The Secular and the Sacred

Written by AC Grayling.

Religion has been given comfortable house room in liberal democracies, which protect the right of people to believe as they wish, and accept the wide variety of faiths brought into them by immigrants from all over the world. This is right and proper, for freedom of speech and belief are essential values, and the very idea of democratic society is premised on the idea of responsibly exercised liberty.

But as votaries of imported religions grow more assertive in seeking the opportunites and privileges enjoyed by religious organisations indigenous to those democracies, and as the tolerant democracies respond concessively, so the prospect of real difficulty arises. It is obvious that Mr Blair's government does not see the difficulty, because it is encouraging the spread of faith-based schools whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish or Sikh, and considering legislation to protect people from harassment or discrimination if suffered specifically on the grounds of their faith. Both developments seem innocuous, even (in the latter case) desirable; but in fact they dramatically increase the potential for social divisions, tension and conflict, which when understood shows that society urgently needs to be secularised.

The reason lies in the fact that the world's major religions – especially Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – are not merely incompatible with one another, but mutually antithetical. All religions are such that if they are pushed to their logical conclusions, or if their founding literatures and early traditions are accepted literally, they will take the form of their respective fundamentalisms. Jehovah's Witnesses and the Taleban are thus not aberrations, but unadulterated and unconstrained expressions of their respective faiths, as accepted and practised by people who are not interested in refined temporisings or theological niceties, but who literally accept the world-view of the writings they regard as sacred, and behave in the way prescribed by them.

This is where the threat of serious future difficulty lies, because all the major religions in fact blaspheme one another, and ought by their principles to engage in crusade or jihad each against the others – a profoundly disturbing thought. They blaspheme each other in numerous ways. All non-Christians blaspheme Christianity by their refusal to accept the divinity of Christ, because in so doing they reject the Holy Ghost, doing which is described as the most serious of all blasphemies. The New Testament has Christ say "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me". This places members of other faiths beyond redemption; they are damned if they know this claim but do not heed it. By an unlucky twist of theology, Protestants have to regard Catholics as blasphemers too, because the latter regard Mary as co-redemptorix with Christ, in violation of the utterance just quoted. All non-Muslims blaspheme Islam because they insult Mohammed by not accepting him as the true Prophet, and by ignoring the teachings of the Koran. Jews seem the least philosophically troubled by what people of other faiths think about their own – but Orthodox Jews regard themselves as religiously superior to others because others fail in the proper observances, for example by not respecting kosher constraints. All the religions blaspheme each other by regarding the others' teachings, metaphysics and much of their ethics as false, and their own religion as the only true one.

It is a woolly and optimistic liberal hope that all religions can be viewed as worshipping the same god, only in different ways; but this is a nonsense, as shown by the most cursory comparison of teachings, interpretations, moral requirements, creation myths and eschatologies, in all of which the major religions differ and frequently contradict each other. History shows how clearly the religions themsevles grasped this; the motivation for Christianity's hundreds of years of crusades against Islam, pogroms against Jews, and inquisitions against heretics, was the desire to expunge heterodoxy and 'infidelity' or at least to effect forcible compliance with prevailing orthodoxy. Islam's various jihads had the same aim, and it spread half way around the world by conquest and the sword.

Where they can get away with it – as in present-day Afghanistan – devotees continue the same practices. The religious Right in America would doubtless do so too, but has to use TV, money, advertising, and political lobbying instead to impress its version of the truth on American society. It is only where religion is on the back foot, reduced to a minority practice, with an insecure tenure in society, that it presents itself as essentially peaceful and charitable.

This is the chief reason why allowing the major religions to jostle against one another in the public domain is extremely undesirable. The solution is to make the public domain wholly secular, leaving religion to the personal sphere, as a matter of private conviction and practice only. Society should be blind to religion both in the sense that it lets people believe and behave as they wish provided they do no harm to others, and in the sense that it acts as if religions do not exist, with public affairs being straightforwardly secular in character. The constitution of the USA provides exactly this, though the religious lobby is always trying to breach it, for example with prayers in schools. George W. Bush's granting of public funds for 'faith-based initiatives' actually does so.

To secularise society in Britain would would mean that government funding for church schools and 'faith-based' organisations and activities would cease, as would religious programming in public broadcasting. And it would mean the disestablisment of the Church of England. All laws relating to blasphemy and sacrilege would be repealed, and protection of private belief and practice would be left to the legal safeguards and remedies which already exist in common law and statute, and are already very adequate.

If society does not secularise the result will be serious trouble; for as science and technology take us even further away from the ancient superstitions on which religions are based (a separation tellingly emphasised by the current cloning controversy), the tensions can only become greater. The science-religion debate of the nineteenth century is a skirmish in comparison to what we are inviting by allowing not just religion but mutually competing religions so much presence in public space. Now therefore is the time to place religion where it belongs – wholly in the private sphere along with other superstitions and foibles, leaving the public domain as neutral territory where all can meet without prejudice as humans and equals.