Friday, 23 November 2012

Secularism and democracy

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We like to think that one of our jobs here at New Humanist is to bring together secularists from around the world and get them into productive dialogue. While secularism and humanism are common, global values, they are inflected differently across the world and require different strategies and tactics, and much can be learned from talking to people working in different settings with different tactics.

Of course debate will also flush out disagreement.

One such case is that of American secularist Jacques Berlinerblau's new book, just published in the US, called How To Be Secular: A Call To Arms For Religious Freedom. As the title might suggest Berlinerblau is attempting to reframe the argument about secularism in the US and to distinguish secularism from atheism (a confusion that prevents the kind of cross-faith coalition that is necessary for secularism, he says). We gave the book to the prominent British secularist writer Kenan Malik to review for our current issue. This is where it got a bit tricky. Despite finding points of agreement with Berlinerblau, Malik took issue with some of its central claims. Berlinerblau asked for a right to respond, which we gave him. In his response he claimed that Malik has misread him, and taken descriptive argument for prescription.

Malik has now, in his turn, responded to that on his own blog.

I have mixed feelings about this disagreement. Not only do I like both Berlinerblau and Malik personally, but I think they represent some of the best thinking on secularism on either side of the Atlantic. I'd like them to be allies, or at least have a productive debate. Because, underneath the issues about whether Malik has misread (he insists he has not), or Berlinerblau has misrepresented Malik's criticisms (he says he hasn't), is what I think is a really interesting and important argument about what secularism is, and isn't, and how best to preserve and promote it. This argument, which emerges a few paragraphs into Malik's latest post, is about secularism's relationship to democracy, and whether and to what degree we secularists should insist on the separation of church and state as a minimum condition. These questions feed into what is an important comparative debate about secularism and politics across the world.

I hope Berlinerblau wants to respond again on the two substantive points Malik raises. We need to hear more intelligent discussion  among secularists, about how best to achieve and secure secular society. If he does respond we'll let you know.
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