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 religious 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


#1 Andrew Holden (Guest) on Monday September 29, 2014 at 7:32am

How could any reasonable person, religious or not, disagree? However, most Secularists DO come across (at least to religious people) as anti-religious even if they pay lip service to freedom of thought and expression.

There is already a perfectly good word to describe the kind of open society you are talking about which doesn’t have the same negative and anti-religious connotations.  That word is Pluralist. I would prefer a Plural society to a Religious or a Secular one, any day.

#2 Doug Berger (Guest) on Monday September 29, 2014 at 10:03am

Of course Secularists sound anti-religious because we want to remove the religious privileging that exists. Real anti-religion would be if secularists wanted to shut all the churches down.

The truth is what this post talks about.

#3 Bill Cooke (Guest) on Monday September 29, 2014 at 1:03pm

Excellent response from Stephen Law. Karen Armstrong seems to be making the mistake, so commonly made, of recognising nuances and shades of opinion among the side she shows sympathy with, while dismissing those she writes against - secularists in this case - in a one-size-fits-all critique. And all this while apparently preferring the comfort and safety that living in a secular society offers.

#4 Michael Gardner (Guest) on Monday September 29, 2014 at 3:33pm

There is a problem with Law’s criticism. It is a common kind of defense used to deflect criticism of a large group. No matter how monolithic a group is there is still always huge diversity on all issues, even to the point of absurdity (partial vegetarians, materialist Christians). As such if Armstrong says “secularists do/say/believe x,y,z…” Law can counter (with evidence) “you don’t understand secularists, we/they do/say/believe a,b,c…” and something like the true Scotsman falacy is employed. Rather than engage in Armstrong’s evidence Law throws out her entire premise stating that her beginning definition is wrong.

If Armstrong is incorrect in understanding Secularism at a base level Law would be right to say so and furthermore be right to give the correct or better definition BUT (I like big but’s) he would then be beholden to say what is faulty about her definition and the associated evidence.

So if a person were to criticize Christianity for the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trails or whatever a defender could not simply say “the people who did that weren’t really Christians.” Or if that were there answer they would not only need to say what a Christian really was but also why no one ought to be able to say such people were “really” Christian.

#5 Imri Jonas Merritt (Guest) on Monday September 29, 2014 at 7:08pm

My only gripe with this piece is calling atheism a “belief system” when you should have used Humanism as the example. Atheism is simply the answer to one question- the question of the existence of gods. It’s not a system or even a belief itself, its the absence of one.

#6 Karin Litzcke (Guest) on Monday September 29, 2014 at 7:37pm

I don’t feel you’ve addressed Armstrong’s scholarly analysis at all. The whole point of analysis is not to be pro or anti but rather to understand the object of enquiry, and in this case, it was as much about the rise of nation-states as it was about belief systems.  I found Armstrong’s piece to be awe-inspiring in its scope, deeply insightful, and very thought-provoking. This letter has not convinced me that there are any weaknesses in it.

#7 Stephen Law (Guest) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 at 1:39am

I am very aware of the ‘true Scotsman fallacy’, but of course I don’t commit it (though Armstrong does re. ‘religion’). ‘No true Scotsman’ involves saying, in response to a counterexample - ‘oh, that’s not what ‘Scotsman’ really means: it means this other thing’. Thus the criticism is dodged. But of course it’s dodged only by using ‘Scotsman’ contrary to its actual, established meaning.

I don’t say Ataturk wasn’t a secularist as Armstrong and a lot of the religious use the term. Nor do I deny that there is a notion of ‘secularism’ on which Joe Stalin qualifies (I actually point out that there is such as meaning, don’t I?). These are actual established meanings of ‘secular’ that I don’t reject.

I just point out that there is already a very well-established political meaning to ‘Secularism’ (which I distinguish with a capital ‘S’), and that that is what secular organisations like the BHA and NSS sign up to, not that other stuff Armstrong has in mind. By failing to make this clear, Armstrong contributes to the undermining of Secularism. I invite her to clarify what she means.

What you some of you are doing here is akin to this: I point out that banks usually lie beside flowing water, making clear I mean that by ‘bank’ I man river-bank. Someone points out that Lloyds bank is not beside a flowing water. I say ‘True though that’s not what I meant by bank’. They say, “No True Scotsman fallacy!”

For all I know, Armstrong supports Secularism. If she does then she really should make that clear. If on the other she intends to criticise Secularism then she needs better arguments, as nothing she says in her essay actually touches Secularism.

#8 Stephen Law (Guest) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 at 1:41am

Apologies for the many TypeOs in previous comment - on the bus.

#9 Philip Rand (Guest) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 at 5:32am

Isn’t the real issue Modernity?

I mean look what a “modern state” consists:

1/ Nationality principle: the basis for territorial organisation, as contrasted with the “traditional” bases of dynasty kinship or lineage, or religious community.

2/ Popular Sovereignty: the legitimising principle of all political authority, as contrasted with the “traditional” bases in theocracy, divine right, noble birth, or caste.

3/ secular principle (small “s” deliberate): the separation of the political processes from religious distinctions, activities and values.

4/Social purposiveness: the state as a work of art (i.e. Dr Law’s version of “Secularism”) as against unreflecting reverence for pre-existing authority whether cultural, political, religious.

5/ Economic independence: not in the sense of autarky but as the construction of an independent and nationally sovereign basis for health, wealth and power, implying extensive industrialisation as contrasted with a traditional rural economy.

6/ Citizenship: which goes further than the formal guarantees of civil and political rights, and stipulates economic and social rights such as the right to education, to work, to social welfare benefits.

All of these points are derived (without exception) from the West.

Seems to me that the secular state is pretty safe in the West…

It also appears to me that the issue that Humanists and Religious are arguing about is simply point 4…and point 4 is simply about “ones taste in Art”.

#10 Abraham (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 12:54am

Dear Dr.Law, Karen’s article was an open inquiry into the historic background that paved way for the origin of the modern concept of secularism. Though it has taken a specific and clear ideological shape today as you have effectively described, it does not alter the authenticity and relevance of the historic background that Karen has put-forth in her article.

When one listen to well-learned Western minds today about secularism, one is forced to realize that it has become a kind of fundamentalist belief system for them, through which when they look at outside world, it tend them to perceive that every other belief system outside the west is fundamentalist.

In short, the historic facts and background that Karen has gone into, in every detail,should be eye-opener to the West, as to how the concept had actually originated.

Though the concept of modern Western secularism appear as open and progressive at first instance, it has a darker side also. The net outcome of the progress of the world it has produced has its more than 50% of the wealth and resources accumulated in 70 or 80 big business houses, as per the latest Zurich University and Oxfam studies.
For every practical meaning and sense, the transition of mastery of the world from the Church authority was directly into the hands of the new industrial and political class, with out much difference to the actual degree of freedom, liberty and sense of dignity of ordinary citizens !

The Occupy wall-street kind of mass protests, though media and the present masters of the world did not allow it to gain deserving mainstream attention,are clear signs of the tyranny and oppression of the world from its current masters. I have a few blogs that dwell into Karen’s theme, at links:

#11 Stephen Law (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 1:09am

Abraham - yes dark things happen some of which can be put down to ‘secularism’ depending what you mean by it. But nothing you, or indeed, Karen, discuss has any obvious relevance to assessing the merits of Secularism with a capital ‘S’. So can I welcome you aboard Team Secularism alongside myself and Father Lynch?

If not, why not?

#12 Abraham (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 1:46am

Dr.Stephen Law, There are no two opinion about the wonderful definition,features and MERITS of ‘Secularism’ that you have put-in at your open letter. Karen had only gone into the historic background of the origin of the concept, without any away showing any dis-agreement to your given definition and merits of modern Secularism. I could not post my blog links relevant to the theme at this comment page,but I shall post them at your Facebook page.

I am more than willing to be a part of the team Secularism, but I might not have any better narrative about its Merits than what you had already contributed. Please once again note, Karen’s article was not anything to do with merits and definition of modern secularism. You seem to have picked the crux of her article wrongly.

The IS, or any other similar group in modern world might have opposite opinion about the merits of Secularism, but the fact is that, the one sided gigantic progress of the world attained through such a ideology and world-view (that I have referred in my previous post)indeed tend to cause anxiety and even fear of the dis-integration of the sense of self of many men and communities !( it could be even neurotic !)

That was why Karen hinted that there exist factors and variables other than that of religion behind IS like phenomenon.

#13 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 2:32am

Ah…But you see Abraham…Dr Law’s BIG S version of secularism places constraints on secularism:

Remember “Secularism” (Dr Law version)is against unreflecting reverence for pre-existing authority, i.e. PRESENT POLITICAL SYSTEM.

So “the tyranny and oppression of the world from its current masters” is accounted for in it.

#14 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 3:10am

Actually, most probably the real reason why civil violence is occurring in Syria, Iraq, Gaza…and most other middle east countries is because the percentage of 15-23 year olds is greater than 20% of the total population of each country…

In many ways it has nothing whatsoever to do with religion or secularism…it simply is a scientific correlation that appears to be “Law-like”.

#15 Abraham (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 3:18am

Hi Philip, Thanks for responding to my post to Dr.Law !

I repeat, there was no dispute in Karen’s article about the Merits of Secularism. She argued that ‘Yet it
( secularism) was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world..

‘When the new word “secularisation” was coined in the late 16th century, it originally referred to “the transfer of goods from the possession of the church into that of the world”. This was a wholly new experiment. It was not a question of the west discovering a natural law; rather, secularisation was a contingent development. It took root in Europe in large part because it mirrored the new structures of power that were pushing the churches out of govt’.

So, we need not debate here, whether Dr.Law’s idea of secularism lacks real merit or not..The crux is far out side of this issue.

#16 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 3:41am

And hello to you Abraham…

You are spot on when you write that the crux is far outside of this issue.

I also particularly liked your comment:

“such a ideology and world-view (that I have referred in my previous post)indeed tend to cause anxiety and even fear of the dis-integration of the sense of self of many men and communities !( it could be even neurotic !)”

Freud would agree with you here…he would say that the more “Civilised” humans become the more neurotics are created.

Most probably it is the fact that we in the West have lost the idea of God being our audience…and instead rely on other people being our audience (read some Richard Rorty on this…he is a bit nuts but he does come up with some interesting ideas sometimes)...but as Wittgenstein often said the comforting thought of a private language in which we can take refuge, is illusory; we can only make use of descriptions of ourselves that can be held up to view in front of others and attempt to control their “versions” to ensure we experience respect rather than contempt.

One can clearly see this occurring in this Dr Law/Armstrong open letter…

I find it fascinating.

#17 Stephen Law on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 4:35am

Hello Abraham

You say:

“I repeat, there was no dispute in Karen’s article about the Merits of Secularism… So, we need not debate here, whether Dr.Law’s idea of secularism lacks real merit or not.. The crux is far out side of this issue.”

My point was I just don’t know whether Karen intended to criticise Secularism in her piece. And neither, I submit, do you Abraham.

Karen attacks ‘secularism’ as being aggressive, as gagging and marginalising the religious, etc. which is - please note - *exactly* the rhetoric typically used by critics to characterise Secularism (with a capital ‘S’).

So is Karen attacking Secularism, or isn’t she? Until she makes this clear, she clearly risks being interpreted as a Secularism-basher. Which is damaging to Secularism. So please encourage her to be clear, Abraham.

I note that @seatrout Andrew Brown (the Religious editor of the Guardian who I assume is responsible for the appearance of Karen’s piece), when I just pressed him on twitter to say whether he signed up to Secularism, just said no (not for the UK at least). So when Andrew Holden (Comment 1 above) says ‘How Could any reasonable person disagree?’ I suggest he ask Andrew Brown!

What’s Karen’s view on Secularism? Be good to know, wouldn’t it?

I note, in addition, that Karen seems to endorse the claim, so often made by anti-Secularists, that ‘we in the West’ think religion should be pushed out of politics and placed behind closed doors.

That’s just false. It’s also not what Secularists think.

#18 Abraham (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 9:41am

Hi Philip, Thanks for seeing sense !

B.Russel used to say that the reliable sign of what is rational is that it gets agreed-upon when presented before any number of sensible men !

He also used to say that the sign of one’s NOT having confidence in what he say is his getting agitated over what has been stated by the other party. Those who are grossly agitated in the simple,historical analysis of Secularism by Karen, obviously keep doubt about their own conviction.

#19 Abraham (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 10:31am

Hi Dr. Stephen Law,
When facts and laws are analysed, there is no relevance to personal judgments. The facts analysed would speak for itself. This is the spirit of true science. Karen simply opened gates of the historical facts that led to the origin of modern concept of secularism. She was successful in showing to the world that,secularism also had same traits that once the religious bigots had shown towards their opponents in the old world.

She was straight about her view on Secularism when she wrote: ’ After a bumpy beginning, secularism has undoubtedly been valuable to the west, but we would be wrong to regard it as a universal law. It emerged as a particular and unique feature of the historical process in Europe; it was an evolutionary adaptation to a very specific set of circumstances. In a different environment, modernity may well take other forms’

Only when one does not wish to be identified as ardent follower any particular flag, sign or ideology, he could be truly scientific minded and open. We, the philosophic minded, can not ever be flag-holders of any particular ideology for long, to be true truth seekers ! 

Hope you have taken note of my blogs links at your Facebook page that dwell into similar themes.

#20 Stephen Law (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 10:50am

Hi Abraham

You suggest (i) that if people disagree with a view, that’s a sign it is not rational, and (ii) if someone get’s ‘agitated’ about something it’s a sign they are not confident in what they believe. And these are views you attribute to Russell. Can you supply quotes or references, please?

It would be ironic if the above were R’s view given his pacificism - very much a minority view at the time, and one about which he got very ‘agitated’.

If, as you seem to imply, a view is discredited if many disagree with it and its defender is ‘agitated’, then you have just discredited almost every social justice movement there’s ever been.

Perhaps you’d do better to focus on my actual points and arguments, instead of attempting to discredit me by such means?

#21 Abraham (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 11:20am

Hi Dr.Stephen, Really my reply to Philip was not intended for you ! I apologize, as it has offended you for some reason !

About Bertrand Russell’s views on scientific spirit, it was merely in my memory from an English subsidiary text that we had during our pre-university course days. The name of the text-book was ‘Gates of wisdom’,and it was a collection of his essays. He was ridiculing a Greek master for believing that women have less number of teeth than men.He says, when such a statement is heard from a fellow-being, he would only laugh away it as a sign of the other party’s poor sense of scientific inquiry.( one could simply verify the fact by opening mouths of few men and women, and check the fact)
The ones who do not have such scientific confidence would get agitated,and start an argument and fight. He warns that whenever we get agitated over the opinion of the other fellow,remember that we ourselves are not fully confident on our-own stand !

Regarding the universality of scientific and rational facts, he gives the example of its universal acceptance. Sensible facts get accepted universally, as they are based on verifiable data.

My sincere apologies once again dear Dr.Stephen !

#22 Stephen Law (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 11:23am

That’s all right Abraham - no offence was taken but I did assume that you were referring to what I had said and were attempting to rebut it, sort of. It did seem a pretty poor sort of rebuttal. Apologies if I minsuderstood…

#23 Abraham (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 7:41pm

So great of you for your last post addressed to me, assuring me that you haven’t taken any offence against my post addressed to Philip !

I would still await for a meaningful response from you on my blogs referred to you at your Facebook page, on themes similar to that handled by Karen !

#24 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 at 11:05pm

Morn’n Abraham

I had a look at the Humanist links Dr Law suggested…great emphasis is placed on religious neutrality (this is emphasised).

However, if one links these ideas with Dr Law’s “Secularism” ideas I do see an anomaly.

For example, say a religious person wishes to go to Church on a Sunday (say the person does this regularly)...and say his/her employer says “No” you must work on Sundays…say the religious person ignores this demand and is fired.

The religious person then goes to court claiming unfair dismissal due to religious discrimination…

Problem is according to Dr Law’s Secularism the religious person CANNOT use religious reasons to defend his position…he can only use reasonable reasons…

So what is the court going to say to this religious person?

1/  A reasonable person would want to work to gain more money.

2/  A reasonable person would want to provide his/her government more tax money.

3/  You should have used your work leave to attend Church.


I think the idea of Dr Law’s Secularism to accommodate religion is not really possible.

Not when one really thinks about it…unless of course it maintains the greatest “Thou shalt…” in Humanism, i.e. Thou shalt be tolerant.

#25 Abraham (Guest) on Thursday October 02, 2014 at 2:03am

Dear Philip,

Thanks for your post, exposing the terrible difficulties of implementing modern secularism. It is difficult, because it was invented as apart of the serious self-deceptions of the founding fathers of the modern idea of democratic state.

As far as the modern idea of secular state,as well as the old blatantly authoritarian model of Kings’and his like’s state are essentially one in basic character,values and intentions far-away and remote from plain human welfare and progress of human civilization, the rights and liberty of peoples’s class is at great risk. It is many times more risky in modern secular states because, the so called peoples’s own political system called modern democracy is the most vicious ideological self-deception of this age !

The philosophical non-profit that I run’ conscience of the society’s central cause is a ‘reinvented modern democracy’. Karen’s article powerfully exposed one of the bottom deceptions of modern secular states;it was indeed originated to tame the class of people effectively to the self-interest of the new ruling class, the professional people in the industry and politics. Please share your e.amil ID so that I could send the links of our various dedicated blogs that depict related themes, including what a true democracy must represent to the people.

#26 stephen law (Guest) on Thursday October 02, 2014 at 2:49am

Thanks Philip. Yes that’s exactly the sort of case we should consider.

Secularism per se does not say whether this employee should be exempt the employer’s requirement to work on Sunday, given that person wants to attend church. As I pointed out in my previous bog post, secularists can and do allow for exemptions on the basis of conscience, and the religious person should be treated *equally* in this respect.

My view is that that person should not be exempt. But Secularism per se does not say that: it just says that they should not be exempt on religious grounds. If someone is to be exempt job demands to attend e.g. a meeting that is of huge cultural and moral significance for them, then so should the non-religious person. So, for example, a humanist should be exempt if that prevents them attending a meeting that is of no less significance to them.

See? Equal treatment.

What you seem to favour is giving the religious person a get-out-of-work-free-on-Sunday card for specifically religious reasons, while others who have equally deep commitments preventing them from working Sunday - commitments that happen not to be religious - get no such card. That is unjust. The consciences of the religious should not be given greater weight than those of the non-religious.

#27 stephen law (Guest) on Thursday October 02, 2014 at 2:52am

Abraham - what you are talking about and blogging about is not Secularism with a capital ‘S’.

#28 stephen law (Guest) on Thursday October 02, 2014 at 2:58am

PS Philip, so we are clear, my personal view is that a Christian who wants to attend Church on Sunday ought not to apply for jobs requiring they work Sunday, ditto Humanists that want to attend humanist meetings on Sunday. I don’t think the state should step in in the religious case and say, ‘Oh, you’re *religious* - then this employer must exempt you the requirement to work Sunday’. I don’t think the failure of the state to do this ‘oppresses’ the religious person any more than it ‘oppresses’ the non-religious person. It’s just tough luck in each case if the job was otherwise suitable. Equal treatment.

#29 Philip Rand (Guest) on Thursday October 02, 2014 at 5:36am

Well Dr Law…here I think we start getting into the detail (the Devil is in the detail!)

OK, say we distinguish between an institution (i.e. Church) and a set of institutional beliefs (i.e. Christian belief).

Wouldn’t it be fair to say that there is a Presumption in favour of every “existing” institution?

Here, I mean that many of these institutions, i.e. Church, our representational form of democracy, etc. may be susceptible of alteration for the better…but wouldn’t it be true to say that still the “Burden of Proof” lies with him who proposes an alteration…simply, on the ground that since a change is not a good in itself, he who demands a change should show a cause for it.

Clearly, no one is called on to defend an existing institution, until some argument is put against it…but that argument ought to prove, not merely an inconvenience (i.e. Sunday example)...but the possibility of a change for the better.

Now, I know a Presumption is not of itself the kind of thing that can carry weight as an argument…all I am saying is that it merely decides which party (if their is to be an argument) must lead the attack.

I have looked at what I have written…and I don’t think I am using a sophistry trick by placing the Burden of Proof on you…

So how would “Secularism” be a change for the better in the United Kingdom?

#30 Philip Rand (Guest) on Thursday October 02, 2014 at 6:03am

Thing is…this Sunday issue could easily be removed if all employers gave unlimited leave to their work force…(like Richard Branson has done)

But, this would be a “cultural” change for all and a huge improvement for working individuals…

The only loser would be the government in lost tax.

So, doesn’t this suggest that Humanists should also focus on what really would make individuals happy and call for unlimited leave?

#31 Abraham (Guest) on Thursday October 02, 2014 at 8:56am

Hi Dr. Law,
Ref.yr post above saying what I talk about is not yr brand of ‘Secularism.

Dr.Law, secularism, or for that reason other similar ideals such as liberty and freedom would fall like rain from the sky ? For delivering these goodies to people, the political institutions in the age must be one that really and genuinely of the people, by and for them. Is our existing ones, that we celebrate as ‘democracy’, really that of,by and for people ? Its current excessively politicized form is run by an excessively politicized class from among us, who have priorities, compulsions, goals and visions far remote from that mankind as a whole, as a welfare,peace, security and happiness seeking species wish and
seek !

Without realizing this central reality, when very influential men of mind and scholarship like you in the world,sit below old lamp posts, chanting slogans and holding flags of Secularism stand alone ideals, separate and independent of everything in the real world,won’t it be like abandoning the world as orphaned ?

What Karen did was exposing the bottom falsehood about the origin of these false ideals, that were gimmicks for the new regimes of industrial and political masters. Shutting eyes towards this reality, and worrying about her act of blemishing the ideal of your heart was what you have been indulging in dear Dr.Law.
You are not alone.. many of modern world’s top men of mind, prestigious educational and knowledge institutions, and even top right bodies are blind about the above said self-deception going on at our political realm !Media is at the top of list in this regard. They have turned ‘drummers’ of the false-hood that goes on in the name of democracy in modern
world. My book at ( Is modern democracy a fake coin?..Google searchable ) and the blogs, strives to convey the above warning to the world.

‘Center for INQUIRY ‘must not have adopted certain old slogans as their mission, because the sacred act of ‘inquiry’ ( the back-bone of science) should always remain OPEN, and NOT closed around certain chosen ideals and dogmas. Then it turns comparable with other fundamentalist initiatives in the world.

Apologies for being a bit out-spoken, Dr.Stephen..

#32 Chris Corbett (Guest) on Thursday October 02, 2014 at 12:06pm

Good article,Dr Law!
Karen Armstrong’s article, whilst giving an interesting historical analysis of secularism, muddies the waters by conflating secularism, nationalism, colonialism and tyranny. There is nothing inherent in the idea of separation of religion and state that leads logically to the excesses of Kemal Attaturk.  Nor can colonialism be equated with secularisation.  Colonialism is simply the replacement of a native power structure, which may or may not be religious with a foreign one, which may or may not be secular.

It’s hard to take seriously sweeping statements by Armstrong like this:
“We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word”
Not all of us take it for granted, since it is impossible to take for granted that which does not exist. The U.K is certainly not a secular state and the United States, despite having an ostensibly secular constitution, is engaged in a battle between defenders of the constitution and Christian fundamentalists who would like to implement some sort of Christian theocracy.

Armstrong is also keen to address the perceived “connection between religion and violence”.  This is irrelevant to Secularism with a capital S, as described by Dr Law.

She does hit upon some nuggets of truth, without appearing to be aware of their significance. “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.” I would agree with this.  Organised religion is and always has been a means of exerting political power.  Henry the Eighth was well aware of this when he arrogated to himself the powers of the church by establishing the Church of England with himself at its head.  The modern Secularist movements, such as the BHA and NSS, recognise that religious organisations do indeed wield political power. Their aim is not to remove religious belief from the political sphere or to silence it but to level the playing field so that the rights of everyone are maintained and no particular religious belief, or lack of belief, confers a political advantage.

Another nugget: “Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life.”

Fear of loss of power can indeed be whipped up into paranoia.  We are seeing this in the Middle East and amongst the far right elements in the USA.  Is she seriously laying the blame for this on Secularism?

Since she fails to address the aims of modern Secularist movements, one can only conclude that she is either ignorant of them or she has disingenuously erected a series of strawmen.

#33 yilma (Guest) on Thursday October 02, 2014 at 1:01pm

Dear Professor Law I totally disagree with your claim that the secular West has nothing with the ills in the Middle East. For instance, the distinguished Writer Karen Armstrong in her piece entitled the myth of religious violence did raise a convincing point when she reminded us the silence of the West when a democratically elected Muslim brotherhood government was ousted by a military junta. The western media said little when this dictatorial regime committed a worse atrocity than his predecessor. What she said about Iran is also true.

#34 Leveret (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 2:53am

The writer makes a common mistake by describing atheism as a belief system.  It is a not-a-belief, no system.

Might I suggest it helps to understand this by considering nudism. Most of us are probably anudists.

It might be even more helpful to try to avoid the use of the words ‘belief’ and ‘believe’, and to substitute ‘thought’ and ‘think’.

#35 stephen law (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 6:22am

Thanks Chris - I agree with you about Karen’s ‘nuggets of truth’.

Yilma - I would certainly acknowledge that the West has some responsibility for some bad things happening in the Middle East. My point is that those bad things can’t be blamed on Secularism with a capital “S”.

#36 Philip Rand (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 7:28am

You know Dr Law…

A less charitable person could reasonably say that your use of “secular” and “Secular” is an equivocation.

My “conscience” tells me not to accuse you of this…

#37 Pat Collett (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 8:18am

My sense has it that most of the commentators have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.
My understanding of Armstrong’s essay (not having read the book admittedly), is not a defence of one nor the other, but rather pointing out how secularism has seperated religion from “every day” life and allowed it to become a belief which we in the West can, if we wish, apply to aspects of our lives, where we wish to do so.
The result can be seen in the way politics, business and even everyday life, can so often be blithely justified while being clearly in conflict with a professed religious creed.
The rest of the world’s religious, as she sees it, have religion as the center of everyday life. Their belief forms the basis of every day decisions.
If one is going to subscribe to a creed should it not form a central position in one’s life?
Otherwise it has no value.

#38 agamemnon (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 8:27am

Philip, Stephen Law has explained both in the article and in the comments the distinction between what he means by secular and Secular.  He has repeatedly shown that without this distinction, the principles in Secularism are getting tarred with the same brush when people attack secularism when they would actually agree with these Secularist principles.

Maybe even Karen Armstrong.  Unless she’s equivocating…

#39 Philip Rand (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 10:38am

Hi Agamemnon (nice name…but beware of your wife!)

Yes, I read his article and his comments and to be honest I can’t see where he truly defines what “Secularism” is…as I said I was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

The thing is a dialectical equivocation can be very subtle…so subtle in fact that even the writer is deceiving himself (but not aware of the self-deception).

So, I would appreciate it if you could tell me exactly what “Secularism” is in a sentence…because I tried to, i.e. my Point 4 in a previous post above…and to be honest that is the best I could make of his position…because from what he has written I am not very clear…

#40 Philip Rand (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 10:50am

I mean…

“One law for all”, is simply a slogan like “Honesty is the best policy”...I mean, come on….

#41 milesnagopaleen on Friday October 03, 2014 at 11:23am

@Philip Rand
Philip, I think that Dr Law has made it abundantly clear what he means by Secularism with a capital S. If you are still unsure, I recommend that you visit the websites of the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Society.  I think it is unrealistic of you to expect someone else to predigest Dr Law’s article and spoonfeed it to you in the form of a one sentence precis. 
By conflating secularism with nationalism, colonialism and tyranny, Armstrong is the one guilty of the fallacies of equivocation, Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc and strawmanning.

#42 Pat Collett (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 11:45am

Dr Law is actually sounding rather like a Fundamental Secularist. Demanding Ms Armstrong should make her views on his rather longwinded and dogmatic piece explicit is a bit thick methinks.

#43 milesnagopaleen on Friday October 03, 2014 at 11:51am

@Philip Rand
Your point about Sunday working is a red herring. If someone applies for a job that necessitates working on a Sunday, knowing full well that their religious practices preclude it, they are applying in bad faith (no pun intended).  They are not obliged to apply for that job.  There are plenty of other jobs that they could apply for. Their rights to practice their religion are not being infringed upon in any way. They would not have a leg to stand on in court and rightly so.
Similarly, if I apply for a job as a postman, which entails getting up at 4 a.m. to deliver letters and then object that I cannot in fact deliver the letters in the morning as my religion obliges me to make my devotions to the rising sun each day, I would be acting in bad faith and being unrealistic in expecting my prospective employer to change working practices to suit me.
Secularism is not about accommodating everybody’s wishes, which would be an impossible task.  It’s about ensuring that nobody suffers unfair discrimination or gains an unfair advantage on the basis of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.  It’s a fairly simple concept.

#44 milesnagopaleen on Friday October 03, 2014 at 12:25pm

@Pat Collett
Armstrongs article is classic strawmanning.  She is building a strawman called “aggressive secularism” and attacking it for being at the root of everything from colonialism to ethnic cleansing.

You seem to be engaging in a bit of strawmanning yourself as well as resorting to the old favourite of those with no argument, the ad hominem.  “Fundamental Secularist”?

If you agree with the view that “The rest of the world’s religious have religion as the center of everyday life. Their belief forms the basis of every day decisions.”,  my question is this: whose beliefs should form the basis of everyday life?  the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, the Baptists, the Shia Muslims, the Sunni Muslims, the Hindus, the Wiccans? Or should we submit to the tyranny of the majority?

You say, “If one is going to subscribe to a creed should it not form a central position in one’s life? My answer is: that is a matter for the individual to decide. What you, as an individual, deem to be central to your life is a matter of choice. You should not expect society to put YOUR beliefs at the centre of everybody’s lives.  If this is your expectation, you should consider moving to the theocracy of your choice.

#45 Pat Collett (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 1:07pm

Were I to have such a powerful belief (which I, perhaps unfortunately lack) I should be happy to live in a society of like minded people.
However for all the “Christian” and “Secularist” societies of the mainly “Western” world there would seem to be precious few who live out their beliefs.
Modern history has enough evidence to show that self interest overwhelms and individuals trying to climb over each other to get to the peak of whatever it is they wish for abound.
So I’m afraid your “strawmanning” bucket doesn’t really hold too much water.
And here I’d refer you to @Abraham above, with whom I largely agree.

#46 milesnagopaleen on Friday October 03, 2014 at 4:43pm

@Pat Collett
Perhaps you should get yourself some beliefs then.  Cynicism doesn’t seem to be getting you very far.

#47 Abraham (Guest) on Friday October 03, 2014 at 9:00pm

Hi Pat Collett,

Thanks for being sympathetic to my world-view !

#48 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday October 04, 2014 at 12:58am

Actually Abraham

Dr Law is equivocating with his use of Secular (the details are complex though in determining this…but it can be done).

One can show this quickly with the following sentence:

“Secularism in the United States is a principle followed but this is different to Secularism.”

Hi milesnagopaleen

You are correct my Sunday example was a red herring…but that is because it was a “hypothetical” argument…therefore the conclusion to the argument is also “hypothetical”.

So in logic it wasn’t a real argument.

Problem is Dr Law took my hypothetical argument to make a “real” conclusion.

This you cannot do in logic…because one has to use a “real” argument to come to a “real” conclusion.

#49 Pat Collett (Guest) on Saturday October 04, 2014 at 4:24am

Would that more did!

#50 Abraham (Guest) on Saturday October 04, 2014 at 10:01am

Hi Philip,

I missed to discuss your Wittgenstein comment; our language is a shared phenomenon, our overt selves are also fundamentally of that same origin. We build it like birds build their nests, from twigs and tags from the vicinity, especially from subjective perceptions of what others think of us ! Our ego need a certain canvas to relate it to, or belong to.For majority, it is their subjective world image that acts as this essential canvas. When some event or person suddenly compel one to alter his subjective image of the world,it affects his self-image also.There occurs an internal struggle with one’s sense of reason to accept or reject that disturbing external event, or person.

Deeper canvas is also possible to relate oneself; say the timeless, space-less, society less reality of the origin of one’s consciousness,or self. If one’s entity/self is linked to such a wider/deeper canvas, he is shielded from the sudden disturbances in the world/society. This stand, or the center of ego is rather spiritual than worldly.

The catch of the world is so strong in the modern world, so it is tough for men to have any other canvas to place him self in ..

Pls. send me links if any to read about Richard Rorty.. I would love to know more about him. I hv blog on the what I said above, at link:

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