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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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