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Are today’s secularists really secular?

By Ryan Peter

Yesterday my Twitter feed went crazy after Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s speech “ Law and Religion in Africa” was posted on the internet. In it our chief justice talks about “how the interplay between law and religion could yield a product that is for the common good of all in Africa’s pluralistic societies”. The flurry of anger and astonishment seemed to come mostly from atheists and agnostics who saw this a dangerous vote of support for mixing church and state, and a threat to our private lives. To put it bluntly some said: “Stay out of our bedrooms!”

Find the speech here.

This morning I’m greeted by Chris Roper’s piece on the Mail & Guardian, “Christianity is the enemy of Christianity”. Roper doesn’t dilly-dally here. I quote: “The enemy is religion, all religions, and in the case of Mogoeng Mogoeng, the specific enemy is Christianity” and “ … secularism is designed to protect religious freedom, whereas religion is designed to oppress other religions”.

It’s that last quote I would like to challenge. I appreciate the sentiment of wanting to keep the state out of our bedrooms, but is secularism really designed to protect religious freedom? Maybe. Is religion really designed to oppress other religions? It depends on the religion, of course. But where is secularism’s head office or its main administration that keeps secularists in check? What happens when heretics within secularism arise? Who stops them from doing what they want? The law?

Isn’t that tad bit unrealistic?

Secularism has no accountability. It’s an idea, not an institution. But here’s the main problem in my opinion: modern, liberal secularists just don’t seem very secular. Or liberal. They talk of separation of church and state but I actually think this isn’t what they really want. What they actually want is no church at all.

I read Mogoeng Mogoeng’s speech and found most of it was advocating for pluralism and freedom for all. Only a small part really spoke about the bedroom, which in the conversations I’ve been involved in seems to be the main problem. For good reason people don’t want religious views of sex, particularly Christian views, to be forced on them. That’s unfair as they should be allowed to make their own choices. But what many people don’t seem to realise, however, is that Christians feel the same way — they don’t want modern, secular liberal views of sex to be forced upon them either.

But unfortunately modern, liberal secularists, for the most part, seem to feel that’s not playing the game. And I go back to my point above: it seems to me modern, liberal secularists are neither liberal nor secular. And they can be pretty smug and self-righteous too.

So let’s talk about the separation of church and state because there are many misconceptions about how most Christian theologians and teachers work this out. The reason why there are so many misconceptions is because, by and large, most churches and Christian leaders just want to quietly get on with doing what they do. Those that look for the limelight (and get it) are not really representative of how most Christians think.

Defining the separation of church and state
Separation of church and state means that the church doesn’t meddle in state affairs. Great, we all actually agree to that. That’s what secularism means. Jesus came up with this idea when he said that famous line that believers should “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s”. (Mark 12:17.) I suspect many people don’t even realise what he meant here. And I suspect many people don’t realise that most Christians, especially Christian leaders, don’t want to be involved in the state at all. They want to be pastors not politicians.

But here’s the other side of the coin: this separation also means that the state doesn’t meddle in Church affairs. That, however, seems to get frowns from too many liberal secularists these days — especially when you want to talk about things like homosexuality, whether parents can spank their kids, and other private affairs. There are many voices today who are saying that churches should have no right to discriminate on who they marry or who they can even hire.

Whether or not you agree with how the church views homosexuality (and I’m willing to bet that most people actually don’t really know how the church views homosexuality) you can’t argue for the separation of church and state on one side and then argue against it on another. You’ve got to accept the good and the bad, regardless of your moral position. If your moral position is better than those poor backward Christians, fine, but how secularist is it, really, to insist that churches and Christians should live by your moral position?

Today’s liberal secularists really need to carefully examine how they go about trying to fulfil the dream of secularism. Democracy is about pluralism. If you really believe in democracy you must also believe in pluralism, which leaves little space for there being no church at all, and very little space for you to insist your views should be the enforced view. If you don’t want there to be a church, or you want the church to follow your line of thinking, please don’t call yourself a secularist or a liberal. You’re not. And, as an aside, please don’t call yourself tolerant either.

Back to the bedroom
This leads me to the next point. Church leaders aren’t really interested in what people do in their bedroom as much as they’re interested in what Christians, who have wilfully signed up to belong to their church, do in their bedroom. You can’t join a Christian church and then complain that they insist you live like a Christian.

Which is why I get a little muddled when non-Christians get offended at Christian morality. Why be offended at something you don’t even believe and doesn’t force you to join it? Even if they say you’re going to hell, you don’t believe in hell anyway, so why be offended?

Perhaps the nature of Christianity, given that it’s about belief in the person of Jesus as the saviour and not in morality as the saviour, skews my viewpoint. After all, Christian theology teaches that God is interested in our heart and our trust, not our morality, with the latter being worked out only through the former. In a pluralistic society people can choose what religion they want – their choice does not offend me. While I personally believe their choice might not get them what they’re looking for, I’m not offended by their choice.

Let them make the choice. This is the kind of society I believe we should have — one where all ideas are given space and can be vigorously discussed, and all people have the freedom to choose. This is a pluralistic, democratic society. Dare I say it: the best secularists are, in fact, Christian.

So I have no problem with secularism but I do have a problem with secularists insisting that secularism is beyond scrutiny and the sole defender of human rights, freedom, and pluralism, as if it lives on its own outside of how people practice it (while Christianity is judged by how it’s practiced). I question how today’s liberal secularists practice their beliefs. I quote Roper again at the end of his column and follow it with a question of my own:

“Can he [Mogoeng Mogoeng] guarantee that all religious people will be as professional if they are freed to impose their belief system on the law? Not even Jesus could guarantee that his own disciples wouldn’t betray him, and one assumes that he had a more encompassing grasp of reality than even our chief justice.”

Can Roper guarantee that today’s liberal secularists will be professional if they are freed to impose their belief system on the law? The law is not made in a vacuum — lawmakers are people who make laws that are influenced by their worldview whether it is religious, atheist, agnostic, or confused. I suspect that no one can guarantee what Roper wants here, not even the atheists (much to their shock). But I say this: if you’re secular, please be secular, which means you wave high the flag of a pluralistic state and are happy when people of differing views to your own have the freedom and right to influence the state and the law. That’s true secular liberalism.

Ryan Peter is a writer and novelist from Johannesburg.

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    • Markus Cromhout

      Very good read, thank you. The “triumphalism”, wannabe-superior halo or “put-on-a-pedestal “the only way to go for all” secularism needs to be trimmed down to size.

    • Cam Cameron

      “What happens when heretics within secularism arise? Who stops them from doing what they want?”

      Can’t happen, by definition. Only theists with a canon of dogma can have heretics. And, if you believe in freedom of religion, then the heretics must be free to preach their heresy too.

    • Ryan Peter

      @Markus, thank you :)

      @Cam, I think you missed my tongue-in-cheek reference to heretics 😛 But yes, let the heretics preach their heresy, no problem.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Christians can’t agree on what christianity is about! I keep asking which of the christian ideologies is he wanting to implement and nobody can tell me. I asked if textile industries were no longer going to be allowed to make blended fabrics and was told that christians no longer read the old testament. I then asked if that means that the 12 commandments are no longer applicable (they are in the old testament) and was told that they are the basis of christianity.

      Get your act together and figure out what you believe in and THEN come give us options. All you are currently doing is cherry-picking what you want and what you don’t. The apartheid government did the exact same thing to justify their deeds so, please forgive us if we are a bit skeptical of your agenda

    • Rick Baker

      I think you overreact to ‘what secularists want’. I think they want what our very constitution requires, paricularly no discrimination on any grounds.
      In the context of this article, freedom of religion, including belief in no religion, is required with no domination of one by the other in any way.
      When a constitutional court judge talks about a specific religion as being the one that he takes guidance from, that is highly discriminatory, especially against those who do not believe in a god. Main religions mostly share the common ground of believing in a supernatural diety so there will be some acceptance from them of the idea of a judge taking guidance from such an entity. Those who do not share any such belief risk being seriously prejudiced. An obvious irritation to secularists/humanists/athiests etc is the tax subsidy they provide to churches…why should a church be subsidised by the state and be allowed to earn tax free income because it is a church. Why should religious leaders be entitled to special visa privileges? Why should anyone have to say ‘so help me god’ when taking an oath when some citizens don’t believe in a god? Why was it important in the Pistorius trial that he was a christian and that he prayed for help …was that expected to influence the judge. In some countries like USA, child care centres that are run by churches are not subject to the same health and safety requirements as those that are not. etc
      Its simply about…

    • Isabella van der Westhuizen

      An eminently sensible blog which I have no doubt will be raising blood pressure and causing the new elite to spit their morning cups of coffee out in rage
      Roper remains one of our more pedestrian thinkers and as a wordsmith he is laboured and rather puerile.

    • V_3

      Ryan Peter sounds terribly confused and wanting to have his religion and justify it.

      For a start, one has to be careful of conflating what Chief Justice Mogoeng put in his speech, what Chris Roper wrote and what Ryan has written.

      95% percent of Mogoeng’s speech was surprising: it was a plea for pluralism and tolerance of other’s beliefs. Nothing wrong with that. Where he did raise concern, and rightfully so, is injecting his own untried prejudices into what the law should be, specifically about divorce, adultery and the ridiculous assertion that “If a way could be found to elevate the role of love [this is plain stupid] and the sensible discouragement of divorce through legal mechanisms, marital and family sanctity, stability would be enhanced [someone trapped in an abusive marriage may have “stability” but is this what our CJ wants?]. A legal framework that frowns upon adultery, fornication, separation and divorce, subject to appropriate modification, would, idealistic as this would appear to be [idealistic is okay. Insanity is not] help us curb the murders that flow from adultery [where is the evidence?] help us reduce the number of broken families and consequential lost and bitter generation…”

      The prospect of someone with these highly contentious view presiding over a divorce matter is alarming. When a judge makes pronouncements without a shred of evidence based on religious bigotry one must ask if he is fit to preside in a plural society.

    • V_3

      Chris Roper’s response is equally silly
      He ignores that Moegang contextualised basing his pro-religious argument on Christianity his familiarity with it and “not because I have no regard for other religions”. Most of Moegang’s speech is a plea for religious pluralism and mutual respect.

      Roper also twists Moegang’s “I want to believe …” Anyone hearing the speech up to that point could not doubt his good faith; just before he says “in a democratic society comprising different religions ,,, in order to reconcile the interests of the various groups and to ensure that everyone’s religion, thoughts or beliefs are respected”. Clearly, Moegang feels he sees the same morality through his Christian prism that a Muslim, Hindu or Jew would see through theirs.

      While Roper correctly takes various religions to task for their excesses, he fails to challenge Moegang on who would decide which commonalities between which belief systems to adopt. Neither he, Moegan nor Peter explain how conflicting belief systems can be reconciled. For instance communism is a belief system, every bit as fervently followed (and an opiate to) its followers as any of the established ones.

      The problem with belief systems is that what people at the time know to be right may subsequently prove to be wrong. Henry VIII’s Chancellor, Sir Thomas More was the first to plead for freedom of expression in Parliament, burnt 6 heretics at the stake and was subsequent beheaded for HIS religion.

    • V_3

      From bad to worse to worst.

      The most glaring nonsense in Peter’s defence of Christianity ruling law is the claim: “Separation of church and state means that the church doesn’t meddle in state affairs…
      the other side of the coin: this separation also means that the state doesn’t meddle in Church affairs”

      Moegang went to great pains to situate religions (not just the Church) and the Law within our Constitution. The state has duty to protect all its citizens and if a church is abusing people the state MUST intervene and when members of a religious grouping dispute they must be able to turn to the courts (the state) if necessary to resolve the conflict. And when churches practice hate crimes (including homophobia) the law must intervene – that’s what a constitutional democracy with a bill of rights means.

      Too many people confuse and conflate ALLOWING a practice with ENFORCING it. Allowing, say, abortion or homosexuality is not the same a forcing these upon unwilling victims. For too many bigots, “religious freedom” means the freedom to impose their beliefs on others. For some reason, even those who believe in an afterlife and an omnipotent, all-knowing diety think he (seldom “she”) cannot punish the sinners themselves but need self-appointed assistants.

      After the horrors of the ill-named Immorality Act, the need to keep the state out of consenting adults’ bedrooms should be self-evident.

    • V_3

      Peter cannot help his Church-think. While the Old and New Testaments have very little to say about Satan (which originally meant simply to obstruct or oppose) the Church has built a veritable religion around the Devil; one gets the impression that he is smarter, quicker and cleverer than the omnipotent God that created him.

      Similarly, Peter has built a Church of Secularists when there is simply no such thing; simply people who are sick of sick Churchmen wrecking society.

      Peter’s biggest fail is when he tries to be clever: paraphrasing Roper’s “Can Mogoeng guarantee…” as “Can Roper guarantee that today’s liberal secularists will be professional if they are freed to impose their belief system on the law?” I cannot write on behalf of Roper but I can say that if a truly liberal secular regime is imposed (which our Constitution does) then all belief systems, including Peter’s are protected by the Law. Roper writes of Mogoeng that “To his credit, Mogoeng has not, to our knowledge, allowed his Christianity to interfere with any of the judgments of the Constitutional Court. This could be because he is a man of high moral fibre, a morality derived in part from the religion he loves.” and then questions if Mogoeng’s successors will have the same high standard. A secular system that restricts one person’s right to impose on another does that; a religion-based one does not.

      [PS: apologies for typo’s in earlier posts in the CJ’s name. Editor please fix]

    • Robert Canning

      “If you don’t want there to be a church, or you want the church to follow your line of thinking, please don’t call yourself a secularist or a liberal. You’re not. And, as an aside, please don’t call yourself tolerant either.”

      But tolerance is not about what people WANT. It’s about what people DO. I would prefer a world in which religion did not exist, since, even when it’s not affecting me, it’s affecting others in all sorts of adverse ways. Given that it does exist, I would prefer it to be more benign, and given the social influence that churches can still wield, of course I would like churches to follow my line of thinking. I’d like EVERYONE to follow my line of thinking, just as Ryan Peter has written this piece because he wants to influence the thinking of others. But these unavoidable preferences do not make me intolerant, non-secularist or illiberal, because I am not imposing them on others. I am merely stating them. If people want to go to church and hear preachers railing against homosexual relations or same-sex marriage, I wouldn’t dream of trying to stop them, but I claim an equal freedom to say that it’s nonsense, creates needless antagonisms and blights people’s capacity to get on with each other. Mere criticism is not intolerance.

    • Isabella van der Westhuizen

      Ropey Roper in the tradition of previous editors of this news paper is trying to create a story out of nothing. Moral outrage and holier than thou posturing is typical of most of the rather pedestrian journalist who ply their trade in this magazine. The Chief Jucstice said nothing wrong and comes across as a thoughtful man doing a fine job.

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    • Ryan Peter

      Thank you all for engaging with this piece. I won’t reply to everything – it would require several other articles! But I’ll just say a few short things to specific commenters:

      @Rick – I understand where you’re coming from with regards to churches being tax exempt, but I do think that churches provide a service to communities – in the same way that other aspects of organised civil society do. It’s my opinion that all civil societies should have some kind of tax exemption. This would include an atheist society.

      It may be hard to see it this way given that you are more than likely not involved in a church and don’t see what it does. But it’s also hard given that many churches have commercialised and privatised – a problem that many church leaders are fighting against. Your opinion may be tainted by that problem because some churches (too many) run like businesses.

      I also do think that we have a tendency these days to downplay civil society and think of things only in government and business terms, much to our detriment. If civil society in this country was stronger we would have more stable communities, which is what we need. Government, by its nature, is unable to provide stable communities. But anyway this ventures into a very different discussion.

      @V_3 – you raise some solid points. Perhaps you should write an article / blog as it’s too much to engage on this level. Thanks for the replies, appreciate it.

    • Graham

      @Rick – As far as I understand Church constitutions have to comply with NGO criteria before tax exemptions are granted. Financials also need to be audited.

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