The right kind of ‘secular state’ – a Christian perspective

We have posted previously on both the CORAB report and the recent secularist response. In this guest post, Jonathan Chaplin, Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, responds to the latter. This article is an extended version of a KLICE Comment published by the Kirby Laing Institute on 20 January 2017 and shortly to be cross-posted at Public Spirit.


On 17 January the University of Warwick released A Secularist Response to the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life[1] It is offered as a ‘critical counterweight’ (p3) to the Commission’s report Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good published in December 2015. The CORAB report proposed a ‘new settlement’ on the place of religion in public life in view of the current rapid shifts in religious allegiance and identity in British society, including the decline in membership of mainline Christian denominations and the significant growth of those adhering to no religion and to new minority religions. It argues that this growing de facto plurality ought to be better accommodated in the de jure institutional and constitutional status of religion and belief and reflected in public policy. It projected an appealing ‘vision … of a society at ease with itself … in which [all] feel at home as part of an ongoing national story … [and] to which all … wish to, and are encouraged to, contribute … to the common good’ (Living With Difference, p11). The report unleashed many vigorous responses, including many from Christians, several of which, in my view, were hasty and dismissive.

While endorsing some of CORAB’s recommendations, A Secularist Response is overwhelmingly negative. It charges that ‘the Commission’s attempt to put religion at the very centre of British public life offers a one-dimensional, diminished and limited view of modern British society’. Instead it claims that its own ‘secularist vision’ is the one that can provide an ‘inclusive and positive secularist framework based on shared values to put an end to unjustified religious privilege and to ensure that the rights and freedoms of all citizens are afforded equal weight and protection’ (p3).

Let me first note three specific proposals in A Secularist Response that I personally endorse (KLICE takes no position on them). First, the document rightly supports CORAB’s recommendation that the statutory duty on state schools to conduct Christian worship be repealed. Second, it argues – here going further than CORAB – that the automatic right of 26 Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords be terminated. Third – again going further than CORAB – it argues that a Christian coronation service is anachronistic and exclusive and should be replaced by a civic ceremony taking place in (for example) Westminster Hall. I support these proposals because I judge that they follow logically from the general principle of state neutrality towards religion and belief, a principle which I think is theologically warranted (more on that below), although I recognise the formidable constitutional obstacles to the implementation of the second and third. At the outset I want to register this scope for shared ground and perhaps even collaboration between secularists and (some) Christians on such questions.

Before addressing what I think is the fundamental issue at stake, let me note one specific claim in the document that seems plausible, two that are misplaced and two that seem misconceived.

A prima facie plausible claim in A Secularist Response is that ‘secular opinions’ were ‘inadequately represented’ on CORAB (p2). Only one of the twenty commissioners openly represented a secularist position, namely Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA). Given that fact that commissioners were supposed to be ‘diverse in their religious, philosophical and political outlooks’ (Living With Difference, p10), the complaint seems valid: while ‘religion’ was amply represented, ‘belief’ clearly was not.

I do think the CORAB report should at least have defended this choice explicitly (although I don’t know if invitations to other secularists were declined, such that the imbalance was self-imposed). A Secularist Response then concedes, however, that because of this imbalance, ‘many non-religious individuals and organisations (including the National Secular Society) did not submit any evidence’ (p2). That decision, of course, necessarily made the secularist voice even less audible.

But I think a case could have been made by CORAB that, if commissioners judged that religious voices are often not given sufficient weight in a society which is, by default, predominantly secular in ethos, a commission consisting mainly or even only of religious voices would have been eminently justified. The report could then have been presented as a contribution from the religious side, and an invitation then issued to secularists to come up with their own, which could then be brought into debate with religious ones at a later stage.

One of the misplaced claims is the recurring critique of the CORAB report that it fails to back up its claims with evidence and justification. Now Living With Difference is 100 pages long, drew on 250 written submissions from 220 respondents and sports 212 notes and a bibliography running to well over 200 works. A Secularist Response is 23 pages long, has 6 notes, and itself contains several undocumented and inadequately reasoned claims.[2] The expert panel which drafted the document apparently met for only one day compared to CORAB’s two years, but in view of that very limited investment of time and resources, a touch of modesty on the point might have been in order.

The second misplaced claim is that the document asserts at several places that public funds should not be used to support causes based on religion or belief (pp8, 17). Yet it itself has benefited from public funding in order openly to propound what it terms a ‘secularist vision’.[3] Its authors, perhaps, regard that ‘vision’ as somehow not falling under ‘religion and belief’ at all – as a meta-position not implying any deeper philosophical commitments. If so, that is a highly contestable assumption that certainly begs for justification.

A claim that seems plainly misconceived is that the CORAB report is wrong to call for greater ‘literacy’ about religion and belief at a time when religion is undergoing substantial decline (p5) – as if decline somehow licenses ignorance. It is abundantly clear that, notwithstanding numerical decline (at least in mainline Christian denominations), religion is growing substantially in public significance – for good and bad reasons, and with good and bad results. At such a time, it is head-in-the-sand folly to oppose moves towards greater religious literacy. Such literacy must, of course, be about both religion and belief, including secular humanism, which the document, and CORAB, rightly argue should be on the schools RE curriculum.

Another misconceived criticism is levelled at CORAB’s call for a ‘national conversation’ about public values to be ‘launched…by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions’. This is held to assume ‘a notion of communal representation that is completely at odds with British traditions and values’, assigning a ‘quasi-feudal role to religious leaders’ at a time when believers ‘pay little attention to [their] directives’ (p4). There is indeed a proper concern about how ‘representatives’ of certain religious (and secular?) communities are selected, but this blanket criticism is surely overblown. Would the authors apply it to the representative role, in national conversations about the economy, of leaders of trades unions or business and professional associations? Does BHA, for example, not itself presume to ‘represent’ its own members in national conversations?

Those specific concerns aside, A Secularist Response illustrates (as did some of the Christian responses a year ago) the great difficulty, not only of approaching substantive agreements on the place of religion in public life, but simply of defining what the disagreements are about. One dispiriting feature of the recent debate is that voices on each side castigate the other for being ‘discriminatory’ towards them, while also accusing the other of enjoying a ‘privileged’ position in public life that they are denied.

I think one of the fundamental reasons for this kind of conversational obstacle arises, on the secularist side, from a recurring conflation, evident in A Secularist Response (and in some Christian contributions to the debate), of two ideas that must be kept clearly distinct and which do not imply each other: the principle of state neutrality towards religion and belief,[4] and the goal of diminishing the influence of religion in public life.[5]

The authors suppose that they are elaborating their ‘secularist vision’ merely in terms of an unproblematic account of state neutrality. Thus, a secular state keeps ‘an equal, impartial and dispassionate distance from all systems of religion and belief’, neither granting ‘special privileges’ to any nor imposing ‘special restrictions’ on any. It protects the state from religious interference – securing freedoms for both believers and non-believers – and in turn protects religion from the state. ‘By distancing itself from all systems of religion or belief, a secular state provides the most effective framework for guaranteeing equality…and the best means of fostering a free, inclusive and democratic society in which [all] can live harmoniously together’ (p22).

There is much in this I can accept. Indeed, I think a principle of state neutrality is actually mandated by the combined force of the theological principles of the freedom of personal faith, the autonomy of the church and the limited mandate of the state to administer external justice in the public realm of society (and not to play at ‘soulcraft’). On such a view, the state should not officially endorse or favour one religion (indeed any worldview) over another but should deal even-handedly with all, within the law. This implies a religiously limited state – call it a ‘secular’ state if you will – but not a secularist one.

In my view, such a position ultimately makes Establishment theologically indefensible, even if aspects of it are either pragmatically useful or just inoffensive – and even if still retains support from nonconformist churches and non-Christian religions. This is why I support the three proposals listed at the start of the article, all of which breach the legal principle of state neutrality (which, of course, does not imply the moral neutrality of the state – an illusion indeed).

But, crucially, not all versions of state neutrality imply that the state should distance itself from religion and belief, as A Secularist Response proposes. That resembles the ‘separationist’ version predominant in the USA, where the constitution forbids ‘excessive entanglement’ between state and religion, and even more so that of France, where laïcité is widely understood to require the state not only to take no cognisance of religion at all but also to remove it from most areas of public life.

By contrast, a number of European states, including the UK to some extent, adopt a ‘cooperationist’ model of the state-religion relationship (albeit not always consistently). There, neutrality is taken to imply even-handedness, but not distance. Such states facilitate the voices of religion and belief in the public and political realms, but they are committed to doing so equally for all (lawful) voices. And where such states elicit the participation of one variant of religion or belief in the delivery of public services (education, health, social services, media, etc.), they are expected to allow the same to others. Many religious bodies receive public funding to that end.

Proximity is not incompatible with impartiality.

Indeed, were a state to preside over a system of public services that was uniformly shaped by a secularist worldview and from which religious collaborators were excluded, it would in fact breach the principle of impartiality.

The confusion in A Secularist Response created by the conflation of ‘neutrality’ with ‘distance’ is compounded by the further claim that term ‘secular’ refers to ‘aspects of social and political life that are not connected to religion or belief’ (p25 n3). Says who? Is it not up to adherents of religions or beliefs to decide for themselves what their convictions are ‘connected to’? That doesn’t mean that their claims or aspirations prevail over those of others or over public law, but it does mean that the ‘non-religious’ have no right to determine for such adherents how far the public implications of their convictions reach.

The authors of A Secularist Response commendably disavow any desire that a secular state should be dominated by a secularist worldview. The ‘secularism’ they advance rejects ‘an authoritarian attempt to force religion out of public life and to impose a particular (usually non-religious) worldview…’ (pp21-22). I suggest, however, that by building ‘distance from religion’ into their very definition of state neutrality, they inadvertently favour policies that have those very effects. Their document seems to be driven by the fear, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘that the rational secular state is menaced by the public or communal expression of religious loyalty’.[6]

Thus, whereas cooperationist regimes are ready to fund many faith schools, A Secularist Response calls for an outright ban on such funding, even of mainstream church schools which are in great demand. Since this would effectively foreclose the opportunity for most religious parents to educate their children in accordance with their own convictions and ethos (since they couldn’t afford private schooling), it is hard to see how this advances the document’s professed vision of an ‘inclusive’ society.

‘Public funding should serve public ends’, it solemnly, and rightly, intones (p16). But it is operating here with a needlessly constricted notion of ‘public ends’, one which, in line with laïcité, assumes that ‘publicness’ is necessarily undermined rather than strengthened by ‘particularity’ – by the state engaging in constructive partnerships with plural communities of religion and belief in the delivery of public service.

Publicness is not incompatible with particularity.

Before we can have a productive conversation about the scope and limits of how the state might enlist religion and belief partners in various areas of society such as education, media, social welfare, mediation, etc., or about how to determine when one religion or belief is unduly ‘privileged’, we’d better first have a richer debate about what we mean by ‘public’. In my view this document’s monochrome, flattened notion of ‘public’ seems likely to deliver what it charges the CORAB report with promoting – a ‘one-dimensional, diminished and limited view of modern British society’. That fundamental disagreement should be top of the agenda for any future debate between religionists and secularists about the role of religion in public life.

Jonathan Chaplin is Director of Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics. This article is an extended version of a KLICE Comment published by the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics on 20 January 2017 and cross-posted with Public Spirit.

[1] It is the product of an ‘expert panel’ of 8 convened at the university on 8 March 2016, but with the usual disclaimer that its views ‘do not reflect the view of the University of Warwick’ (p1). Its publication date is November 2016.

[2] At the launch of Living With Difference, commissioner Andrew Copson, also later a member of the secularist ‘expert panel’, wrote the following on the website of the BHA: ‘Perhaps no one will agree with every recommendation made today, but they all tend in the right direction, beginning to deal with a transformed social reality in Britain, and acknowledging that public policy has to change to accommodate that reality. It is striking that this report has been composed by so diverse a group and on the basis of so much evidence from an even wider range of religious organisations and other stakeholders. Vital to the future of Britain as a cohesive society will be the ability of people of all religions and non-religious beliefs and identities to act together for the common good’ (7 December 2015). That judgement seems to tug against an endorsement of complaints in A Secularist Response of ‘lack of evidence’ and ‘imbalance’.

[3] On p1 it acknowledges receipt of funds from the publicly-funded University of Warwick and the research council ESRC.

[4] This is also misleadingly equated with the narrower principle of the ‘separation of church and state’.

[5] This conflation is surprising given the extensive and highly nuanced discussions of these ideas now available in the scholarly literature. See, e.g.: J. L. Cohen & C. Laborde (eds), Religion, Secularism, and Constitutional Democracy (Columbia University Press 2016); C. Calhoun et al (eds), Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press 2011); M. Warner et al (eds), Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press 2010); G. B. Levy and T. Modood (eds), Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship (Cambridge University Press 2009).

[6] Faith in the Public Square (Bloomsbury 2012), p37.

5 thoughts on “The right kind of ‘secular state’ – a Christian perspective

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  2. This type of discussion always leaves me wondering whether this is essentially a covert way of pushing a republican agenda. The state in the UK is bound up with the person of the sovereign and the constitutional settlement that the sovereign should be a communicant member of the Church of England recognises the need for a certain kind of check on the sovereign’s residual prerogative powers. Once the moral obligations are removed from the sovereign it won’t be long before his or her powers are also removed. The key difference with France and the USA is, of course, that those countries are republics.

    Notwithstanding that, it makes no sense to me that the accusations and counter-accusations of discrimination would get any less in a society where all points of view are equally valid. It would seem to be a recipe for moral confusion and a society not at ease with itself. The nominal Christianity of the UK has been the guarantee of the comparative civic peace we have experienced since the constitutional settlement ultimately reached after the trauma of the Reformation. Those agitating for change either do not understand that or they do not like it.

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  4. My response to Dr Jonathan Chaplin’s critique of the Warwick University paper “CORAB A Secularist Response”. Refers to paragraphs in Dr Chaplin’s paper.

    [Para 2] To reject the “secular vision” it will be necessary to examine it carefully. I will.

    [Para 3] A good start one hopes that this can be sustained.

    [Para 5] I will find out why the NSS did not submit evidence (perhaps it was because the NSS was not given a seat on CORAB).

    [Para 6] This is quite correct. CORAB should have been convened (and this clearly stated) to prepare a view from organised religion or it should have been convened to produce an even-handed view. The fact is that by its composition CORAB is overwhelmingly a colloquium of religious leaders and academics. It would have been even handed to have admitted that its observations are primarily a view from organised religion. As the author suggests secular humanists could have been asked to present their view on the same issue. The frequently heard complaint that “religious voices are often not given sufficient weight in a society which is, by default, predominantly secular in ethos”, a complaint which is utterly without foundation or supporting evidence, is floated above. It is true that the religion industry does not hold the position of unchallenged authority that it once did but religious voices are frequently heard and our society is constructed with an inbuilt advantage given to the “religious voice”.

    [Para 7] The comparison between Now Living with Difference and A Secularist Response in terms of number of pages and notes simply demonstrates the current advantage in time and resources available to religion as compared to secular humanism. Also A Secular Response only concerns itself with Now Living With Difference whereas Now Living With Difference began with a tabula rasa. The real test is – are there examples of failure to justify or provide evidence to support claims? These should be listed and the Warwick authors should have done this if they make this accusation.

    Note 2 of Dr Chaplin’s paper mentions Mr Copson’s statement on CORAB recommendations:- , …but they all tend in the right direction… I disagree with this – I would replace “they all” with “some”. Mr Copson is obviously trying to be constructive. It is possible that Mr Copson was at the time impressed that any concession to secular views at all had been made by CORAB.

    The overall tone of CORAB and of Dr Chaplin’s response to the Warwick paper suggest that organised religion still has a long way to travel in its understanding of the societal change that has happened and will continue to happen in the UK.

    [Para 8] It would certainly be hypocritical for, say, the NSS or BHA to demand public funding to promote atheism. Belief that there is no god (or more generally, no supernatural entities and/or phenomena in the universe) is self evidently a belief. The Warwick paper is a response to the CORAB paper and deals with the political philosophy and social science about how a society should be organised. Secularists do not claim that there should be no public funding of academic research or analysis. I have never been aware of secularists arguing that theology should not be taught in State funded universities to consenting adults or that individuals with positions in State funded universities – of which there are many in the Commission should be debarred because they receive public funds.

    Dr Chaplin seems to be equating secularism with atheism. A not uncommon error – if it is an error and not a deliberate attempt to deceive. A political philosophy like say Utilitarianism or Representative Democracy are beliefs but not beliefs in the same sense as Islam, Mormonism or Catholicism are beliefs. Religious beliefs are characterised by unchallengeable “truths”. Secularism, like the idea of Representative Democracy is a proposal for a model of government based upon what the proposer believes is a rational argument and not an appeal to what supposed supernatural entities require of humanity. There is no inherent conflict between being, say, a Christian and being a secularist – indeed the Coptic Christians of Egypt have recently appealed for a secular government for their nation. Many Turks, while remaining Muslim, resent and fear the recent attrition of the secular underpinning of their democracy.

    [Para 9] The authors of the Warwick paper are probably concerned (as am I) that this fashionable phrase “religious literacy” is a deceitful way of making religious instruction a compulsory subject in the curriculum of State funded schools. I choose “instruction” rather than “education” because in the past and currently in sectarian State schools the term “instruction” is a more accurate description of what goes on. The point is that in a multi-cultural society in which the adherents of any one religion are a small minority of the population the need is for a compulsory subject which combines philosophy for children (predominately epistemology), Comparative religion, Citizenship and Equality and Human Rights and Equality issues – all delivered by age appropriate content. In such a curriculum the comparative religion element would be, I suggest, no more than 20% of the total content.

    [Para 10] I have some sympathy for Dr Chaplin’s point here. All pronouncements from “leaders” should be treated with the same scepticism. I had reason to write to the Archbishop of Wales on the subject of his publicly stated mild opposition to mitochondrial transplant. In that I pointed out that his widely published (in Wales) view was unfounded and that he might claim to represent Anglicans but not me. The problem is that the wearing of a costume often gives a bogus authority where none is deserved. Hence the need for epistemology in our education system.

    [Para 11] The influence of religion in public life has and will continue to decrease as the proportion of believers falls in society. The reason why the religious experience angst about this is because they have an out of date assessment of the importance of religion. Take a concrete example. Organised religion vehemently opposed IVF in the post-war decades. Then on 27th July 1975 Louise Joy Brown was delivered in Oldham as a consequence of this procedure. Since then thousands of childless couples have been able to become natural parents. IVF procedures occur frequently without controversy and religion has lost much of its authority.

    [Para 12] I think the distinction of Secular State and Secularist State hint at the previously mentioned conflation of secularist and atheist. They are not synonyms. I do not know what a Secularist State is although I suspect Dr Chaplin is thinking of an Atheist State dedicated to the repression of religion.

    [Para 13] So to be clear – Dr Chaplin is agreeing with the elimination of the Lords Spiritual from the Upper House. Bravo!

    [Para 14] There will be many national versions of a secular state. The US Constitution excludes all religion from State schools. I recently attended morning assembly at my grandchildren’s school in Virginia. The lack of collective worship appeared to be no problem for staff or students and this in a country which exhibits far more religiosity than the UK. I disagree strongly with the French ban on Islamic dress for women whilst abhorring the practice. The French approach creates a double humiliation for women who are forced to wear the niqab or the burka by religious and social pressure, then are accused of misdemeanour by the State. Efforts should be made to convince women that they may, if they wish, dress in a style which they prefer. The offence should be the use of undue pressure to protect a woman, or any citizen, from an unreasonable dress code (as recently considered by the courts in the case of employer enforced wearing of high heels).

    [Para 15] In general I believe that this is the way in the UK. The problems arise with specific situations. Should a hospital chaplain (paid from the NHS budget) be allowed to proselytise seriously or terminally ill patients? Should publicly funded social care services be allowed to deliver food and shelter but insist that recipients take part in religious services in return?

    [Para 16] I would like an explanation of “religious collaborators were excluded”. A religious test for public servants which only atheists and agnostics would pass? Refusal of help provided by a church charity which adds to existing state provided help? Of course both would be unacceptable and neither, to my knowledge, are the kind of thing ever suggested by secularists. We would, however, appreciate organised religion setting up a charitable trust to fund hospital chaplains thus saving NHS budget for use in medicine, midwifery and nursing. Interestingly, far from being excluded by secularism, organised religion shows not the slightest interest in providing this benefit to the NHS despite the words of Saint Paul (First Corinthians Ch13 V13 KJV).

    [Para 17] It is interesting to see Dr Chaplin address Note 3 which is an attempt by the Warwick paper authors to address the very issue I raise in reply to Para 8 and Para 12 in Dr. Chaplain’s paper concerning the confusion of secularism with atheism. The distinction is used by the Church through the terms “sacred” and “profane”. Of course they may be interconnected. Churches may be places of worship and sometimes also places of great beauty and/or historical significance so there may be a secular (even a pecuniary) case for using public money to preserve a religious site – be it Stonehenge or Salisbury Cathedral. All that is required of organised religion is that it provides a rational case for the use of public money. “Because God would like you to” is probably not adequate. The real test of this secular or religious connection are the issues surrounding reproductive control. The most difficult concern the issues surrounding the development of a viable living person between conception and birth. Both the Secular State and Organised Religion wish to determine policy in this area. Donald Trump favours the domination of religious scruples, secular governance relies upon scientific concepts to establish pragmatic boundaries between cellular precursors and a viable living organism. At what point in the development from zygote to foetus does the embryo become a living organism. A collection of 2 cells, 32 cells, 1024 cells ….. ? I can see no other solution but a compromise which probably satisfies no one. What must be avoided is the fate of Savita Halappanavar.

    [Para 18] Sorry, I cannot see this as anything but scare-mongering and special pleading.
    Of course moral opposition to the State will occur. The honourable stand by Quakers in the face of great social pressure to conform in the time of war is an example. Some conscientious objectors were not adherents of a religion. Their pacifism was an entirely personal decision. They were treated even worse than Quakers. If you are at odds with the State on a moral point, the fact that it is a religious conviction is no different from it being a personal conviction. There will be times in any society when you may be challenged to oppose the state and take the consequences. The objective can only be to minimise these conflicts of conscience and to deal humanely with those who resist.

    I read Dr Chaplin’s 12th February 2012 Guardian Article on the Bideford Ruling. After excoriating the NSS for its challenge to Council Prayers he offers exactly the pragmatic solution which was proposed by the NSS. Namely, those who wish to pray should arrive a short time before the Council Meeting and use a separate room to gather and commune with their god. This compromise is rejected outright by defenders of Council Prayers thus proving that the practice is one that is common amongst many vertebrate species including H.sapiens and is called “territory marking” by students of animal behaviour. Dr Chaplin points out the risks resulting from local autonomy which is the Pickles solution to this problem. Territory marking is fine when it is done by your own tribe. When done by others it is called sectarianism.

    [Para 19] Re-introducing State funding of sectarian schools is probably the worst decision made by the Blair administration (other than the invasion of Iraq). Mr. Blair claimed that it was a way to reduce sectarian tension – the nearest thing I have seen to Orwellian double-think in my lifetime. Ruth Kelly admitted to the real reason in a TV interview which I watched soon after she relinquished the Education portfolio. “If we are to have Catholic Schools then we must allow Moslems to have Islamic schools” she said. As a member of Opus Dei she had fulfilled her obligation to her Church… and betrayed her country.

    In Wales the government invests in community schools. A few years ago I attended the opening of a new community primary school which replaced the obsolete Victorian Church in Wales school. Amongst parents were Hijab wearing mothers and children, Polish speaking Catholics, English speaking Anglicans, Welsh speaking Free Church members and, I hope, a good number of rationalists all celebrating the opening of a bright new modern school for their children. I was moved – close to tears. All parents want good schools. Some parents measure “goodness” by exclusivity. Some parents wish to prevent their children from being exposed to any belief system other than their own. Some parents are selfish, self-centred, narrow minded and are endangering social cohesion in our nation.

    [Para 20] An example of a real life situation would help clarify this rather opaque assertion.

    [Para 21] Bring it on.

    Alan Rogers

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