August 18, 2012 at 10:01 am (Guest post, religion, secularism)

(Guest post from Pink Prosecco).

It was this recent news item, about a German town recognizing Muslim as well as Christian holidays, which made me think again about the surprisingly slippery concept of secularism.

I am at the same time unequivocally in favour of secularism and aware that my own secular credentials are somewhat compromised. Although I’m not enthusiastic about the inclusion of bishops in the House of Lords, it can’t be said that my opposition is more than languid. And it’s certainly never bothered me that Christian festivals are public holidays in this country.
Religious belief should not, surely, be used as a way of gaining privilege or exemption from the law. I’ll certainly stick firmly to that precept when the conflict of interest involves LGBT or women’s rights. But when it comes to the issue of halal or kosher slaughter – I’m nothing like so sure.  This is partly because my own shade of green is at best a sort of eau de nil, and partly because so many opponents of these practices so clearly have more than animal rights on their agenda.

And where exactly do the parameters of secularism lie?  My own view is that the state should interfere as little as possible with how people live their lives, all things being equal, and I think it’s as wrong to proscribe religious dress as to prescribe it.  As long as no other laws or rights are infringed, I’m happy for religion to take its place in the public sphere.  But the French version of secularism, laïcité, seeks to make religion less visible, and is seen by some to be hostile to religion, rather than neutral.  Certainly bans on religious dress only impinge on the religious – such a strictly secular state looks, on the surface, much like an atheist one.

And yet it is still the case that a secular state – and I’d favour a softer version that the French model – is best for religious as well as atheist citizens.  A zealously religious individual isn’t going to thrive in a theocracy of a different faith.

The UK is no theocracy but it does recognize Christian holidays and grants Sundays a (slightly) special status, so neither is it severely secular – and it could be said to put those of different faiths at a slight disadvantage.  The Hamburg ruling, which I mentioned at the beginning of the post, seeks to neutralise this kind of inbuilt bias:

“Representatives of the Muslim and Alevi communities agreed to the deal, which will give Muslim holidays the same status as non-mandatory Christian holidays. Muslims wishing to observe their religious days can now use a vacation day or make up the time.

The agreement must still be approved by the city-state’s parliament. It also guarantees the teaching of Islamic courses in schools and burial rights.”

This seems a reasonable move – though it is sure to annoy anyone who uses the phrase ‘creeping sharia’ unironically.


  1. vrj5556 said,

  2. martinned said,

  3. Mike Killingworth said,

    Part of the problem is: what is religion? Western culture has answered this question, thanks to 18th-century rationalism and the subsequent revolutions, largely anti-clerical in tone.

    In Islam, however, it is still an open question with different Muslims giving widely different answers, particularly with regard to the relationship of religion to law..

  4. hard lines said,

    Fought a union battle once,lost,Maori and their culture, claiming 5 days paid berevement leave.. What is called in Maori ,tangi hanga leave, to be included in their empoyment contract.Meaning that the three paid days for berevment leave ,be extended to five.The. bosses said, it would set a racist precedent.We said, not at all…Ever met a proffesional unionist.The workers berevement leave did that day.

  5. Andrew Coates said,

    This story seems perfectly reasonable, until it gets to the point where it says “Muslim and Alevi communities agreed”. I merely mention the Sivas massacre in 1993 when the Islamists killed large numbers of Alevis (Turkish: Sivas Katliamı, Madımak Katliamı) and the more recent persecations of Alevis in Turkey. I would therefore question the basis of the report.

    There is no problem with giving religious individuuals the right to follow their own beliefs. But public holdiays are not to be granted on religious, but secular grounds. The reasons why we have Christian cleebrations in Europe is largely, today, cultural and not relisgious. Nobody can seriously suggest for example that people of different religions can partcipate in frankly bigoted events like Easter or Ramadan, in the same way as one can on something like Yule or the Chinese New Year.

  6. Mike Killingworth said,

    Andrew, you can hardly “participate” in Ramadan without being a Muslim, but you or I could surely go to an Eid party. And you can’t have one without the other. Or perhaps you think Mardi Gras would still make sense if the Pope abolished Lent…

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