Debate & Discussion: Yes, separate religion and state!

Submitted by AWL on 22 July, 2005 - 5:34

Much of Maria Exall’s article, “Secularism and religion in a global age” (Solidarity 3-77) was concerned with filling some of the gaps in Soldarity’s coverage of religion and politics — for instance she outlines how trends within Christianity (as well as within Islam) seek to counter and provide an alternative to the “modern world”. On that level much of what she said was fair enough.

Elsewhere Maria says she wants to question prevailing wisdom. However on some of her points she fails to draw conclusions, or state clearly what she herself is for. I’d like to address two of the points she raises.

Maria says that the model of secularism socialists, including ourselves, take for granted (and support) is one where religion is a private matter, and the public space is a “no-go area” for an individual’s religious belief. I don’t think we support that model of secularism as a matter of fact, but I’ll get to that.

Maria criticises the root idea here — of separating personal belief and public and political activity. She says that this is one of the main ways that the ruling class isolate ideas they do not like but does not expand.

I take her point. The ruling class, in politics, may put forward a notion of “objectivity” which is, when you analyse it, alien to us. For instance for New Labour pollsters etc, the sum results of any number of focus groups may be said by them to be “objective” and therefore more valid than any personal viewpoint, especially any passionately held ideals about equality and justice.

For socialists everyone has a personal viewpoint, everyone is “coming from” somewhere, and by and large that place is the class they come from or support. The people who run the focus groups want to express a ruling class viewpoint. They set up their focus groups and their polls so that it they can bolster the idea that the bourgois order of the things is “natural” and immutable. And so the idea that it is possible is separate politics from a personal viewpoint, is for socialists, as ludicrous as it is reactionary.

However Maria goes on to say that the policy of separating church and state is analogous to separating the personal and political. This seems to me to be more than a bit confused and there are three points of criticism I’d like to make.

1. Of course socialists cannot, and should not seek to eliminate “religious ideas” in general from public debate. That is not part of our model of secularism. We are for free speech.

2. How would one disentangle religious ideas from politics anyway? You will always find politicians, even today, who like to leaven their polemic with religious parables etc.

3. The idea of separating church and state, our model of secularism, is not about separating the personal from public life. It simply says that organised religion will receive no state finance and will not have control over any state institution e.g. schools. It does not say that religious ideas wouldn’t be a matter of public debate or discussion — even in, and perhaps especially, in schools.

There are grey areas, of course, and maybe Maria wants to say something about that.
Should we, for instance, agree to lottery money — which are quasi public funds — going to religious charities and projects?

Maria also says that socialists need to rethink what it means to be human, we need to “include the things that bourgeois society splits off into the territory of the ‘irrational’, the ‘personal’, the ‘private’ — things like the emotional and the spiritual aspects of our humanity… we should be prepared to consider whether there is a place for a materialist spirituality.”

There are several things that Maria might mean here, and she should be more explicit about what she means. Assuming she isn’t talking about rubbing crystals and laying down on lay lines, there are a few areas worth discussing.

We might talk about the enduring power of religious belief. It is highly doubtful that religion, as socialists once seemed to believe, would simply fade away in a socialist/communist society. Is that “proof” of a peculiar human essence, or is it something to do with the debilitating power of class ideology? Is there something more pernicious about bourgois ideology in modern capitalism?

Or maybe we should discuss the emotional power of human artefacts such as music and art.

Where does that come from?

I realise that space was short for Maria (partly my fault) but we need to clarify these things as this debate runs.

Cathy Nugent

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