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18 December 2003

Secularism gone mad

The Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting responds to the news of the banning of Muslim headscarves for French schoolgirls. The article has some very good and pithy things to say about the difference between the British and the French secular humanist approach to the "problem" of religion in its midst. My take on the issue is a little different, although I don't disagree with anything Bunting has to say here. In America, that great stronghold of religious freedom, I have seen that secular agnostic liberals can be just as wrong-headed as Chirac, and just as dogmatic as any Bible-thumping Christian. What I see here is the ultimate result of that line of thought. It goes something like this:
1. In the Dark and Middle Ages, religion is all-powerful and oppressive
2. There is a Reformation, and a counterforce develops, but still a religion and still oppressive
3. The two powers clash and there is religious conflict; millions die
4. The Enlightenment - an ideal is raised - allow all to be free to practice their own religion, including "none" (e.g. atheism or agnosticism or scientism or secular humanism)
5. In the secular state, where religious liberty is prized, the non-religious feel threatened
6. Anti-religion becomes a third force and develops its own oppressive mechanisms
At this point, game theory takes over. In some states, the "old" religion retains the upper hand but the new is tolerated and agnostics, etc. are tolerated. In some states, either the old or the reformed religion takes the upper hand absolutely; it doesn't matter which one, either way you are back to step 1. And in a few cases, mainly Soviet Russia, but now possibly including France, the agnostics etc. gain the upper hand, still feeling vulnerable to the "oppression" of the devout amongst them. The result is exactly the same: you are back to step 1. In other words, a state where a schoolgirl is forbidden to cover her hair in the name of religious freedom is no more free than medieval Europe, or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

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