Is it time to be clearer about ‘secular’?

I don’t know if you have been following the coverage of the Michaela Community School legal case. Michaela is a school which has achieved fantastic academic results. According to the Department for Education’s Progress 8 measure it is the highest achieving state school in the country.

Yet it is mired in controversy and a legal case over its ban on all prayer rituals.

The case has been brought with legal aid by one pupil who sees the ban as discriminatory. Many sections of the press (eg The Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Evening Standard) have come out strongly in defence of the rights of the head and governors to operate its strict discipline and secular ethic without the bomb threats, online abuse and now the legal case that seems to have been triggered by the ban that particularly irritated some of the muslim students.

It reads like a case of secular society vs militant Islam. Yet I think much of the coverage misses the real underlying issue in its pursuit of this point.

What’s the issue?

The incident raises difficult questions. Not all (though most) press coverage is on the side of the head, Katharine Birbalsingh’s (eg Guardian) as they seek to defend the freedom of the school against religious interference.

For some, it is explicitly a part of the wider ‘culture wars’ (Evening Standard): “As many are saying, this strikes at the very heart of the elite belief that schools should affirm each child’s racial, religious and gender identity.”

Others see in it a justification for the case of the complete secularisation of all schools “Banning prayer rituals in school? Just get religion out of education completely.” (Guardian).

But the presenting issue actually raises many challenges beyond the ones that the press are framing:

  • How much freedom should pupils be allowed in school time? (The school’s position is that there is no free time in school hours) 
  • What is the purpose of school? (Is academic success everything or what are legitimate wider aims.) The ban was triggered by concern over the damage to the school’s mission which wants to avoid social segregation and promote integration) 
  • How much scope to define ‘school’ should be allowed in a publicly funded institution? 
  • Practically, to what extent does the school achieve its desired social integration by the rules based regime it operates
  • Is this the right sort of response to our multi-cultural society?

All are significant issues. 

But for me, it also raises the underlying question of what is an appropriate application of ‘secular’ with respect to individual freedoms.

What is or is not secular?

The OED defines secular as, ‘Belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion; civil, lay, temporal.’ This seems simple. 

Is this to do with church or mosque or is it to do with public affairs? If its public affairs then it is secular. 

I think this is the current default understanding in Britain. It generally sees ‘faith’ as a private matter (i.e. not to do with the world and its affairs) and an arena where people will disagree irreconcilably. The solution to this is to keep it out of public affairs. So, as Alastair Campbell famously said in 2003, ‘we don’t do God’. 

However, even a moment’s thought should make it clear that this is not a defensible position. It is illogical, unreasonable and increasingly impracticable.

It effectively places barriers around public debate, interaction, and organisation that seek to limit discussion in these to ‘non-religious’ items. It seeks to exclude anything that needs the ‘acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers’(OED again). 

Yet this effectively makes ‘secularism’ itself a religion by outlawing any reference beyond its self-defined sphere of legitimacy. 

The popular Merriam-Webster dictionary defines religion as ‘a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardour and faith’, this qualifies perfectly. It outlaws all that is beyond material human experience.

In doing so, it seeks to set itself above other faiths, even though it is in itself a faith. It assigns every other religion to playing the role of blind feelers of an elephant trying to describe it whilst simply assuming itself firmly as the only sighted person able to see the whole animal (the blind men and the elephant).

Worse still, it consigns morals, values and ethics to the wholly negotiable space (or maybe as irrelevant in public policy?) as these cannot be anchored to any non-contingent object. We end up eating the very house we live in. This is especially true as our moral and legal framework has been shaped enormously by the Christian faith.

In effect it is a form and practice of atheism. But secularism is not supposed to be this. 

Secular is…

As The University of Groningen makes clear “Atheism is itself a belief system, whereas secularism is a political doctrine”. The two are not the same. Secularism and its implementation is supposed to ensure that all perspectives can be freely expressed and that differences can be accommodated in the way we organise society. This has to encompass diverse views.

I think we start to get closer to the heart of the issue over Michaela when we think about it in this way. It then starts to raise all the other issues I highlighted above. 

Specifically, the question hinges around the level of individual freedoms that a school should allow in school hours.

That will be a very nuanced and delicate decision which is about to be resolved by a state financed court case against a state financed school. But it is unlikely to address the underlying issues behind it. Our increasingly anxious society seems to react to these sort of incidents with an intemperate, emotional kick. That is not good for any of us in our society in the long run.

One journalist summarised their perspective on the issue as,”The school has been a blindingly successful example of how a multi-faith society can be made to work: everyone gives something up so we can all get along. It’s called compromise, and this is self-evident. Which is what a multicultural society should really be about: giving things up for the greater good”. But this is not the issue, unless you accept the inaccurate default definition of secular and lose sight of the other questions. It risks inflaming rather than resolving.

It is also not the same as, nor as positive as, Jesus might have said on the situation, “Treat others as you would have them treat you” (Luke 6.31, Matthew 7.12).