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


#51 milesnagopaleen on Saturday October 04, 2014 at 2:00pm

@ Philip Rand
“So in logic it wasn’t a real argument.”
Pretty much like all the rest of your “arguments” then.
Do carry on building your own strawman definition of secularism and battering away with your rather feeble and pathetic attempts at sophistry.  The only real point you made was the Sunday working “dilemma” which was easily answered.  The rest of your comments are pretty much incoherent word salad. “The state as a work of art” indeed! You are having a laugh and so am I. Toodle pip!

#52 Philip Rand (Guest) on Sunday October 05, 2014 at 5:07am

OK milesnagopaleen…

A woman is three weeks pregnant (she knows she is pregnant)...she applies for a job knowing that she will be taking maternity leave if she gets the job.

She gets the job.

According to you and Dr Law she is taking the job in “bad” faith…

Is this correct?

And if it is correct…why is it bad faith?

And if it isn’t correct…why is it not bad faith?

#53 Philip Rand (Guest) on Sunday October 05, 2014 at 5:38am

Hi Abraham…

If you wish to read some Richard Rorty…try his book:


A word of warning to you however, Rorty is an atheist who follows through with what “true” atheism entails…not the kind of atheism Dr Law professes…

#54 milesnagopaleen on Sunday October 05, 2014 at 6:49am

OK Philip Rand
A man is working on the sabbath.  Should he be paid time and a half, double time or be stoned to death?

The question above is more germane to the topic in hand than yours, which has nothing whatsoever to do with secularism or “Secularism”. 

How about this one?
A man is asking questions that are not remotely connected to the topic at hand.  Is he acting in bad faith? If not why not?  Why is he bothering?  Why am I bothering?  Bye bye!

#55 Philip Rand (Guest) on Monday October 06, 2014 at 3:29am

Sorry to see you go milesnagopaleen…

One could study both your above mentioned questions and gain quite a lot of insight…

However, to give you a quick answer that encompasses both…

I would say that here both the Atheist and the Believer (in their most ideal form) should share the same “feeling”.

That being “empathy”. (And that’s the answer)

#56 Philip Rand (Guest) on Tuesday October 07, 2014 at 8:55am

Dr Law

I believe your model “Secularism” is no different to secularism.

However, it does differ in this respect (here I refer to the liberal democratic system in the UK).

In the United Kingdom we operate under a pluralistic liberal democratic system:

1/ Clergy (26 active clergy in House of Lords)

2/ Nobility (10 active hereditary Lords in House of Lords)

3/ Organised Labour (active Unions)

4/ Capital (active)

That operates with the House of Commons.

So 5 institutions.

Your version of Secularism says that:

1/ Clergy (inactive)

2/ Nobility (inactive)

And according to your answer concerning working on Sundays…the Humanist could go to his union for redress…but here you say he does not.


3/ Organised Labour (in-active Unions)

4/ Capital (active)

That operates with the House of Commons.

Which means that instead of a pluralistic liberal democracy in the UK you are suggesting that the UK follow a monistic liberal democracy (only the Institution of Capital is active).

The problem with this is that taken to its limits a monistic liberal democracy could become Jacobinism!

So in truth the difference is not between secular or Secular…the choice is between a pluralistic liberal democracy or a monistic liberal democracy…

Clearly, the issues are much more complex…but in a nutshell this is my analysis.

#57 Philip Rand (Guest) on Tuesday October 07, 2014 at 8:58am

You could of course say…“So what…”

#58 stephen law (Guest) on Tuesday October 07, 2014 at 9:13am

Struggling to make sense of the above i’m afraid, Philip.

#59 Abraham (Guest) on Tuesday October 07, 2014 at 9:22am

Hi Philip,

You have put-forth a few very disturbing questions to the so called blind followers and admirers of modern Secular/ or even SECULAR, ( all in capital !) open, transparent, democratic states ! Appreciate !

I am working on an article as to ‘how to free modern democracy, and the class of ‘people’ from pursuing myths around RULING of states ?’.RULING states with the old FUEL of POWER ( the same fuel used by old authoritarian regimes!) is totally UNFIT for a political system of PEOPLE !

#60 Philip Rand (Guest) on Tuesday October 07, 2014 at 9:35am

Yes, I do know Dr Law it is extremely difficult to be short…

But, essentially it is not beliefs but INSTITUTIONS that is critical…

A democracy can be defined as a state where political decisions are taken by consent, or the active participation even, of the majority of the People.

But, this begs the question of “who are the People”, because answers to it explain why, when and how the qualification “liberal” applies.

This is really difficult to do here…but plurality I would say different institutions operating within a democracy.

Essentially, different discourse groups, i.e. Church, Nobility, Unions, Capital (rentiers) within a liberal democracy.

#61 Philip Rand (Guest) on Tuesday October 07, 2014 at 10:37am

Hi Abraham

Actually, their has been some interesting work done on democracy…

You are right Abraham…representational democracy is a given now…nobody questions it…but, as I am sure you are aware of…it isn’t real democracy.

Some chaps have done some work (look it up on the web) and have shown that perhaps a combination of real democracy, i.e. using random lots from the population of a country to fill legislative bodies (say 2/3) with a 1/3 representational group (i.e. using traditional means that we know now)...offer a superior form of decision making (at least according to their models).

#62 stephen law (Guest) on Wednesday October 08, 2014 at 2:43pm

Philip, what you say appears both opaque and irrelevant. I had much the same problem with your comments on my other blog. it’s why I usually ignore them. Happy to respond to those of your comments that are clear, relevant, and avoid veiled insults. Otherwise not.

#63 Pat Collett (Guest) on Wednesday October 08, 2014 at 10:28pm

How strange that Dr Law finds a disagreement insulting.
I happened to be enjoying Philip’s comments and certinly found them both lucid and interesting.

#64 stephen law (Guest) on Thursday October 09, 2014 at 1:26am

Oh I don’t find disagreement insulting, Abraham (I do seem to remember one or two veiled insults on the other bog, but perhaps I misunderstood or misremember).

I won’t usually respond to comments that appear largely opaque and irrelevant. So if commentators want a response fro me (and they may not), do please try to tick those two boxes.

#65 Abraham (Guest) on Thursday October 09, 2014 at 7:31am

Dr. Law, The recent post about ‘disagreement insulting’was NOT from me, but by Pat Collett..

Perhaps you are not paying adequate attention to the thread these days..

This might be the reason why my last post to you still await a response from you..

#66 Stephen Law (Guest) on Thursday October 09, 2014 at 7:43am

Abraham, no I’m no longer paying much attention to this thread. To the extent that I can make sense of them, few recent comments appear to be of much relevance to my post.

#67 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday October 11, 2014 at 2:34am

Oh sorry! OK Dr Law, I shall try to make my point really simple then

First, we can agree that all modern secular liberal democratic nations operate with two basic groups:

Executive government/Popular base

Second, let’s also be clear that it was the French Revolution that universalised human rights and in fact is the origin that you base your ideas upon, i.e. “The Rights of Man and the Citizen” (I suggest you read it if you haven’t especially declaration 10).

Now, let’s look at that hypothetical Sunday premiss.

Your response was that for the Religous person and the Humanist person it was simply TOUGH that they could not apply for the same job, i.e. one Law for all.

What is very interesting in your “tough” response is that it highlights an important point very clearly but one that you are missing entirely.

That being that despite all what you have said about “Secular”, i.e. about its prescriptions of law-boundness, i.e. one law for all but with popular participation to form policy, i.e. the essentials of a secular liberal state…your response of TOUGH highlights a lethal contradiction in your “Secularism” because it states that all authority flows from the general will, but you are also saying in your Secluraism that man possesses natural and imprescriptible rights.


Your answer of “tough” means you are siding with the executive government….not the popular base, i.e. Humanity (I mean shouldn’t you be on this side as a Humanist)...this is why your Secularism (no different form secularism) is a monistic secularism.

Now, a pluralistic secularist would look at the hypothetical Sunday model…and say…hey! that’s not fair…the Humanist should also be able to attend his meeting…this would be a pluralistic solution.


That is why your “Secular”=monistic secular liberal democracy.

And not a pluralistic secular liberal democracy (i.e. what we have presently in the UK)

But, unfortunately their are no rational reasons why a society should be pluralistic (it happens by accident…clearly I could not convince you that pluralism is best).

Really, what is at base (and this is where Armstrong and you are diametrically opposite) is this.

You believe that CONSCIOUS PURPOSE drives a democracy, i.e. in many ways similar to “naturalism”.

And Armstrong believe that the UNCONCIOUS drives human society, i.e. no concious purpose.

What is funny is that recent neuro-psychology experiments hint that in truth Armstrong’s position is true…and not your position.

Now…I AM NOT SIDING WITH ARMSTRONG…I doubt she has much to offer…a bit like Steve Pinker’s recent book about violence.

BUT, I hope this post is transparent enough for you

#68 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday October 11, 2014 at 2:48am

Now Dr Law I do realise the reason why you hold the position you do.

What I find really interesting is that for you all traditions should be questioned (nothing wrong with this in priciple)...BUT, what is interesting is that you even question HUMANISM itself!

I mean, let’s face it traditional modern Humanism has always been an intellectual position, i.e. an interest group…where it differed from religion was it’s central tenent of “toleration”.

But what you are attempting to do is to transform Humanism into a discourse group, i.e. in your definition of Humanism toleration has been removed.

When I look at your list of Humanist principles I kinda chuckle…because it looks so much like what the Marxists used to do…and in many respects your approach to Humanism is like Marxism, i.e. an attempt at a universalistic ideaology.

#69 stephen law (Guest) on Saturday October 11, 2014 at 4:20am

philip back in comment 26 I said:

“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.”

Your convoluted last comment but one is based on the thought that Secularism says neither humanist nor reliigious should be exempt the employer’s requiremt to work Sunday. So it is based on a failure to grasp what i would have thought was a fairly simple point I repeatedly made earlier.

This is why i find it frustrating interacting with you. You’re no philosopher I take it?

#70 stephen law (Guest) on Saturday October 11, 2014 at 8:36am

ps my own personal view is that the State should exempt neither humanist nor religious in this instance (employer requiring Sunday hours). presumably there is *some* limit to what should be exempt re legal and employment requirements, right? and my view is its unreasonable to insist employers mske such an accomodation in this instance. but my Secularism does not demand I think that. It just demands I treat religious and humanist equally.

#71 Stephen Law (Guest) on Saturday October 11, 2014 at 9:42am


Earlier you said that what I, the NSS, the BHA, and Father Lynch mean by ‘Secularism’ was unclear to you, even after reading my piece above. You requested I explain it in one sentence. So how’s this?

Secularism (with a capital ‘S’): the view that (i) the State/law should be neutral with respect to religions/atheism, privileging neither, and (ii) religious/atheist freedom of thought, expression, and practice should be (equally) protected.

That’s it! Note that Secularism does not mean unbridled, exploitative capitalism, for example (please note, Abraham). A highly socialist country can be Secular.

So now, Philip and Abraham, if you reject Secularism, which of (i) and (ii) above do you reject, and why?

#72 Abraham (Guest) on Sunday October 12, 2014 at 1:26am

Dear Dr.Law,

I repeat,what you are engaged-in is holding the ideal of ‘Secularism’above your head, and shouting to the world that it is pure 24 caret material ! Neither Karen, nor me or others had much different opinion about the opinion you hold. She simply analysed the historical back-ground of the origin of the concept, and revealed to the world that invention of this,and other similar modern ideals of democratic-capitalist regimes ( like freedom, dignity of self etc) was a rather political ‘gimmick’, than a genuine humanist ideal invented for the betterment of human society,or mankind at large !

I politely request you to re-read ( or simply read once, if you have not done yet) my post to you dated 2nd Oct.

It explains the futility of chanting these slogans,or being its great Champion, or disputing its merits, while grossly ignoring whether our present kind of political regimes are sincere, and genuinely wiling to deliver goodies like liberty, dignity of individual, or your brand ,or any other brand of secularism to common citizens, irrespective of whether these regimes capitalistic or socialist !

#73 Stephen Law (Guest) on Sunday October 12, 2014 at 4:21am


(i) “Neither Karen, nor me or others had much different opinion about the opinion you hold.”

As I pointed out earlier, you do not know whether Karen holds the same opinion on Secularism. Or, if you do know that, please explain how you know it. I’d like to be reassured.

(ii) “I politely request you to re-read ( or simply read once, if you have not done yet) my post to you dated 2nd Oct.It explains the futility of chanting these slogans,or being its great Champion, or disputing its merits, while grossly ignoring whether our present kind of political regimes are sincere, and genuinely wiling to deliver goodies like liberty, dignity of individual, or your brand ,or any other brand of secularism to common citizens, irrespective of whether these regimes capitalistic or socialist!”

I did reread your comment on 2nd. Your comment there and above is akin to criticising e.g. those calling for equal rights for women on the grounds that those calling for such things are ignoring the question whether our political regimes are genuinely willing to deliver on things like liberty, dignity of the individual, Secularism, etc.

What an odd criticism. It seems to be a version of the more general: “How do you complain about x when there’s y going on!”. e.g. “How dare you complain about sexism when thousands are being slaughtered in Rwanda!”.

#74 Stephen Law (Guest) on Sunday October 12, 2014 at 4:29am

PS Abraham perhaps your point is there is no point tinkering with The System to try to get Secularism, or equal rights for women, etc. while The System itself is fundamentally unjust? I.e. Revolution is the only answer, not piecemeal reform?

And on this basis you criticise anyone calling for any piecemeal reform, no matter how noble?

#75 Abraham (Guest) on Sunday October 12, 2014 at 8:50am

Hi Dr.Law,

Your final words..
‘PS Abraham perhaps your point is there is no point tinkering with The System to try to get Secularism, or equal rights for women, etc. while The System itself is fundamentally unjust? I.e. Revolution is the only answer, not piecemeal reform?

And on this basis you criticise anyone calling for any piecemeal reform, no matter how noble?’

Not at all Dr.Law..we are supposed to be philosophy-oriented men. Hence our historic duty and responsibility is go into the deeper fundamentals of human cause and issues,and find light and solutions. Revolution is not that stand for, but creating new myths and norms for the REGIME OF THE PEOPLE- democracy. I have a blog that attempts to show what such a democracy could and should stand for people. As I can not give links here,I shall post the link at your FB page.

Karen’s article was not about the merits or demerits of Secularism as an ideal. So, no point in debating with her what her stand on secularism is,or what do I think her views on that. It is outside the purview of her article.
Secularism ( in small letters, or with a capital S) is an excellent, un-parallel ideal like human freedom and liberty. She simply dwelt into the origin of its historic back-ground, and found that,it was indeed invented by the political and industrial masters of the new world, to tame it and its people,as repeatedly explained by me. Your stand is comparable with stand of fundamentalists, holding on strongly to some or other ideal or view,and get agitated at the slightest criticism from any corner about it…Apologies if I was bit out-spoken ! Your position and influence in the world is considerable, so your more open stand on causes such as the ’ dire need of a reinvented democracy’ etc would work wonders ! I appeal to you study and take-up such broader issues for the benefit of the world.

#76 Stephen Law (Guest) on Monday October 13, 2014 at 11:39am

“Karen’s article was not about the merits or demerits of Secularism as an ideal.”

How do you know this Abraham? After all, she used much the same kind of rhetoric as those who do attack Securalism. So how do you that she actually signs up to Secularism?

My point was she might very easily be understood to be attacking secularism. Many do attack it. By leaving it unclear whether she is attacking Secularism, she is likely to be interpreted by those attacking Secularism as a supporter and fellow traveller.

If Karen makes it clear she signs up to Secularism, either here or elsewhere, do please point this out.

#77 Abraham (Guest) on Tuesday October 14, 2014 at 12:43am

Dear Dr.Law,
You seem not wiling to move an inch from your position of tightly holding-on to your close to heart ideal, secularism, because that is your flag-ship ideal !
Our sense of reason is not all about the laws of logic, but about splitting a given idea or ray of thought into all sub-thoughts, possibilities and potentials. A close look at Karen’s article will reveal that the target of her attack is NOT secularism as such, but the tendency of the contemporary world to attribute certain religion and its dogmas as the chief cause behind violence and terrorism. Such objective analyzing capacity was always the essence of our faculty of reason, that lower animals do not share in the same degree with that of man.

So, let us stop the subject matter here, but I would once again appeal to you to see if your prestigious institution could take up the cause of ‘reinventing modern democracy’ as part of your target studies and causes ! It is much broader and greater a cause than stand alone secularism,as the latter is depended upon the former for its proper delivery in governance.

Our country is the worst is interpreting secularism for political mileage; the present predominantly one religion party claims they are the original secularists, and all others are
Who is pure secularist is not the chief issue of the contemporary world, but why should it be used as a political weapon to woo voters ?

#78 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday October 15, 2014 at 3:12am

So what’s different from your definition of the BIG S Secularism from the secularism all ready present in the UK…far as I can see from your definition:

“Secularism (with a capital ‘S’): the view that (i) the State/law should be neutral with respect to religions/atheism, privileging neither, and (ii) religious/atheist freedom of thought, expression, and practice should be (equally) protected.”


(i) Both religion and atheism are treated as “rights” not “priveleges”...SO DONE!

(ii) freedom of thought, expression and practice is all ready PROTECTED…SO DONE!

So the state according to your definition above is all ready neutral.

#79 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday October 15, 2014 at 3:26am

Dr Law

So according to your definition of BIG S, at present in the UK your Big S has been achieved.

So what is the problem?

#80 stephen law (Guest) on Wednesday October 15, 2014 at 3:33am


I didn"t say we don’t have Secularism, though:
(i) we don’t (state funded faith schools, 26 bishops in the Lords)
(ii) even what we do have is under attack, what with the religious claiming greater privileges (also in the US)
More importantly, even if we did have Secularism that obviously would not settle whether Armstrong signs up to it, or whether she means to attack Secularism. which is what my piece is about. So what is the relevance of your comment?

Do you sign up Secularism? Then say so. If not, why not?

#81 Philip Rand (Guest) on Friday October 17, 2014 at 10:56pm

OK Dr Law

Parliament has legislated same sex marriage but it has not demanded that the Church of England carry them out.

Is this BIG S secularism?

Your answer to this may indicate to you whether Karen Armstrong would sign up to your idea or whether she has grounds to attack it.

#82 Philip Rand (Guest) on Monday October 20, 2014 at 5:19am

You see Dr Law

The real situation and real arrived at solution to the same-sex marriage issue mentioned above was achieved by our government being “neutral” with respect to religion, i.e. want you want.

The fact that the government does not force the Church of England to carry out these types of marriages is simply a recognised acceptance
by the government of the fact that we live in a pluralistic secular culture.

However, the reason you would disagree with this and answer NO…is because your model is not pluralistic it is in fact monistic, therefore according to your “one law for all” rule the idea that the government is behaving neutrally (which it is) you would not accept.

In your conception of “one law for all” the Church of England must be forced by the government to marry same-sex couples.

Two things of note come out here…the first is that your conception of BIG S secularism is really a
form of legal despotism.

The second, is that you don’t like the pluralistic “game” because the most fundamental rule about the pluralistic game is that there are never BIG WINS!

So, it is therefore pretty clear that Karen Armstrong SHOULD NOT sign up to your secularism…and that you SHOULD consider her
article an attack on your brand of secularism.

#83 Grimsdyke on Friday October 24, 2014 at 3:11am

Karen Armstrong’s lack of balance and intellectual integrity astonishes me. When asked by a very perceptive and tenacious BBC interviewer on 29 September 2014, to make explicit the kind of people at whom she directs her famously repetitive apostrophic protest that “religion is caricatured as being unmitigatedly violent, whereas it has always been capable of much good as well”, her censure falls primarily on taxi drivers! Never before in their history would this useful and customarily conversational group of people have aroused the ire of a prominent ‘scholar’ by their informal and uncensored remarks! Ms Armstrong takes definite exception to their insufficiently balanced perspective on religion, and equates them, with artful casuistry, with Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris — the standard-bearers of the courageous and timely rationalistic fight-back against theocratic bullying and menace. However some of her own oft-repeated remarks (one might even call them ‘pronouncements’ from the emphasis she gives them) are themselves masterpieces of unbalanced, uncritical utterances conspicuously lacking in nuance and sophistication – such as that “young men want to fight”. As an unthinking and lamentably simplistic generalisation it must have few competitors; it is the kind of crass and caricaturing utterance that would shame even people without the slightest pretence to scholarship.

She also goes on in the same interview to explain the bloodlust of the Ji-Hadi as an outcome of historical “humiliation” at the loss of Islam’s power involved in the collapse of the worldwide empire that was established in AD 762. If she has any consecutive sense at all she has to postulate that its votaries must have memories that stretch back over 800 years and harbour grievances cultivated back then and sustained over successive generations in the face of epochal change that has left nothing standing which is recognisable as belonging to that age, except for a religion whose sacred texts carry the primitive cast of thought that characterised the primordial violence and unsophistication of those times. Should the Spanish people, or the Dutch, or the British – former colonial powers – ever think to launch a murderous campaign of violence against the rest of the world they will feel themselves comforted by the rationale offered them by Karen Armstrong’s ‘scholarly’ analysis, which seeks to elevate this kind of psychotic evil to the status of a ‘natural’ retaliatory urge forced upon its practitioners by an unkind World uncharitable enough to deprive them gradually of their empire. In her words, “humiliation is a major source of this kind of conflict”. This is footling reasoning, and again, as an example of irrationality, it must have few peers. There appears to be no limit to the ridiculous depths to which she will stoop in her eagerness to exculpate the adherents of religion-inspired violence.

Other interviews reveal her in her now-familiar colours as a religious apologist. Her perverse determination (in the teeth of overflowing historical evidence to the contrary) to paint religion as the source of the calls to sanity and goodness made by ‘reformers’ down the ages is another absurd aspect of her unhistorical viewpoint that strips her substantially of credibility as a scholar. Integral to this fantasy is her romantic belief that literalism only crept into religion with the advent of the Enlightenment — as a result of the confidence inspired by the apparently unlimited technological capacity made available by science, and that the preceding ages were characterised by a nuanced and elusive view of God worthy of the most refined and ethereal mysticism. So the protracted orgy of slaughter and persecution in which the Catholic Church indulged for centuries had nothing to do with literal understanding? What is a ‘heresy’ if not a deviation from a literal dogma? As any educated person knows, the Catholic persuasion was immensely fertile in producing ‘church philosophers’ who expended years of concentrated thought in dreaming up complex systems of interpretation to add to the structure of the existing beliefs, generating new layers of dogma with which to entangle humanity. Armstrong views monsters such as Thomas Aquinus and St Augustine in an affectionate haze of unreality – crediting them with an exalted other-worldliness that they themselves would not recognise, and completely ignoring the literal fundamentalism that saw them call for the killing of heretics in the first case, and the slaughter of those who did not accept the Christian message in the second.

I wonder to what Armstrong attributes the Catholic Church’s relentless and unending devotion to lethal punishment of heresy throughout the centuries that preceded the Enlightenment; not that her opinion in this matter would be any more worthy of respect than her bizarre and unscholarly opinions about much else. Those ‘reformers’ who spoke out against the insanity of religious sectarian thought and action, and whom Armstrong represents as being voices generated from within religion and expressive of its best traditions were, in fact, violently persecuted by those religions and, in many instances, met brutal deaths at the hands of the religious establishment. Karen Armstrong’s contempt for historical fact demonstrated by these distortions of history is brazen and bizarre, and ultimately deeply dishonouring of these pivotal figures in our history, who are rightly reckoned champions of the long, hard and grindingly brutal upward struggle of our species from the feculant mire of irresistible religious savagery to the uplands of secular freedom and a common culture valuing rationality above repressive religious dogma. Figures such as Girolamo Savonarola, Giordano Bruno, Avicenna, Jan Hus and Spinoza head this list, all victims of religious dogma and. Other heroes less unfortunate, but equally reviled by the icebound theology of the time, include figures such as Erasmus, Copernicus and Galileo – all denounced as heretics, excommunicated and placed under the ban of the Church. This is the ugly record of the religions that Karen Armstrong credits with mystical and otherworldly conceptions that were only upset by the substitution of critical, scientific rationality for blind, Priest-interpreted faith and dogma.

What Karen Armstrong does is, to my mind, malignant and mischievous, and cannot but be condemned in the strongest possible terms as dishonourable and grievously wanting in discernment and intellectual honesty. Her depreciation of people like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is worthy of the actions of a pamphleteer who distorts facts in an attempt to dignify a sectarian position, cloaking in counterfeit, quasi-historical garb what is at bottom an irrational and emotional disagreement with an argument that she probably lacks the objectivity to understand. I shouldn’t perhaps accuse Armstrong of calculated distortion, but it offends me to be lied to by someone who poses as a construer of historical fact.

#84 Verena Tobler (Guest) on Friday October 24, 2014 at 3:17am

It’s high time to develop a better understanding of the increasing clashes beween the West and the Islamic part oft he World. Western Secularism has developed in the centre of the global capital accumulation and it took us 5 centuries to achieve the seperation of secular rules and religious norms. Armstrong is listing some oft these immense shadows our economic system had for the rest oft he world. But something is overlooked by both authors: The globalization of our Western economy has involved a highly unqueal development. At the overdeveloped part, secularization goes together with basic rights. Both of them make only sense for states or social classes which are completely and formally integrated in the circulation of the ongoing capital accumulation. Marx and Hayek were right: Money has freed indiviuals. Western states can afford basic rights to all there inhabitants because the Big (!) majority of the population has a formal income and can feed our system of solidarity through tax paying and payroll deduction: Therefore, everyone has a right to enjoy solidarity from everyone. Quite different on the margin of the world economy: poor people survive with a system of solidarity which is n o t organized through capital circulation and its generalized money-and tax-income. Poor ountries are reigned by a non-monetarian solidarity system. And this pre-monetarian stystem is based on the fulfillment oft gender roles, generation roles, kinship roles a n d based either on traditional morality or on religious norms. Therefore, it makes sense that in poor countries and their predominantly poor population both, collective survival and social security, rest under the dominion of religious norms and religious law. Islam is a system enabling people not only to go on with solidarity within families and kinship but to oblige them to an overall solidarity with other beleavers. And we may recognize this as a progress as soon as we are ready and capable to take the viewpoint of the Other!

#85 Stephen Law (Guest) on Friday October 24, 2014 at 3:17am

Phillip - again I cannot much sens eof your comment. I will leave it to you and Abraham to battle out whether Armstrong signs up to Securlaism (big S). You say yes, Abraham says no. I’m not sure.

#86 Philip Rand (Guest) on Friday October 24, 2014 at 3:33am

You know Dr Law, I think I took the same “How to handle being interviewed by the media course” as you!

i.e. always decide on 4 points to discuss ONLY and never deviate from them.

Actually, I wrote that Armstrong should not sign up, i.e. NO

I am really not sure how I could have been more clear with my question to you, i.e.

“Parliament has legislated same sex marriage but it has not demanded that the Church of England carry them out.

Is this BIG S secularism?”

I know I am a theoretical nuclear physicist…and you are a philosopher…BUT, really how much clearer can I make it?

Just a simple question…

#87 Philip Rand (Guest) on Friday October 24, 2014 at 3:47am

p.s.  I would suggest you look at your “Is it Art” topic on your blog…a nasty post for you has been posted that you should remove as soon as possible…

#88 Stephen Law (Guest) on Friday October 24, 2014 at 5:11am

Thanks for the heads up Philip re that comment. I also commented in haste earlier and accidentally switched you and Abraham round - as you spotted. btw where are you a theoretical nuclear physicist?

#89 Philip Rand (Guest) on Friday October 24, 2014 at 5:34am

Sorry Dr Law, best if I don’t say where I work…(not trying to be opaque…just cautious…Edward Teller told me once (during a lunch in which he fell asleep a lot, on account he was very old) that in science one always had to be brave to pursue knowledge at all costs…that and the Heisenberg’s (this was our personal link) but concerning bravery here, I prefer to be craven…

However, I once emailed your secretary for the paper a specialist in Wittgenstein was delivering at your place of work (you don’t agree with her at all)...from work last year…if you dig up that old email from her…you will find where I work…

#90 Stephen Law (Guest) on Friday October 24, 2014 at 8:33am

Philip - Unfortunately I don’t have a secretary. Maybe just email me direct at the think@... email address on old blog?

#91 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday October 25, 2014 at 3:25am

Dr Law

Not even a “please”?

Why not just ask Adrian Brockless (I assumed this person was your secretary…and yes, I do realise one should never assume…because when one does it makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”).

I doubt the DVA would appreciate me simply sending random emails to people…even you.

#92 Stephen Law (Guest) on Saturday October 25, 2014 at 9:29am

Why would the DVA care if you email me?

#93 Philip Rand (Guest) on Sunday October 26, 2014 at 7:49am

Dr Law…

What you are doing is called “spear-fishing”...that is why the DVA would be interested…if you don’t stop it’ll be a pain for me to report and a pain for you (remember you have all ready been linked with a South American drug-dealer, hee, hee, hee) appear very wet behind the ears when it comes to how the world works…or very myopic…or enjoy behaving like an old woman…

My comments on your blog are just a way to pass the time when convenient…usually enjoyable…

Besides, what relevance has it got to do with your article?  As you have so often reminded me of my own!!!

So please, just drop it…thanks in advance…

#94 Philip Rand (Guest) on Sunday October 26, 2014 at 8:55am

How about this Dr Law…

Next time you see Prof John Lennox…ask him where is one of the oddest places he has given a lecture…

Now:“Parliament has legislated same sex marriage but it has not demanded that the Church of England carry them out.

Is this BIG S secularism?”

#95 Abraham (Guest) on Sunday October 26, 2014 at 11:32pm

Hi Philip,

you posted to Dr.Law: ” you appear very wet behind the ears when it comes to how the world works…or very myopic…or enjoy behaving like an old woman…”...

This comment should also apply to many of our established opinion leaders in the contemporary world, who often act as champions of certain carefully chosen ideals. They don’t let any new bud of thought pass through the iron gates ( that they guard) of their intellectual authority, and thus, let the world go paralyzed.

#96 Stephen Law (Guest) on Monday October 27, 2014 at 1:59am


You say: “What you are doing is called “spear-fishing…that is why the DVA would be interested… if you don’t stop it’ll be a pain for me to report”.

This is all very odd. Why would the DVA (by which I guess you mean Defence Vetting Agency disbanded in 2011) be interested in you sending an email to me but not to Adrian Brockless (for you claim already to have done so)?

And what would you be reporting me for? I looked up “spear fishing” and find it hard to believe this is what you mean!

#97 Stephen Law (Guest) on Monday October 27, 2014 at 2:04am

(p.s. Look up ‘spear fishing’ at urban dictionary - surely that is not what you mean!

Perhaps you meant phishing?

Or perhaps you mean I find your ‘theoretical physicist’ claim a bit fishy?

#98 Philip Rand (Guest) on Monday October 27, 2014 at 11:09pm

Hello Abraham…long time no see!

If you want you can raise your concerns and any ideas you have for parliament reform with:

Graham Allen MP he is Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.  He is extremely approachable and his ideas would probably conform with your own (i.e. he is a bit cynical with the present system).

To find him…just google him and look at the page Graham Allen Councillor Nottingham…and send your message to Marie-Claire…she will forward it to him…if he is interested he will email you (promise).

You can also download info on the official UK Parliament web-page to his particular committee…just go to the government web page…look-up Political and Constitutional Reform Committee…If they really like your stuff…you could be called to give evidence in front of the committee!

Now, concerning BIG S secularism…I do see a problem with it…as I wrote I believe it is a form of legal despotism…Dr Law did not understand this when I applied it to same-sex marriage in the UK…

But, here is another example…according to his model, strict separation between state and religion must be legally enforced no matter what…However, if one looks at Germany, this would mean that the Christian Democratic Union Party, i.e. Merckal’s party and her government…must, either be banned or removed from office or they have to change their name?

This is starting to sound really ridiculous now isn’t it…even though Germany IS the most successful secular country in Europe!

This is what I mean with the term “legal despotism”.

#99 Abraham (Guest) on Tuesday October 28, 2014 at 12:50am

Hi Philip, Thanks for referring Graham Allen MP’s political reform committee ! I will definitely google and locate him !

With regard to Secularism, there is no point in debating about its genuine version, as it is only a stick to beat the opposition, or a false means to woo votes, for all political outfits today. This was the essence of the article of Karen Armstrong too.

For scholars like Dr.Law, it is a stand-alone ideal they deal with in their routine business of ideologies, without any relevance to the real world.

So, why should you and me waste our time and energy on non-stop debating on it ? For all the involved parties,the intentions are far apart about the theme of debate,ie. secularism. So, it is a futile
exercise !
Thanks once gain..

#100 Philip Rand (Guest) on Tuesday October 28, 2014 at 2:54am

Well Abraham

I think you are WRONG about not debating…this is a very DANGEROUS position to take…

You see Dr Law is representing one discourse group and Karen Armstrong represents another discourse group.

Discourse groups can either communicate with each other or not.  However, if discourse groups do communicate with each other they are playing a pluralistic game…

If discourse groups don’t communicate then they do not expect to convince others of the reasonableness of their cause.

Here there are rules about how to play…its a bit like a group of people playing poker…not everyone gives all their information away concerning their cards…BUT, there is an etiquette in how the game is played.  If one person playing poker starts ranting at the table or refuses to put up ante…then the game falls apart…

And that is the problem with Dr Law’s Open Letter…Yes, he asked Armstrong to respond, BUT he did it in an overtly passionate and ranting manner…this would probably scare Armstrong off…

However, she still should have responded…because she simply had to point out to Dr Law that his model has an anomaly in it, that being:

“One law for all” and “Protecting religious practice” are in opposition to each other…

The problem is she became silent…and silence is non-communication.  Non-communication is another word for incivility, and civility is one of the oldest words for politics…and a silent world is uncivil.

This is why you should continue to debate.

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