Secularism isn’t the cause of society’s evils, argues David Osborn – in fact, it’s the only way forward

The word ‘secularism’ brings to mind different things in different people. For many, it brings atheism to mind, in particular the outspoken atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins. For others it conjures up thoughts of Stalinism, thanks to the policies of Stalin, Mao and other communist dictators who saw religion as a threat to their own dogma.

But what is secularism? As I have learned over the course of my life, far too many people simply don’t know – unfortunate, but not altogether surprising. What is surprising is the number of people who think they know, but clearly don’t.

I’ve had people tell me they oppose secularism because they think it means communism, or the establishment of atheism as the state “religion”, or that secular schools means teaching children that God doesn’t exist. I’ve been told that Hitler was a secularist, that secularism was the justification that Stalin and Mao used for the murder of tens of millions of their own citizens, that secularism is the reason paedophile priests exist, and I’ve been told repeatedly that secularism is causing the moral degeneration of our society.

This is intellectual effluent that has been deliberately spread by people who want their religion to either remain in power or to acquire it, because nobody who hasn’t already made up their mind could believe any of the above once the term has been properly explained.

Firstly, ‘secular’ does not equal ‘atheist’. While it is true almost all non-religious people are secularist, not all secularists are atheists. Secularism doesn’t necessarily promote atheism, nor does it logically lead to atheism. Secularism, simply put, is the notion that politics and religion should remain separate.

This certainly does not mean that the state should be atheist or promote it, but rather that it shouldn’t take a stance on religion at all. In schools, it doesn’t mean teaching atheism; it means accepting all students from every background and educating them all equally, without teaching them that one particular religion is truthful. All non-secular education systems are discriminatory and sectarian, and only a secular public school system can be fair to everybody. Nor does secularism strip parents of their right to educate their children in a religious setting: privately-funded schools could have whatever ethos they like, and voluntary religion classes could be taught in public schools after hours.

Some fear that a secular state, intentions aside, will ultimately lead to an irreligious society like France. The evidence doesn’t support this assumption, as the US – the original modern secular democracy – is the most religious country in the western world.

Conversely, Britain and Norway are both very irreligious places, but they are not secular countries; in both cases, the head of state is also the head of the official church, uniting the church and state in a single indivisible icon. The implication is that every citizen of those countries is also a professor of the state faith, a deeply disingenuous notion.

Secularism does not offer justification for murder or crime. Contrary to the claims of many religious fundamentalists, Hitler (who was a Catholic) was not a secularist; indeed, he attempted to establish Nazism as a state religion. Stalin was an atheist, but this is incidental; he didn’t do the things he did because he wasn’t religious, he did them because he was a paranoid totalitarian.

Secularism does not lead to the moral degeneration of society or to paedophile priests; indeed, it enhances societal ethics. More than twice I’ve heard grown adults link the rise of secularism to the Catholic abuse scandal, apparently seeming unable to connect the fact that the abuse in question took place largely before 1993, and before Ireland underwent the recent liberalisation.

A state which is bound to a religion looks only to the dogma of that religion for its ethics; a state which is required to look to no religion for its law is also required to actually think about the matters at hand, to use reason and logic to decide how to proceed – not the dictats of a book from the dark ages, or from a Church which rapes children, lies about it, protects those who committed the offenses, and then when exposed is more worried about its reputation than about its victims. A secular government is accountable for its actions; its decisions are its own, and it cannot blame mistakes on the adoption of “infallible” truths, or hide behind religion.

So what is secularism? It is the only way forward. If we want to live in a society which respects the rights of everyone, not just the majority, in a society which respects freedom of religion; a society where the state doesn’t discriminate against people based on religion; a society where religious tests aren’t required to be a judge or the president; a society where civilisation can flourish; then we need to live in a country which has legal separation of Church and state.

Ireland, whose constitution declares the Catholic God to have the right to be worshipped by the Irish people and whose laws of the land give public schools the right to discriminate against tiny, innocent children based on the religion of their parents, has a long way to go.