1 July

PRISM and the Long View of Modern Secularism

In order to maintain public order secularism in our time relies on well- established delineation of ‘public’ and ‘private’ realms. While attempting to play down divisions between social groups, secularism reinforces a distinction between public conduct and private life.

In this way a moderate secularism can reduce public conflict by emphasising those aspects of public conduct upon which varied religions, political movements and societies can agree, while permitting continued private practice of things upon which they disagree. It is a pragmatic solution and, to a greater or lesser extent, some of its tenets have been present in most large or diverse societies all the way back to antiquity.

Based on the practicalities of governing, secularism in this sense is not an ideology. While not designed to support social cohesion positively, it does let variant social groups live peaceably, practising the religious and cultural traditions they choose while trading and getting along to the benefit of all.

As the post-Reformation history of Europe unfolded with bloody sectarianism, forms of secularism presented themselves as the very shape of modernity. They were pragmatic, embraced all and excluded none: a clean solution to the untidy mess and gore of the time. Privacy was offered in which to practice whatever one believed, a far cry from priest-holes and witch-hunts. With this, in due course came ‘freedom of conscience’ and free speech: ‘I disagree with every word you say’, said Voltaire, ‘but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’.

Time passed and secularist ideas became more and more established. In a rapidly growing and ever more diverse population the private realm was increasingly relied upon to accommodate conflicting beliefs and opinions. A climax was reached when the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, declared in 1967, ‘There’s no place for the State in the bedrooms of the nation’. The hitherto widely accepted idea that private sexual practice had some relation to public conduct came crashing down. Six years later the United States Supreme Court decided that under a right to privacy a woman could abort her unborn child, strongly supporting the idea that even to measure the value of a human life in the womb was a matter of private choice. The play was for very high stakes and it was easy for a division between public and private realms to be raised to the level of secularist ‘dogma’. Traditional morality was largely relegated to the private realm.

But this presented a problem. Since secularism advances disguised as non-divisive and pragmatic it must eschew absolutist statements such as those of Trudeau or the United States Supreme Court lest it become one more ‘divisive’ ideology. To this effect secularist writers and even governments have renounced moral ideals as a necessary part of government. David Cameron’s outburst about tax avoidance as being ‘immoral’ is a case in point. No one knew quite what to make of a modern political leader invoking terminology thought to have disappeared from British politics. Instead there is talk of ‘ethics’ and ‘public order’, and ‘liberty’. But once people have purchase on a dogma like the ‘right to privacy’ they are very reluctant to give it up. So, while the State is increasingly wary of moral pronouncements, people at large are wont to see privacy as a most important moral good, and the seeds of conflict between a secularist state and a secularist people are duly sown.

Unfortunately, only two years into the twenty-first century it became disastrously apparent that the division of life into ‘public’ and ‘private’ realms was little more than a convenient legal fiction. With the advent of global terrorism from the likes of Al Qaeda and the Taliban the United States government, understandably, became convinced that it needed to extend its powers of surveillance in order to prevent another tragedy like that of ‘9-11’. PRISM is the logical flowering of that decision, even if it is one that nobody imagined a generation ago. People are rightly concerned that a government purporting to champion freedom is now acting in so totalitarian a manner, rapaciously enlarging its access to our private lives out of fear that we are not ‘like all the others’. Worryingly, as morality has been relegated to the private realm the State has increasingly been empowered to act in a ‘morality-free’ way, that is, without recourse to the concerns of morality since these are increasingly regarded as divisive. So, while the right to privacy may be regarded as morally sacrosanct by many secularists, for the State it is so only as far as it is useful for maintaining public order and the hegemony of the State. Where secularism was once cheered for overcoming divisions between religious and political groups it has now become the very source of division between the power of the State and the morals of the people.

Secularism has often been championed by religious people and atheists alike because it had the potential to reduce social conflict. For a time it did so, building, like all effective ideas, on pre-existing strands of social and political thought. For the sake of all a certain ‘healthy’ secularity is vital to ensuring a robust society, but modern secularism has ushered in a new division between the public person and the private individual. Taken to excess, it has undermined personal integrity by separating morality from government policy, and has bred hypocrisy among politicians. It is clear we need to re-think the public square. Let us hope we are not too late.

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