Saturday, October 21, 2006

On Jacobins and theocrats

Matt Murrell, in an excellent piece in defence of secularism, wrote:
"It's increasingly common to see secularism portrayed as anti-religious, with talk of 'Secular Fundamentalists' intent on imposing their materialistic philosophy on the rest of the, God-fearing, country. However, it's wrong to confuse secularism with atheism (or, more accurately, anti-theism), and it's important to realise that establishing a secular state is in almost everyone's best interest."
He's quite right, although when you read articles like this one by Harry, it's not difficult to see how the confusion arises. Harry's argument is based around the age of consent and suggests that participation in religious institutions should be included in the range of activities that are proscribed by the state for the under 18s.

While I share his opposition to faith schools, there's little in his five year point 'progressive' plan that anyone of a liberal disposition could possibly agree with. Take point 2, for example:
"The introduction of an age of consent for participation in religious organisations, which I suggest should be 18. In order to enforce this it will be necessary for indoctrination of children to become an offence."
The authoritarianism here is breath-taking - especially when you consider what Harry means by 'indoctrination'. Infant baptism would be out, since this would constitute forcing a child to be a member of a 'theological group'. And it goes without saying that sending a child to Sunday school would also become a criminal offence.

Harry doesn't say what penalties should befall those who persist in bringing their children up in the faith of their fathers. Fined perhaps? What if they refuse to pay? Would they then be jailed and the children become wards of the state? The Kulturkampf was never like this.

The Jacobins and theocrats are twin sides of the same authoritarian coin, minted from claims to cognitive infallibility. Both believe that it is the proper function of the state to 'force people to be free'. Both are inimical to the cause of negative liberty. It is to this tradition that secularism, properly understood, belongs. It did not grow out of certainty but scepticism. Historically it has had a number of different forms but it has always and everywhere been characterised by the distinction between a crime and a sin, and the refusal to believe that anything good can ever come from dabbling in the stuff of other people's souls. For liberty, if it is to mean anything, involves the state leaving people in peace.

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