The Challenge of Secularism



Secularisation is a term broadly used to describe a society becoming less religious in its outlook.

Jose Casanova (book= 'Rethinking Secularization ) - describes 3 ways in which the term can be understood:

1. A decline in religious belief in modern society.

2. Religion becoming something that should be done in private rather than in public.

3. The separation of Church and State, where the country is governed without reference to religious authorities and teachings.

The question of whether the UK is a secular country depends on which understanding of secularisation is being used.

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Freud's ideas of God as an illusion

  • Freud rejected the view that religious feelings and experiences come from God and instead claimed that they come from within the individual's own mind.
  • Freud said that religion is infantile and a 'mass delusion.'
  • Freud thought that religion is a product of wish fufilment. People who experience vulnerability as children, and those who remain infantile in adult life invent a God as a kind of imaginary friend because they feel unable to cope with life on their own.
  • Freud related this to the Oedipus complex. He thought that male children secretly wanted to kill their fathers so that they could have their mothers all to themselves. They know, however, that it is wrong to kill their fathers, so they over-compensate by inventing a cosmic father-figure to worship.
  • He thought that religious believers invent the idea that there are absolute morals and a purpose to life and a goal at the end because they wish that life could be like that. They transfer these wishes into beliefs.  
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More on Freud's ideas

  • Religious believers invent a God who seems stern but is actually loving and forgiving. They invent a life after death that wil begin a new existence, where the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished, to compensate for the injustices of real life.
  • Religion represses human desires such as sexual violence, theft and murder.
  • Religious beliefs and teachings gain authority because they are passed down through generations.
  • Freud thought that religion is fundamentally unhealthy. It discourages people from having normal, healthy adult reactions to the world, and from taking on responsibility for their own actions and consequences. It also represses people and causes conflict.
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Strengths and weaknesses of Freud

  • Freud could be right that religion has a particular appeal for vulnerable and lonely people.
  • A non-supernatural explanation of religious feelings and experiences could be viewed as more plausible than a supernatural one.
  • There is evidence to support Freud's view that people depict God as a kind of super-human. For example, feminists argue that men have given God male characteristics.
  • Many religious people have been particularly strong and courageous in standing up for their beliefs in the face of danger.
  • The demands of leading a Christian life are difficult rather than comfortable (Bonhoeffer's costly grace).
  • Religious beliefs might be said to be more uniform than would be expected if different individuals made them up.
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Dawkins' critique of religion

Dawkins (book= 'The God Delusion') - he concentrates on explaining why belief in God is damaging for society and for intellectual progress.

  • He argues that human life is meaningful without reference to religious ideas. People do not need the idea of God in order to find meaning in their lives.
  • He argues that religion is responsible for division, war and conflict in society, both in the modern world and throughout history.
  • He argues hat religious belief discourages scientific enquiry by allowing a lazy mindset that says 'it's a divine mystery' rather than looking for answers.
  • He claims that religions are repressive, and singles out religious dress codes as an example for repression of women.
  • Dawkins is particularly concerned about the indoctrination of children into religion giving examples of abuse of children by Christian priests and nuns. Dawkins considers bringing up children to be religious as a form of psychological abuse. He says children have a right not to have their minds confused by other people's nonsense.
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Strengths and weaknesses of Dawkins

  • Some Christians do see science and religion as opposites and oppose the teaching of evolution in schools, lending support to Dawkins' views.
  • Dawkins is right to say some acts of war and terrorism have been a result of disagreements over religious beliefs.
  • There is clear evidence to support his view that religion can be repressive for some groups; many feminists would agree with the claim that religion can be repressive for women.
  • Dawkins could be criticised for taking isolated, extreme examples and using them to draw conclusions.
  • He glosses over the many positive contributions religion has made to societies, such as the founding of schools, the campaigning of civil rights, the work for the poor and the pressure for social change.
  • He does not take account of the many scientists who have held religious beliefs and have been motivated by their faith to continue their scientific exploration.
  • It could be argued that keeping children away from learning truths about God is abusive.
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A different view

Jo Marchant (book= 'Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body') - she argued that religious belief can be psychologically helpful rather than psychologically damaging. 

  • She does not seek to demonstrate that religion is true, but uses interviews and gathers data to question the view that religion is psychologically harmful.
  • She suggests that there is compelling evidence that religious practices, such as meditation, social gatherings and belief in a loving God, bring about measurable benefits for religious believers.
  • She argues that a belief in God and hope for life after death can help people to overcome loneliness and fears, allowing people to live happier and longer lives.
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Christianity and public life

  • Some secular traditions see a separation between the Church and the State as essential. France became secular after the French Revolution abolished the monarchy and took power away from the Church. In France, the Government separate from the Church and religious influence over public matters is not allowed. There are no state-funded religious schools and people are not allowed to wear religious symbols in public. The French separation of Church and State is known as lacite.
  • Other countries such as the USA and Turkey also have constitutions that separate religion from the State. The idea that government should be democratic and fair for all rather than based on a religious foundation that not everyone shares.
  • Not all countries follow the French model. In the Netherlands in the 20th century there was a policy of 'pillarisation' where each different Christian denomination had its own schools, newspapers, political parties etc.
  • People in the UK disagree about the place of religion in public life. There have been legal disputes over the wearing of religious symbols at work and the extent to which people's religious beliefs should be protected.
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Education and Religion

  • Many schools in the UK have Christian foundations, often because they date back to times when the only free education was provided charitably by the Church. There are also 'faith schools' for the children of other religious traditions in the UK.
  • Church schools usually have state funding as well as sponsorship from the Church. When schools have Church fundng, they are expected to have a 'Christian ethos' with an emphasis on Christian moral principles and assemblies of Christian worship. Preference policy might be given in the admissions policy to children of families who go to church, and teachers might be recruited on the understanding that they are sympathetic to the Christian character of the school. Larger Church schools might employ a chaplain to act as a counsellor and conduct acts of worship.
  • Organisations such as the British Humanist Association argue against 'faith schools' because: a diversity of fath and belief is better for children educationally. School time should be for lessons, not worship and prayer. Separating children into faith groups encourages division, intolerance and conflict. Faith schools give unfair privileges to children because of the religion of their families. Children should not be recruited into a religion whilst they are at school.
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Schools and Education

  • Dawkins argues against religious fundamentalism (such as taking the Bible literally) in schools because: religious fundamentalism is anti-scientific and harmful to young minds. Religious fundamentalism replaces scientific, evidence-based enquiry with superstition and religous schools teach children that unquestioning faith is a virtue, whereas they should be educated to believe that questioning and open-mindedness are good.

Arguments in favour of faith schools:

  • Churches originally built schools for the poor and own a lot of the land they are built in, so the schools cannot just be 'taken away' from the Church.
  • Parents have the right to want their children to be educated in a way that reflects the family's morality and beliefs.
  • A plural diverse society should have plural, diverse schools to reflect the many different groups within society.
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Arguments for faith schools

  • There is no evidence to suggest that chiidren educated in faith schools are less tolerant or open-minded or unscientific than children educated in secular schools.
  • Critics of Dawkins suggest that his arguments are directed at a fundamentalist and extreme kind of religion which is not prevalent at Church schools in the UK.
  • Replacing faith schools with secular schools can be seen as indoctrinating children into atheism. In his essay, 'The Challenge of Secularism'Christopher Dawson argues that secular education has a consciously atheist agender.
  • James Conroy bargued that religious schools have a 'liminal function' in a liberal democratic state, giving children the sense that they are not just being prepared for a place in a capitalist world of work and that human flourishing is defined by more than just market value.
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Religion, government and State

  • The ruling British monarch is also Head of the CofE and Defender of Faith.
  • There are Anglican bishops in the House of Lords, serving as part of the process of UK government. There are also religious leaders of other faiths, but CofE has the most seats.
  • In the UK, religious places of Christian worship are licensed to legalise marriages.
  • The UK largely has a culture of 'inclusive secularity', where people's religious beliefs are respected up to a point. Medical staff, for example, may opt out of participating in some medical procedures if participation would compromise their religious principles. Religious dress is allowed in public if it does not impact someone's ability to do their job or compromise security. People are allowed to make speeches in public about their religious views.
  • When political leaders have firm religious beliefs. this can cause controversy, for example if an MP's personal religious beliefs could influence a vote on abortion, people might object and say that the MP should be representing the constituency and not allow religious beliefs to determine the vote.

Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) - split secularism. Programmatic Secularism= assumes that religious belief in public is offensive and assumes religious people want to drown out opposing views. It equates a non-religious forum with a 'neutral' forum. Procedural Secularism= allows public voices from all kinds of beliefs and none without privileging any of those voices, which ensures a balanced discussion.

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Secularisation as a theory

  • Sociologists of the mid- and late- 20th century, such as Peter Berger, argued that the world was becoming less and less religious. This position was supported by evidence such as the decline in church attendence and the growing number of people who registered as having no religion on surveys such as UK census.
  • It was assumed that there would be a decline in religion until it simply disappeared. Reasons given to explain this included the rise of science, globalisation and increased diversity in society.
  • The secularisation theory has since been discarded. Berger's later work revisits his earlier conclusions and retracts them. He no longer argues that a modern world is inevitably a secular world.
  • Modernity has had effects on religion. Fewer people attend church in Western Europe but other religions have a strong presence. In the rest of the world, religion is as strong as ever. Many people describe themselves as 'spiritual' without wishing to associate closely with a particular religion or group.
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Theory of secularisation

Ford - argues that is is too simplistic to think of religion as growing or being in decline in a linear way. He also rejects the idea that a religious mentality belongs to an unscientific age and is gradually being replaced with a better, secular, enlightened mentality. He says that growth and decline of religious belief is unpredictable and can go in many different directions at the same time.

Ford and Casanova - question the idea that secular society is better than religious society. They draw attention to times when ideologies have tried to enforce atheism, sometimes brutally, and have been unsuccessful.

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Extra Scholars

  • Charlotte Vardy - religion is undemocratic in the way that it influences public life and education. Religion encourages deference to authority, discourages critical and independent thinking. Religion raises dangerous questions about the meaning of language, the nature of truth and the primary of logic. Can lead to excessive guilt and sexual repression. Gives people false and irrational hope.
  • Weber - believed that religion is a force for change. Gave example of calvinism as it brought about a work ethic that gave rise to capitalism.
  • Bruce - believed religion was a ideological resource. Gave example of The Civil Rights Movement which was driven by Christian pastors like Martin Luther King.
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