Why Secularism is Important
Secularism is the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries.
Secular government was conceived by religious people. Why would they do that? I will attempt to show the motivation behind secular government and why even though most atheists support it, it makes sense for everyone to support it.
The truth is that even if a particular religion dominates a country, there are still many sects of that religion, which are offshoots that have different values and beliefs. Not all Christians believe the same things. Some believe that evolution is false and should not be taught in schools, while others believe that god created the first life but that life evolved from there. Some believe that life evolved but god intervened in the process to create man. Some believe that species change over time, but new species only come about through god’s design. Even if we had a religious government, it would be difficult if not impossible to find common ground between different sectarian views of the same religion! The best way to avoid this situation is by not favouring any particular religion in government.
While many Christians would be happy to see Christian prayer and Bible study in schools, they wouldn’t be happy if that school taught that their particular sect was wrong and bad. We know what happens with such sectarian governments. In Islam, Sunni governments are not favourable to Shia Muslims, side lining them and sometimes even turning a blind eye when Shia Muslims are victims of crime. Catholic governments were especially brutal toward protestant heresy, ultimately resulting in genocide, such as the genocide of the French Huguenots. The history taught by different religious sects are not favourable to others either. If you read Catholic history the protestants are badmouthed as heretics and traitors, and protestants think of Catholics as murderers and idol worshipers.
When people want prayer back in school, and they are not Catholic, I ask them if they would want their children to do Hail Marys and confession in school. What if your religion becomes a minority? Would you be equally happy if all history, science, politics, music and art taught in schools was Muslim or Hindu? The reason we have a rights based society, and not simple majoritarian rule, is because nobody will know when they will find themselves as part of a minority. If not them, what of their children. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, which is perhaps something Christians should keep in mind. If Christians impose Christianity now, how would it be unfair to say that Islam should not be imposed when it numerically overtakes Christianity?
A common fear is that secularism is actually just the imposition of atheism as the state’s religious position. This is not true. An atheist state would conceivably be actively anti-clerical, disbanding churches and outlawing religion, or teaching children in school that there is no god. The goal of any state should be to represent citizens as best it can, and as a secularist I believe that such a government would not be in my best interest or that of religious people, and I would fight along side religious people to change a system like that. For people to be most free and for society to work best, the freedom to practice your religion should be allowed, and that is what secularism is about.
In order to live in a pluralistic and successful society, the only real way to accomplish that is by tolerating different views of religion, and not favouring or imposing a single one. In our nation people of different religions and sects work together and even form friendships and intimate relationships that cross religious and sectarian boundaries. We generally understand that our beliefs are personal, and that there are good people with other beliefs that we can get along with. On a more cynical level, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian or atheist money all has the same value. To be economically successful, imposing a certain religion would be unwise. People would just go to freer places where they feel equal.
Overall, I think everyone would prefer to live in a society where they feel respected and equal, and where they can freely practice their beliefs without hindrance. Secularism gives us the opportunity to realise a society just like this, which is why we should all stand up not only for our own rights of belief and the expression thereof, but also the rights of others.
I am a secular activist and atheist who has spent many years discussing religion online with strangers. I believe that changing the world starts by changing minds, and changing minds starts with open discussion and inquiry. I am the P.R. representative for the South African Secular Society and in my free time I run a blog that is mostly about religion called Massive Activity, play games on Steam, or do amateur music recording.