atheists and secular humanists: they should be no less free to express their views, organise themselves, and publicly argue against religion if they wish.

So that’s what a ‘secularist’ is so far as most contemporary folk who describe themselves as such and who actively campaign for ‘secularism’ are concerned. You can confirm this for yourself by looking at, for example, the websites of the two main organisations campaigning for secularism here in the UK: the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association. CFI’s commitment to ‘secularism’ is also consistent with this understanding of the term

Let’s label the above brand of political secularism Secularism (with a capital ‘S’) to distinguish it from any other variety.

Many religious people are Secularists. I would encourage you to watch this short clip of the Roman Catholic priest, Father Bernard Lynch (video clip). Father Lynch publicly supports the Secular Europe Campaign. He grasps that Secularism involves a commitment both to protecting equally the rights and freedoms of the religious and non-religious and to achieving a level playing field for the religious and non-religious in the political sphere. Notice that, interestingly, Father Lynch even hints at a religious justification for Secularism, describing Jesus as a Secularist.

The case for Secularism is strong. Secularism can be justified on principles of fairness (why should one belief system – atheism, say, or Roman Catholicism – get privileged treatment from the state?). Secularism can also be justified on pragmatic grounds: modern Secular states have proved successful at drawing a line under the old struggles between religious factions attempting to wrestle control of states from each other.

Still, plenty of religious conservatives and fundamentalists oppose Secularism. Why? Because they do, in fact, want their religion privileged. They want their faith schools state-funded. They want their church leaders undemocratically placed into positions of political power. And they want the legal system to exempt them, on religious grounds, from the equal rights legislation that applies to everyone else.

Given the case for Secularism is strong, how do its critics respond? Typically, by caricaturing and misrepresenting it. They pretend that the Secularist’s refusal to grant the religious privileges is a form of oppression – an assault on their religious rights and freedoms. They portray Secularists as bullies who want to ‘gag’ the religious, forcing them to keep their religious opinions to themselves.

But of course Secularists want no such thing. Quite the opposite: they want to protect the religious – granting them the exact same rights and freedoms as everyone else but no more than that. That’s not ‘oppression’.

That’s what the BHA, NSS, and Father Lynch all mean by ‘secularism’. They mean Secularism.

So now let’s turn to the kind of ‘secularism’ about which you, Karen, express serious concerns. You suppose secularists think of religion as ‘a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others’. Secularists have a ‘view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics.’ Yet, as you point out, traditional religion does not ‘urge people to retreat from political activity’. You criticise the secularist partitioning of religion from everything else, reminding us that, in the words of Gandhi, ‘Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.’

Now I hope you can recognise that none of what you are criticising here is Secularism with a capital ‘S’. Whatever it is that you are talking about, it’s not what the NSS, BHA, or indeed Father Lynch have in mind. The attitude towards religion that you describe is one they would all oppose. Secularists don’t think religious opinions should be forced behind closed doors. Secularists recognise that religion can be highly political and that the religious should be as free as anyone else to engage in political activity in the public sphere. Look – there’s Father Lynch out on the political campaign trail for Secularism, speaking to camera, and even giving Jesus a mention in the process!

Contrary to what you suggest, many religious people are hugely politically involved across the Secular West: they lobby, they run political campaigns, they fund political activity, they write articles and appear on TV, they stand up in parliament and say, ‘As a Christian I believe that…’, and so on. The suggestion that the expressions of religious opinion has now largely been restricted to the ‘private’ realm is, frankly, ludicrous. In fact, try getting elected President of the United States without making a public declaration of re
ligious faith.

Your Guardian article presents a little history of ‘secularism’ on which it is revealed to be responsible for a long list of awful things. But pretty much all the awful things you describe have little if anything to with Secularism. Ataturk’s violent suppression of Islam was not Secular. Secularists would oppose that suppression. Locke’s insistence that Catholics and Muslims should not be tolerated is not Secular. Secularists would oppose that too.

And nor, by the way, is Secularism the view that Secular states should be forcibly imposed on populations that don’t want them. That’s a view about Secularism that some Secularists might hold, but certainly not all. Compare supposing that Christianity is true and supposing that it should be forcibly imposed on populations that don’t want it. The first thought is Christian; the second is not (though some Christians have held it). Secularism is not the view that Secular states should be forced on every population, whether they like it or not. Many Secularists, myself included, recognise the obvious folly in that policy.

But in any case, what you point out has been imposed on some Middle-Eastern countries isn’t even Secularism. Kicking democratically elected parties out of office on the grounds they are religiously affiliated is obviously not Secular. It’s anti-Secular.

In short, your historical case against ‘secularism’ leaves modern Secularism pretty much entirely untouched. If the kind of ‘secularism’ espoused by the BHA, NSS, CFI, and Father Lynch were your target, you’ve missed it by a mile.

Perhaps you will now say, ‘Oh, but I never meant, or intended to target, Secularism’? And perhaps that really was not your intention.

So I encourage you to now make very clear what you actually think about Secularism with a capital ‘S’. Do you support it, or not? If you reject Secularism, even in part, please explain why, as nothing in your article seems to justify that rejection. If anything, your little history succeeds in making the case for Secularism.

If, on the other hand, you fully support Secularism – if Secularism is not, not even in part, the intended target of your Guardian piece – I suggest it is important you now make that clear.

Why important? You submit that we Westerners tend to view ‘secularism’ as something inevitable – something at which all peoples will eventually arrive. That’s not my view. I consider Secularism a recent and fragile development under attack from religious conservatives and fundamentalists around the world. Those who attack ‘secularism’ while failing to be clear they don’t actually mean Secularism are unintentionally fuelling that threat.

So, I’m rather hoping you will now stand up alongside Father Bernard Lynch and say that, as a religious person, you do fully support the aim of a Secular Europe, and indeed, a Secular United States, and that nothing you said in your article should be taken to suggest otherwise.

Stephen Law