Pluralist not Secular

The latest Scottish Census results showed for the first time a majority of people registering as having ‘no religion’. David Mackenzie explores the language we use to describe this state.

I have previous on this one as a secondary school teacher and a local authority education adviser. In the early nineties the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, took it into his head to jerk new life into religious observance in schools. At first I was not particularly bothered by this, on the basis that it would all be pretty innocuous anyway – that it was something like the Queen, an old ignored neon sign that occasionally flickered. But I was energetically nudged by a colleague to take the issue more seriously and soon agreed that the on-going inferred assumption that the Christian god underpinned, however modestly, the whole fabric of education in Scotland, even in what were then often called non-denominational schools, was basically unjust. To its great credit my local authority (with the exception of a horrified Director of Education) backed this view and told Forsyth to take a running jump. Such days.

The timing was nice. There was a good deal of thought being given then within sectors of the educational world to the business of fundamental values and how they could be handled and clarified in non-religious schools and colleges. The terms “non-religious” and “non-denominational” are germane. With their corollaries they mirror the state-scale definitions “secular” and “theocratic”. The problem with the negative terms is precisely that – they are written with the minus sign. My interest here is not with the essential limitation of defining oneself or one’s stance in negative terms. That is a whole other story. It is more to do with the implication of opposition, the ease with which “non-religious” slips (or is pushed) into “anti-religious”.

“Secular” is cabin luggage for stuffing with a whole variety of meanings, but the problematic “anti-religious” one predominates. This is understandable since modern ideas of fundamental community or national ethos have over the millennia been gradually, and incompletely, wrestled from the arms of theocracy. And the “anti” version has itself two main meanings which can be easily (and maliciously) confused. For example “anti-clerical” may mean hating priests or simply being determined that priests do not dominate and control public life. Further, the agenda of those who want to retain the vestiges of clerical control is boosted by the confusion between the meanings – hence the current wailing about being persecuted by the secularists. And, at the other extreme, there are those who really do want the last Kirk minister to be strangled with the last copy of the People’s Friend [Wasn’t it the Sunday Post? – Ed]

So I am suggesting that we stop using “secular” and use “pluralist” instead. This is the notion of a nation or community that contains folk with diverse world views and which clarifies certain fundamental values to be shared by all. I believe that it is in the interest of everyone that in a new community or nation the pluralist ethos is confirmed in a charter, as a key part of the constitution. Everyone, that is, except those who will not be content until a cabal of priests or Brahmins or Mullahs is in complete control, or until religious belief of all varieties is proscribed by law.


Comments (13)

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  1. Fionnghal says:

    Brilliant & interesting piece. I’ll go with pluralist 🙂

  2. Iain says:

    It’s time to remove the religious vested interests from our education system!

  3. David Somervell says:

    Spot on, David

  4. SleepingDog says:

    But your definition of pluralist is still a humanist (speciesist) one. Why not conceive of a form of governance that includes the plurality of planetary lifeforms beyond ‘folk’?

    1. babs nicgriogair says:

      I’m for a pluralist nation! Thanks David for articulating so well !

    2. David Mackenzie says:

      Fair point – that element is missing.

  5. Interpolar says:

    The problem with pluralist as you propose is that it is not. Or at least not necessarily. There are many secularists with a hate for religion and a fervour to tear it down that would make the most committed Taliban blush.
    Instead, by pushing the Kirk out of public life, there should be a debate on whether we are throwing out the baby with the bathtub, only one day to discover that we have undermined the value-structure that held our society together.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Interpolar, leaving aside your Taliban phantasy, what ‘value-structure’ do you mean? Perhaps, like Jesus, you should be a bit more humble and repentant for the vast historic and current moral crimes of Scottish Christian churches? For example:
      As the likes of philosopher Julian Baggini has pointed out, Christianity has no ethical foundation; in fact, ‘obey God’ is a rejection of ethical responsibility and thought (why obey God? is God good, bad or indifferent?).

      Christianity when strong tended towards totalitarianism (as Anglicanism or Catholicism) and was the inspiration for the term ‘hierarchy’, producing patriarchal terror states and endless wars and schisms. Only when weak do some Christian organisations concede the need for out-religion allies, and weakest still when contemplating secularism.

      Of course, since pious hypocrisy and cant was so rife, it is unclear which ‘value-structure’ you refer to. Public virtue or private vice?

      Perhaps recent world events will again focus attention on the dangers of religions based on worship of a God of Genocides, as features in the Christian Old Testament, with an omnicidal end-game that has hastened the world towards the all-out nuclear war prayed for especially by evangelical Christians and other Armageddonist Abrahamists.

      1. Interpolar says:

        Hi SleepingDog.
        Fascinating that you lay the responsibility for all the Kirk’s historical failings at my feet. I would be happy to accept, if at the same I could lay claim to the many great things that it did and have now been assumed by the state: health care, education, caring for the infirm and disabled, peace mediation, pastoral care. I could go on. I accept that the Kirk has been and is subject to power games. And how would it not be? It’s full of humans and even now, it means a lot to a lot of people.
        But to say Christianity is void of ethics is simply wrong. “Love your neighbour as you would yourself” is a pretty strong starting point.
        Also, compared with their secular peers, religious fanatics, Taliban and Spanish Inquisitors included, are hopeless amateurs at suppression and war atrocities: Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Polpot blazed the trail.
        Meanwhile, it was giants like Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu who defused the worst of simmering conflicts which could have claimed hundreds and thousands of lives.

        Let’s put it this way: Christianity is more than you’d believe.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Interpolar, what is this, Jesuit Casuistry Day?

          The point about Christians obeying God is that they are threatened with Hell, rewarded with Heaven, which means loving thy neighbour (not noticeably a Christian practice in general historical terms) is a means to avoid one and gain entrance to another. Perhaps the only truly ethical thing a Christian can do is take a stranger’s place in Hell.

          Social animals take care of their own. To try to claim this behaviour for Christianity would be, among other things, stupid and wrong. A core of our ethics comes from our shared biology. Whereas witch burning and racialised chattel slavery (for example) are human inventions under Christian authorities.

          Why exactly would we want to credit a Church which has been forced to issued belated apology after belated apology on its vile moral crimes (a term I think is more accurate than your term ‘failings’)? South of the border, past Archbishops of Canterbury have been unmasked as directing some of the foulest crimes documented in human history, and possibly the worst genocide in history was committed by the Christian King Leopold II of Belgium, which you were too racist to mention. Are these ‘failings’?

          1. Interpolar says:

            Um, no. Look no further than the much-quoted 1st Corinthians 13:

            If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
            Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

            No hell, no heaven, no promises, no threats. Just love. That is not to say that heaven and hell have never been misused to pressurise people by church and other institutions,, but the founding theological emphasis of the Church has been in love and mercy.

            Your reference to Leopold II as a Christian King (for that purpose, what about Vlad the Impaler?) is a bit strained. Also, your unprovoked accusation of racism towards me (why exactly?) suggests you are away with the fairies.

          2. Interpolar says:

            And I almost forgot the other thing, casuistry. Casuistry is casuistry. Something to help people make decisions in moral dilemmas. A bit like case law, really.

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