Just back from the RSA, where the British Humanist Association launched its new pamphlet The Case for Secularism: A Neutral State in an Open Society with a lunchtime debate chaired by its president Polly Toynbee.
The debate was opened by philosopher David Papineau, a co-author of the pamphlet and member of the Humanist Philosophers Group, who put his case for a secular society as one intended not to cause differences, but rather to ensure that all citizens are free to practice their religion (or lack thereof) as they please, with the state favouring none. He presented secularism as a fair system, and one which encourages the loyalty of all groups to the state, since they have no need to fear that it is infringing on their religious autonomy.
There was little disagreement from the rest of the panel. Dr Indarjit Singh, director of the Network of Sikh Organisations began by saying he agreed 70-80% with Papineau, but warned that secularism and humanism are religions in their own right, in that they advocate a particular way of life. He expressed his view that we already live in a secular state, and reminded that it is important for all groups, religious or otherwise, to have the right to influence the state. He also warned that staunch advocates of secularism too often make big issues of the trivial, citing a debate he had yesterday on the BBC with a representative of the National Secular Society over the Sikh girl suspended from school for wearing a Kara bracelet.
The final speaker, Simon Barrow of liberal Christian think tank Ekklesia, agreed with Papineau that a secular society is not anti-religious, but rather provides institutions that are open to all. He warned that privileges harm and distort the egalitarian core of Christianity and believes the Church must be persuaded that letting go of privileges would not threaten their existence.
Copies of the pamphlet can be ordered for £5 inc UK postage from the BHA by calling 020 7079 3580 or mailing BHA, 1 Gower St, London, WC1E 6HD