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There has been a debate among local bloggers about the nature of secularism and the problem of religious privilege in a secular society. These sort of “god debates” generally produce more heat than light. However, it is worth actually considering elements of some the arguments being used. And how meanings have been manipulated to achieve a desired result.

I have listed a few of the arguments here.

What does “secular” mean?

I discussed this in Secular democracy and its critics. Here I favoured the meaning that is “Not at all opposed to religion, or denying a religious participation. It just describes procedures which cannot be appropriately treated as ’sacred’ (whatever that means).”

This certainly describes the secular arrangements we have in New Zealand – although Professor Paul Morris (Director of The Religious Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington), for example, acknowledges that our society is not completely secular in that it does tend to favour one religion – Christianity.

But even this simple definition gets distorted in ideologically motivated debates. Take how Madeleine Flannagan at MandM treats the document The Tolerant Secular State,’* prepared by the NZ Association of Humanists and Rationalists (NZARH), (see The New Zealand Association of Rationalist Humanists and the Privileging of Secularism). She takes the first sentence: “The NZARH strongly believes that government should be secular; that is dealing with the issues of this world rather than following a religious agenda” – then manipulates it!

She says:

“They start by defining secular in the first of these senses, in terms of ’dealing with the issues of this world.’ The switch to the second definition occurs immediately in the claim that a secular state must not follow a ’religious agenda.’ From what the NZARH subsequently argues it is clear that this second sense is what it really has in mind as much of what it says simply does not follow from the first sense.” (My bold).

See what she does? Takes a perfectly standard and proper definition of “secular” and converts the inclusive concept  that people of all religions and beliefs can come together to deal with the issues of the real world (not possible if the state has a religious or anti-religious agenda). Now comes the switch – she converts a simple inclusive approach to an exclusive anti-religion one.

She, not NZAHR, is doing the switching.

Her introduced words in bold, “must not follow,” creates an atmosphere of compulsion, of privileging a non-religious approach. A common trick of dishonest advertisers and politicians.

So now she can say “the second sense is what it [NZAHR] really has in mind as much of what it says simply does not follow from the first sense.” NZAHR’s second sentence: “Our law should not give one set of beliefs privilege over another and the state should treat religious organisations the same as any other organisation’ then becomes sinister – according to her. Rather than describing an inclusive, democratic arrangement she claims it describes a “privileging of secularism” – and by that she means privileging anti-religion!

Secularism a “viewpoint” fallacy?

Here comes another switch in the meaning of “secularism:”

“So let us get this straight. Secularism is a type of viewpoint that 1) the NZARH seeks to privilege over religion.” (Again my bold).

She wishes to replace the meaning of “secularism” as an inclusive, over-all arrangement neutral to religion and anti-religion by a meaning which it implies it is actually a non-representative ideology!

It’s like saying democracy is  simply a political ideology – advocates of democracy seek to privilege their viewpoint over the ACT Party! (whereas, of course, our democratic political arrangements allow the ACT Party to work alongside all other parties. It’s just that our democracy does not have an ACT, National, Labour, or any other political party agenda).

Actually, Madeleine almost concedes her point – which illustrates she knows what she is doing:

“Of course, if one assumes from the outset that secularism is not a specific view and is somehow some kind of neutral position that everyone can subscribe to then the statements read together might make sense but that is an erroneous assumption.”

So she labels any correct reading of the statement “erroneous.”

These little switching tricks have a purpose. She wishes to protect religious privilege – things like tax exemption for supernatural beliefs (see Avoiding tax — supernaturally). She sees this privilege threatened by secular democracy. Therefore she, quite naturally, wishes to discredit secularism. This switching of meaning also helps to divert attention away from the real inequalities – those areas of society where religion, and especially Christianity, maintains a privilege over other beliefs (in conflict with our human rights legislation).

Some ridiculous results

Madeleine disagrees with my description of accountancy as a secular activity (see Secular democracy and its critics).

“It is not secular. When a Christian does accounts he invokes God in the sense that his math is correct and his tallying of the books is honest. We do not turn God off and on when we do these things. You do not understand Christianity if you think this. I know Christians who pray through such activities and praise God when the numbers add up.”

” Therefore, by adopting a secular stance the State is taking a viewpoint that excludes Christianity (and other religions that hold to a similar stance).”

Yes it’s a strange old world! I have a picture of an old school with pupils being forced to read their books. They are surrounded by nuns who hit them with a ruler at any sign they are not praying or “invoking god” while doing their sums. Perhaps Madeleine could comment on whether these clergy in the Boston Archdiocese were praying and invoking their god in their activities? After all “We do not turn God off and on when we do these things. “

But what an insult, she seems to think that when I do accountancy my maths will be incorrect and my tallying dishonest because her god has no place in my work!

So Madeleine rejects educating our children in accountancy, mathematics, science, history, social studies and anything connected with the real world – unless its accompanied by prayer and invoking of her god. She rejects secular education.

To be consistent she should also reject anything that education has produced. Cars, banks, culture, medicine, etc., etc.

It’s an approach that very few Christians would support – and I honestly suspect Madeleine doesn’t run her life this way. She has just got into this ridiculous situation because of the way she has switched meanings to justify her argument about “privileging secularism.”

However this mental gymnastics has allowed Madeleine to define anything our democratic society does as “anti-religious” because it is secular. Therefore the current situation “privileges secularism” and she is disadvantaged because of her beliefs!

Perhaps while she is boycotting our secular schools, government departments, hospitals, research institutes, universities, etc., she could also boycott the NZ Charities Commission. Refuse to accept her tax exemption for supernatural belief (subsidised by the rest of us – see Examples of Charitable Purpose) because the institution is secular?

Yeah, right!

*It’s worth reading The Tolerant Secular State- it’s brief and gives a clear statement of the problem of religious privilege and the interference with human rights in New Zealand.