It is difficult, for example, to conceive of a school more openly rejecting of Britain’s predominantly secular culture than the Cardinal Vaughan comprehensive in Kensington, London, where 99.7% of the pupils are Catholic, the principal activity is “the apostolic mission of the Church” and “the teachings of Christ permeate all areas” – unless it is the Yesodey Hatorah Senior girls’ school, a state-funded institution serving the Orthodox Jewish Charedi community in Stamford Hill in London. An Ofsted inspection in 2006 noted: “The Charedi community do not have access to television, the internet or other media. All members of the community aim to lead modest lives governed by the codes of Torah observance.” It was marked grade one, “an outstandingly effective school”.
It’s certainly true that faith schools promote intolerance and division, yet successive governments have happily stored up problems for themselves, and the rest of us, by not only allowing but actually encouraging these divisive institutions.
It’s not just in schools, though. Society as a whole seems to have lost sight of (or maybe never understood) the value of keeping church and state apart. AC Grayling puts it better than I could in The Secular and the Sacred. The article dates itself slightly by referring to political leaders no longer in power, but the conclusion is worth quoting in full:
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 All laws relating to blasphemy and sacrilege would be repealed, and protection of private belief and practice would be left to the legal safeguards and remedies which already exist in common law and statute, and are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.
At it’s core, secularism can be summed up in two very simple statements: No-one should be discriminated against on the basis of their belief or lack of it, and no-one should should gain any special privileges on the basis of their belief or lack of it.
Secularism is an essential prerequisite for an equal and fair society. This is more true now than it ever was.