What should a secular society really look like?

Kate Forbes, previously tipped to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National party, recently admitted that she would have voted against same-sex marriage had she been a member of the Scottish parliament in 2014. A public furore ensued.

Forbes is a devoted member of the Free Church of Scotland. Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, said her entry into the SNP leadership race raised questions over whether “her religious views are compatible with being leader of party and nation”. On the other side of the fence, the editor of The Spectator magazine, Fraser Nelson, wrote that Protestants like Forbes are now the “highest-profile victims of [a] new intolerance”.

The controversy has been largely unedifying — many of those most exercised by Forbes’ remarks, whether supporters or opponents, have chosen to overlook her insistence that she would defend equal marriage as a “legal right” now that it is on the statute books. But for all the noise generated by the affair, it has drawn much needed attention to the fog of confusion that often surrounds the very idea of what a “secular” society is — and how people should behave in it.

The notion of secularism at the heart of this debate is one in which the state is meant to be neutral between competing conceptions, religious and otherwise, of what it is to lead a good or worthwhile life. If the UK, more by accident than design, is a secular society in this sense, it is not secular in the other widely accepted meaning of the term. It does not observe the separation of church and state, rather boasting not one but two established churches — the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

But it is secularism in the former sense that is at stake in the Forbes imbroglio. The central question seems to be: what does this demand of those — ordinary citizens and aspiring political leaders alike — who enter the public square?

Evans, for example, can’t seem to make up his mind on a key point. Is what is at issue here the principle that it is entirely legitimate to scrutinise a politician’s views on social issues? Or the much stronger proposition that what he refers to dismissively as “supernatural beliefs” should have no influence on the policy positions political leaders take, regardless of how deeply they hold them?

It’s one thing to say that a public figure’s deepest convictions should not be given a free pass; and quite another to rule a particular class of convictions (religious, in this instance) out of court on account of their content.

However, the arguments mounted by the pro-Forbes camp have a mirroring ambiguity. On the one hand, there is the argument that religious beliefs should be allowed some sway in public deliberation. On the other, the contention that these beliefs are “matters of conscience” that should be shielded from vigorous examination. (As Nelson puts it, a politician’s “innermost thoughts should not really matter”.)

Happily, the work of several philosophers and theologians over the past two decades provides us with a compass for navigating this thicket of contradictions. In a 2006 lecture delivered in Rome, Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, drew a clarifying distinction between two versions of secularism, which he called the “programmatic” and the “procedural”.

Programmatic secularism, Williams argued, is driven by the anxiety “that any religious or ideological system demanding a hearing in the public sphere is aiming to seize control of the political realm”. The French notion of laicité, which prohibits the display of religious symbols in public buildings, is a good example of what he has in mind here. In this view, deep religious convictions have no place in the public square, the business of which is simply to test different methods for the maintenance of public order and welfare. As Alastair Campbell warned during Tony Blair’s premiership: “We don’t do God.”

Against this, Williams pits his favoured model of so-called procedural secularism. This would allow deep religious convictions a “public hearing in debate” — not, crucially, by treating them as beyond criticism but by acknowledging them as forming the “moral foundations” of the choices that citizens, and indeed their politicians, make on a daily basis.

In this view, which you also find in the work of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, beliefs like Forbes’ certainly don’t get a free pass. Nor, however, are they corralled in a separate category of their own, kept apart from other, non-religious conceptions of the world or what it means to lead a good life. This sort of secularism fits much better with the defining feature of most modern democracies: diversity of every kind.

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