Secularism and the archbishop
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, January 19, 2002)

Even those who disagree with Archbishop Michael Peers, the primate of the Anglican Church, may well sympathize with his angry attack on secularism. Since he articulated it at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa on Jan. 1, his argument has been raising echoes across the country. He wants to debate a question that many considered settled long ago: Should religion have a prominent place in public affairs?

The Anglican Church and other religious institutions have been driven from the centre of society. They're largely absent from the public schools, they play only a marginal role in medical and legal ethics, and the media seldom discuss them unless clergy are accused of crimes. When a service was held in Ottawa to mourn those killed on Sept. 11, the government not only failed to give religious leaders a place of honour, it omitted them entirely. Twenty-five years ago, that would have been unthinkable.

To Archbishop Peers, this omission was an example of naive secularism. Bureaucrats may believe we create unity by muffling divisive religious beliefs, but in his view that ignores social realities. "A culture is far more than simply folklore," he said; faith and culture are interconnected, and when you stifle the expression of faith, you deny a part of culture. "What is it that we really stand for?"

Similar debates are underway everywhere, a fact that astonishes people who remember the middle of the 20th century. In those days, the North American intellectual atmosphere was filled with misguided ideas about the future. Many believed the world was moving inexorably toward collective solutions to all political and economic questions, and others imagined we would soon be flying to work in personal helicopters. But the most outlandish of false predictions concerned religious faith: Many assumed it was vanishing from the earth.

Few scholars disagreed. Sociology taught that modernism was extinguishing religion as a powerful force in human life. Apparently the whole world, as it adopted the ethos of modernism, was losing interest in matters of faith. In 1985, Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge wrote in The Future of Religion: "The most illustrious figures in sociology, anthropology and psychology have unanimously expressed confidence that their children, or surely their grandchildren, would live to see the dawn of a new era in which, to paraphrase Freud, the infantile illusions of religion would be outgrown." Philip Larkin wrote a famous poem imagining the last Christian who enters an English church as a believer; Larkin didn't doubt that this scene would occur at some moment in the imaginable future. It seemed clear that what the 19th century called a Kulturkampf, a cultural struggle between religious and secular views of society, had been decisively won by secularism.

All untrue, of course. As a political scientist noted a few years ago, Kulturkampf has been globalized. Everywhere religion, particularly Orthodox forms of religion, is flourishing -- among Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, fundamentalist Christians and, above all, Muslims.

It is a habit of religions to expand, and in expanding to encompass politics. Islam demonstrates this tendency most obviously today, but it is not alone. In Israel, Orthodoxy plays a growing part in politics. There's no reason to think that any religion, in an expansive phase, would reject political power. In the 19th century Bishop John Strachan assumed the Church of England would control education, and wresting the University of Toronto from his grasp was an epic struggle won by the forces of secularism. In Quebec it is less than half a century since the Roman Catholic Church was a political power.

Many Anglicans who responded on the church's Web site to the primate's sermon approved entirely, but there were a few who didn't. "Canada is a secular society," wrote one. "We have no authority to instruct society at large, only to behave Christian-like and influence Canadians one by one." But Archbishop Peers should be more worried about those who support him in the wrong way, by implying that even among Anglicans there exist residual dreams of theocratic rule. "Enough is enough," one Anglican wrote. "Let us now completely revert to the faith that Canada was built upon." Someone else said Christians should remind non-Christians that this is a Christian society and others should not presume to impinge upon it.

The attractions of religion, mistakenly underrated only a few decades ago but now appreciated even by sociologists, make secularism as a principle seem pale by comparison. For one thing, secularism (unlike even the plainest religion) has no vibrant language of its own. It doesn't speak to the heart. It cannot evoke awe before the mystery of existence. It has no cure for the self-obsession that is a major infirmity of our age. It offers only reason, and the promise of an umbrella to shelter the diverse faiths that flourish among us, now in greater number than ever.

Its arguments still convince me. Christians and all others (not excepting atheists and agnostics) will in the end be better able to maintain their beliefs in freedom if the political world holds no religious views, ignores religious events, and politely declines to embrace religious leaders -- even by the limited endorsement of invitations to public events. Archbishop Peers may have it backwards: The world of 2002 has too little secularism, not too much. As well as freedom of religion, our form of society requires freedom from religion.

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