(The Nationalist, 8 February 2002)


Secularism has become a buzz-word in our society. What does it mean? A secular society used to be understood as one which did not favour any one religion, such as, for example, by giving a church an established status. Now it has come to mean a society which, in practice if not by profession, is atheistic, excluding religion from public life. It tolerates private religion, but nothing more.

Secularists sometimes imply that religious people cannot be objective or fair-minded in a discussion, precisely because they are believers. Belief disqualifies them. Secularists are virtually saying that if you want to be open-minded you must be empty-minded. Are they serious? The reality is that secularism can be dogmatic and intolerant: political correctness is its dogmatic orthodoxy and you must be prepared for heavy flak if you violate its sacred canons; it is intolerant of a public profession of faith on the (pretended?) ground that such might be offensive to minorities. It abuses language, robbing it of its meaning, devaluing words such as good, beautiful and true so that they are presented as nothing more than subjective preconceptions. But watch out – language always takes revenge.

I believe there is a con job going on where the word secular is used in Ireland today. Secularism poses as neutral, non-ideological, above the fray of factional contention and sectarian strife, standing on the firm rock of objectivity, its vision unimpeded by dogma or superstition. That is its modest self-presentation! But it is hardly accurate: secularism is an alternative ideology, no less a contestant in the struggle of ideas than, say, Christianity, communism or nationalism. It has a legitimate right to argue its case, as do other systems of ideas, but it goes much further: it presumes a privileged position for itself as the rightful occupant of the seat of State.

In Ireland we may be moving to the stage where Christians become a minority. Though the Constitution nowhere states that Ireland is a secular society, we are gradually allowing secularism, i.e. atheism, to become the unofficial but actual State ideology. Secularism is becoming the established “religion”, more deeply established (in the British sense of the term Establishment) than the Church of Ireland was in the nineteenth century, or the Catholic Church in the twentieth.

Such secularism is sometimes simply ridiculous: I can recall, when in New Zealand, being invited by a State-run radio station to give an interview on the role of a university chaplain – provided I said nothing about religion, because that would have violated the station’s secular charter. Imagine a doctor being invited to talk about the work of a GP – provided he said nothing about medicine. What a tender plant this poor secularism is that it needs such careful official nurturing!

Come on, secularists, stop hiding behind the State’s skirts and come out into the open. The fresh air of open debate will do you good.