"People with faith say secularism has become an aggressive and intolerant force in Britain. What has gone wrong? It should bring society together," says Â Julian BagginiÂ Â
Julian Baggini is perceptive in his observationsÂ about Britain's "culture wars,"Â but Â has aÂ naive and too "rosy" Â impression ofÂ America'sÂ attitudes. He writes of his attending seminars in the US where he was impressed by the celebration of secularism by a Southern Baptist minister, which may have been accurate butÂ representsÂ Â a partialÂ picture of religious attitudes on this side of the pond.
"A spectre is haunting Europe â€“ the spectre of secularism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: the pope, politicians from both the Conservative and Labour parties,..."Â writesÂ Melanie Phillips ...
It seems odd to borrow the opening words of Marx and Engel's the Communist Manifesto to describe secularism and to find them so apt. For someone such as myself who has always seen the secularist ideal as the most benign legacy of the Enlightenment, it's a bit like discovering that your cuddly teddyÂ bear is being portrayed as a rampaging grizzly.
But there is no doubt that secularism is increasingly seen as a threat to liberty rather than its stoutest defender. Conservative party chairman Lady Warsi is the latest to raise the alarm, speaking of her "fear" that "a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies". She pulls no punches in claiming that "at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant" and that it "demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes".
Pretty much the same message came from Labour's David Lammy on Friday's Any Questions?on Radio 4, when he attacked "an aggressive secularism that is drowning out the ability of people of faith to live with that faith".
Warsi is taking this message to the pope, which is a bit like taking pizza to Napoli. In the pontiff's 2010 visit toÂ the UK, he also railed against "aggressive forms of secularism", likening it to the evils of Nazism and claiming that "the exclusion of God, religionand virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society".
Other clerics have followed suit. The leader of the Catholic church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, usedÂ his last Easter sermonto decry the "aggressive secularism" that tries to "destroy our Christian heritage andÂ culture and take God from the publicÂ square".
And the list of those who have said similar things is endless. But just what is that people are so terrified of? Is secularism really a threat, or has it simply been distorted, by its critics, itsÂ defenders, or both?
To answer this, we could do worse than start with the latest supposed examples of the terrible persecution of the nation's Christians: the high court ruling last Friday that prayers were not lawful part of formal council business. This followed the court of appeal upholding the judgment against two Christian guesthouse owners, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, that they were guilty of discrimination for not permitting gay couples to stay in double rooms.
The anti-secular alarmist sees both decisions as indicative of the times, when, as Warsi put it, "signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won't fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere".
It's hard to take seriously the idea that any of this represents a mortal threat to religion in public life. I can't help feeling that Christianityhas always thrived on persecution, and it isÂ trying just a bit too hard to portray itself as under the cosh yet again when really it's mostly just ignored.
Nevertheless, the very extremity of the language â€“ the comparisons with Nazism and the way in which such claims are increasingly being seen as self-evident truths â€“ tells us that something has gone wrong with secularism in Britain. And the problem, I think, is that it has lost its secular soul. Secularism, in the political sense, is not a comprehensive project to sweep religion out of public life altogether. Nor is it a celebration of godless science, like Alain de Botton's ill-conceived planto build a 46-metre (151ft) "temple for atheists" in the City of London. Rather it is â€“ or should be â€“ a beautifully simple way of bringing people of all faiths and none together, not a means of pitting them against each other.
It all goes back to how we understand the core secularist principle of neutrality in the public square. Neutrality means just that: neither standing for or against religion or any other comprehensive world-view. That is why in theory, if not in practice, the United States is both culturally the most religious country in the developed west and constitutionally the most secular. There, it is clearly understood that the value of secularism is that it allows all faiths to practise freely, without any enjoying a special place at the heart of power....Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â >>>>