This feature is an exclusive preview from the Winter 2013 issue of New Humanist magazine, which is published by the Rationalist Association and relaunched this month, with a new editor, new design and new contributors. You can subscribe here.


Will Self

I suspect it doesn’t mean anything particularly original to me: I simply think of it as the separation of church(es) from the ambit of the state – which is why I consider it a desideratum. The disestablishment of the Church of England would be a welcome move, as would the removal of all bishops, rabbis, mullahs et al. from the upper chamber. That the state shouldn’t be in the business of funding faith schools goes without saying.

Will Self is a novelist and professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University, London

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AL Kennedy

We live in a time of faith-based everything. Economics is supposed to have no foundation in maths, or reality – we just have to believe. Political policy is based on swivel-eyed assumptions and prejudices, rather than the world, evidence, the reality of suffering, the reality of global warming. And religion – in rather too many cases – wants to be a faith-based political and economic force and to hell with all opposition.

Ours is an age of faith as a path to control on a very wide scale – something rigid, paranoid and utterly destructive. And we’ve been here before, but it would be just immensely cheering if we didn’t have to stay long, or reach this point again. It’s not OK for what you believe to hurt other people, or hurt you.

Massive disconnects between reality, behaviour and policy threaten our species in both small and apocalyptic ways and if I see secularism as anything it’s as a pathway to sanity. We probably always will believe weird shit, but it doesn’t have to harm us, or others, or the world.

Our beliefs can elevate and inspire, and well-policed secularism – a version of secularism that doesn’t itself become an alternative set of rigid, aggressive beliefs – could help us to do both.

AL Kennedy is a novelist and critic

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Nina Power

Secularism means the possibility of getting things wrong and being corrected as a matter of collective concern; it means not having to take orders from one particular way of thinking, but to put oneself in a position to try to understand them all. Secularism to me is a situation where reason meets empathy and compassion in the name of shared values. It means accepting that the spirit of enquiry should always be allowed to flourish and go wherever it is led, even if these are paths that continue to displace the centrality of the human or upset the usual ways of conceiving of the world.

Secularism is having the courage to question everything in such a way that no one belief system – religious or otherwise – is permitted to dominate. Secularism is tolerant, critical and open-minded. Above all, secularism means keeping open the possibility that there may not be satisfactory answers to difficult questions, be they scientific, political or existential, that humanity cannot help but ask.

Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman (Zero Books)

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Pragna Patel

Secularism for me is the house that is Southall Black Sisters, where black and minority women, of all cultures and religions and none, co-exist freely in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect. It is not about the absence of religion but the absence of religious power, a freedom from patriarchal straightjackets that might stifle our lives, dreams and aspirations.

It is a space which validates our right to choose our own identity, unlimited by culture, religion or nationality. To quote one of our users: “Tomorrow I celebrate Valentine’s Day. Islam says we shouldn’t dance. I used to get awards for dancing. I love celebrating Valentine’s Day. I will wear red clothes and red lipstick and get a red rose from my husband. I wear lots of make-up and perfume. I also love celebrating Diwali and Christmas and Easter. These are small pieces of happiness.”

Secularism for me is about the removal of religion, not just from the state, but also from power relations within the family and the community. That is why our struggle for feminism is linked inextricably to our struggle for a secular space.

Pragna Patel is director of Southall Black Sisters

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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

I have faith. I pray. Prayers sustain me. But my faith is personal, in my head and heart, within my home. It’s the way I connect with my mother and the past and my private conversation with God. It is not a battle cry, not my identity, not something to parade, not a demand on my nation and absolutely not a mark of segregation. Secularism to me means the separation of state and religion. I believe in that separation almost as strongly as I believe in God. We must all live under the same laws and buy into codified human rights. Those take precedence over religious obligations.

India, a nation with more religions and believers than almost anywhere else, is a secular state. If it was not, religious wars would tear the country apart. (Pakistan, an Islamic country, is a failed state.) Turkey was secular too and is now hurtling towards becoming an Islamic state, and fragmenting. The USA holds on (just) to secularist principles. The UK is in a dreadful muddle. The established religion and the state are tightly plaited together. Which then means other religions can legitimately press the ruling elite for their bit of power, their strand of hair. So we end up as a country of separate religious schools (what did our children do to deserve that in an interconnected world?), exceptionalism in law and even human rights. The centre will not hold for ever with these arrangements. Secularism is the only way to stop collapse and chaos and to foster bonds of citizenship in our complex democracy.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and a founder of British Muslims for Secular Democracy

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Jim Al-Khalili

To me, secularism means more than simply living a life without religion. The son of a Muslim father and Christian mother, I grew up in Iraq in the ’60s and ’70s, but was lucky enough to be given the freedom to learn and question in a way that would be far more difficult in that country, and indeed many parts of the world, today. So to me, secularism means freedom: freedom to think what I want and to hold a worldview that is not forced upon me by government or society.

As a scientist I have a rational conviction that the world is comprehensible, that mysteries are only mysteries because we have yet to figure out the answers. So secularism also means the scientific freedom to question why the world is the way it is and to search for empirically testable and reproducible scientific truths that help me make sense of the universe and my place in it without any of the constraints of religious teaching. It also means the freedom to hold dear all that defines what is most precious about humanity – to value attributes such as morality, empathy and tolerance because they define who I am and not because they are imposed on me by the teachings of a holy book.

Jim Al-Khalili is president of the British Humanist Association

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Jenni Murray

I’ve always envied France its insistence on a society that is secular. Separation of Church and State took place there in 1905, declaring religion should have no influence over government and government should keep its nose out of Church affairs. So, no difficulty banning religious symbols from public buildings, no religion in education except in a cultural and historical context, and hatching, matching and dispatching without the need for a God or any mumbo jumbo about “the devil and all his works” or “those whom God has joined together” or a heavenly afterlife.

We, on the other hand, are stuck with an established Church of England and places in the House of Lords for powerful and influential religious leaders. They’re from institutions that won’t shake hands with a menstruating woman, steadfastly refuse to ordain a female priest or still refer in some quarters to those they have ordained as “pulpit pussy”. Shocking. Religion should be confined to church, chapel, mosque, synagogue and personal choice. No way should bishops or imams or rabbis have the power in Parliament, unelected, to influence the way we heathens (or humanists) should live our lives. Assisted dying is a case in point!

Jenni Murray is a presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour

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Laura Janner-Klausner

I have no idea what is true. I have absolutely no idea of what is really true – I can only ponder, listen, experience and suggest. As a Jew in this post-Holocaust era, my beliefs ebb and flow. I believe this defines a key feature of being human – being open to being wrong. Often. For me, secularism, and the anger towards religious people that sometimes accompanies secularism closes down rather than opens up opportunities for finding truth, or truths or possibilities in the world. I believe that the world is created for a purpose, that life has meaning and that life is enriched by religious communities and ritual, and I think that secularism limits these options of expression rather than opens them up. Even though I have no absolute idea what is truth, I’m committed to searching and to being wrong.

Laura Janner-Klausner is the Movement Rabbi for the Movement for Reform Judaism

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Michael Nugent

Last year, Jane Donnelly and I attended a conference about religious pluralism in Irish schools, at which two Catholic theologians said atheists are not fully human. When we questioned them, Gavin D’Costa said religious revelation tells us what being fully human is, and atheists are not fully formed. Rik Van Nieuwenhove said atheists see a photograph in two dimensions, and Catholics in three. Last month, I debated Bishop Brendan Leahy who said we must acknowledge the transcendent or run the risk of being dehumanised. In 2009, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor told the BBC that atheists are not fully human.

The Catholic Church runs over 90 per cent of Ireland’s state-funded primary schools, teaching faith formation to impressionable children. Atheist Ireland wants a secular state education system that promotes neither religion nor atheism. We are also developing Ireland’s first ever school course about atheism, which will be piloted next year in multi denominational Educate Together schools, and offered to parents of children in Catholic schools. Unlike religious faith formation, we will not teach atheism as truth, but will teach about atheism in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.

Michael Nugent is chair of Atheist Ireland

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Mary Warnock

I would not like to live in a country that was entirely secular. As long as no one is in a position to tell me how to interpret it, or that I must believe in the literal truth of Holy Writ, then I like there to be an established church, a repository of a long-shared cultural heritage, with a ceremonial function, and a source of genuine belief for many people, of whom I am not one.

There are two areas, however, within which secularism seems to me of the greatest possible importance. The first is the law. The courts must have nothing to do with religious belief, and must ensure that whatever is contrary to the law is punishable, no matter what the religion of the offender. The other institution within which religion must have no privileges is parliament. Of course people may give their views on the morality of proposed legislation from their own religious standpoint, but if they do so, they must make it clear where they are coming from. This is why I have no objection to the presence of the bishops in the House of Lords. We all know that they speak for the Church, and the Church often needs to be heard, given its history of educational and social philanthropy. But it is crucial that religion has no special rights; we must at all costs remain a democracy, not a theocracy.

Mary Warnock is a moral philosopher and crossbench life peer

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