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Correspondence in the Church Times November 2007 about "Debaptism"

Giles Fraser: Is secularism neutral on faith or anti-religious?

Article in Church Times 2nd November 2007

The Thought Police at the National Secular Society (NSS ) have held their latest annual gathering, patting themselves on the back for another bumper year of God-bothering. In a recent press release, they boast that their “certificate of de-baptism”, a strange document that can be found on their website, has been accessed 100,000 times in the past five years.

A number of those web hits have been me. Every time I have a look, I wonder to myself: if you don’t believe anything happens at baptism, what’s the point of being de-baptised? To be cheeky, it all seems rather superstitious to me.

But my real argument with the NSS is the trickery it constantly employs with respect to the word “secular”. I contend that the core meaning of secularism is the belief in the separation of Church and state. Religion, the secularist contends, ought not to have a place in shaping the laws or political realities by which we live.

Thus there should be no bishops in the House of Lords, the Queen ought not to be the head of state and Supreme Governor of the C of E, and so on. There are many Christians who believe in this sort of thing. From time to time, I am one of them. There is also a fairly good argument that the first secularist was Jesus himself, rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. Augustine followed with his division between the City of God and the City of Man.

The NSS often employs this meaning of secular, especially when it is trying to look grown-up in making representations to government. Thus it says it wants “a society in which all are free to practise their faith, change it or not have one, according to their conscience”. It goes on about the importance of public space being open to all, irrespective of faith.

Yet, not far below the surface, another meaning of secular breaks out. Here, secular is little more than a synonym for virulent anti-religious prejudice. In this guise, the NSS portrays all religion as being about “brainwashing” and “indoctrination”. It goes so far as to defend comments about Muslims as having “shit for brains” (from a “comedian” also beloved by the BNP).

The commentator Sunny Hundal, who is from a Sikh family but is not religious himself, says of those in the NSS: “While they preach secularism, they actually prefer atheism.”

The NSS is either an organisation seeking to defend a neutral public space for everybody — the religious and the non-religious alike — or it is a part of a campaign to eradicate religion from sight. It should make up its mind which one it is. It cannot be both.

 

From Mr Terry Sanderson
Sir, — So, the Revd Dr Giles Fraser doesn’t like the National Secular Society (NSS) (Comment, last week). We can live with that. We are less sanguine, however, about his portrayal of the organisation and those connected with it. He begins by calling us the “Thought Police” — a cliché that has no meaning, but creates a perception of the NSS as an authoritarian regime, not one that (as is the case) fights endlessly for free speech.

According to the NSS’s articles of association (formulated in Victorian times), “this life is the only one of which we have any knowledge,” and “supernaturalism is the enemy of progress.” I suppose this makes us an organisation of atheists. But the promotion of atheism is not our primary pur-pose. We are fighting first and foremost for a secular society in which no one is disadvantaged or privileged because of his or her belief or lack of it.

There are Christian organisations — such as Ekklesia — that fight for a form of secularism, too. Are their efforts to be similarly considered null and void because they come from a Christian perspective?

There are many forms of secularism. I don’t think that the sort that the NSS is fighting for — the neutral state — is the one that Dr Fraser would favour. Our model, very similar to the French one, simply means that all are citizens first and foremost. Any other identity they choose to apply to themselves must be secondary when dealing with the state and its institutions. It does not mean that individuals cannot participate in their own right.

Why shouldn’t a group of atheists fight for such a goal? And why should there be this demand for a blanket “respect” of religion when it so often behaves in ways that do not deserve respect? Our beef is not with the worshipper in the pew, but with the religious structures that bid for political power.

As for the comedian Pat Condell, he is indeed a member of the NSS. His opinions on religion, which can be seen on YouTube, are not flattering and are expressed vigorously. But what he says is not unreasoned prejudice. Some of his opinions might well appeal to the

far Right, but then so do the opinions of some bishops of the Church of England. The BNP considers itself a Christian party, and cheers on all remarks made by C of E clerics which it perceives to be anti-Islamic.
TERRY SANDERSON
President
National Secular Society

 

From Mr Simon Barrow

Sir, — Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society (NSS; Letters, 2 November) misses the Revd Dr Giles Fraser’s central point (Comment, 26 October).

The “neutral” version of secularism which the NSS upholds apparently wishes to exclude religion from every sphere of civic participation (not just governance). The NSS recently approvingly quoted Ted Rall as saying “Religion has no place in the public life of a democracy. None.” It therefore opposes not just confessional teaching of religion in publicly funded schools (quite understandably), but education about the phenomenon of religion altogether.

It labels chaplains in hospitals (including humanist ones) “parasites”. It does not think that religious groups should be able to publicise events in libraries alongside other civil-society groups, or that people should be able to wear religious symbols in public places; and so on.

The NSS says that religion is only “for the home and place of worship”, though it appears to take the Dawkins line that involving children in any religious activities is automatically “child abuse”.

By contrast, Ekklesia, while agreeing that religious representatives and groups should not hold governing power or special privileges in public institutions and the tax regime, supports a plural civic arena open to all.

Terry Sanderson has said that he regards all “moderate believers” as sharing “the same beliefs that motivate bombers and theocrats, misogynists and homophobes” (The Guardian). In an NSS article, he says: “Rowan Williams’ theology is just as nutty as that of the biblical literalists” — probably not on the basis of a careful assessment of his scholarly output. This will strike many as a curious form of “neutral secularism”.

The comedian Pat Condell, moreover, goes out of his way to say that it is Islam as a whole he is attacking, not just extremism. His video calls Muslim women who wear face veils “mentally ill”, and talks of Muslim men as “pigs”. It is astonishing that a leading NSS figure appears unable to distinguish between unpleasant abuse and reasoned criticism.

I am sure this does not represent the majority of non-religious people, let alone secularists. The NSS has important things to say, but it sadly undermines its case when it appears to indulge blanket anti-religious prejudice.

SIMON BARROW

Co-Director

Ekklesia

 

From the Revd David Ackerman

Sir, — It is always useful to know what the National Secular Society is up to; and so it was interesting to see the letter from Terry Sanderson.

The National Secular Society is often wheeled out to make a critical comment about the Church, but I wonder on whose behalf it speaks. Secularisation is real, but it can hardly be described as a popular movement (it rather advances by stealth). I am yet to meet anyone who has told me of his or her burning desire to live in a “neutral state”, probably because people know that one can never exist. When a state becomes secular, it does not become neutral. A state must always advance codes of behaviour and even belief. If not, there would be anarchy.

Mr Sanderson can speak only for members of his society. I suspect that there are perhaps fewer of them than the people Dr Fraser gets through his church door in a year.

DAVID ACKERMAN

The Parsonage, High Street

Kempsford, Glos GL7 4ET

 

From Mr Roger Godin

Sir, — Dr Fraser’s article on the National Secular Society caused me to look at the society’s website and the certificate of de-baptism.

It is such a sad site. As you read the “case studies”, you see that many of the sad misunderstandings arise from the failure of the Church to explain not only the meaning of baptism, but also the heart of the gospel. The renunciation of “the perfidious belief that any baby needs to be cleansed by Baptism of alleged ORIGINAL SIN” (sic, from the certificate) reveals that many people have not heard the full story of what baptism is all about. I am grateful to the Archbishop of York for his gracious response to one seeker of “de-baptism”, quoted on the website.

But there is another aspect of “de-baptism”. That is the growing number of Christian teenagers, in particular, who regret that they were christened in infancy and, sadly, often seek baptism (usually by immersion) in another denomination.

It might be worth while to mention that a diocesan bishop wrote recently, reminding us that the Common Worship Affirmation of Baptismal Faith opens up for a person baptised in infancy the possibility of renewing, affirming, and renewing his or her baptism, by walking through a baptismal pool and immersing himself or herself (Common Worship: Christian Initiation, pages 349f).

This may not be the same as believers’ baptism (indeed, it must be clear that it is not), but it does give the opportunity for the vivid outward and visible testimony often sought by enquirers to our website (www.baptism.org.uk).

ROGER GODIN

Chairman, Baptismal Integrity

 

In 2009 the issue gained a high public profile again and relevant correspondence is set out as shown below

 

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