Friday, February 22, 2008

Thought for the World - Julian Baggini - Secularism

Julian Baggini

Thought for the day - Monday

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Transcript of Thought For the World's thought for the day

Julian Baggini

18th February 2008

How strange it must feel to be Rowan Williams right now. On the one hand, almost everyone has come down like a ton of bricks on the Archbishop of Canterbury for saying that the introduction of some aspects of sharia law in Britain was unavoidable. But on the other, almost everyone has prefaced their condemnation with remarks to the effect that they greatly respect his humanity and intelligence.

Bishop-baiting may be in, but special respect for religion is not yet out. As it happens, I have rather less respect for Dr Williams, but I also think that, on this issue, he so nearly said something both true and important.

The question he was addressing was how to accommodate deep and real plurality in society without threatening its essential unity. The wrong answer to this is that there should be different laws for people who hold different beliefs. This is a clear non-starter. For one thing, who is to decide to whom such laws would apply? We can't bind people by the religion, or lack of it, of their parents. So the only alternative would be for people to choose themselves which legal code to opt into. This is just absurd. Spirituality has already become something of a pick-and-mix supermarket: law cannot go the same way.

But Williams doesn't want this. For all the stones hastily cast in this debate, the right to throw literal ones was not on his agenda. As has become clearer in recent days, all he meant was that people should have the option of settling some civil disputes through voluntary means of arbitration, and agree to be bound by its conclusion.

There is, and should be, room outside the law for some diversity in how we choose to relate morally to one another. The key distinction here is between laws we all must obey, and practices that can be legally recognised but do not need to be followed by everyone.

A good example of this is gay marriage: the law could recognise this, but that wouldn't, of course, mean there was one law for gays and another for heterosexuals; or that gay marriage was being forced upon the straight community.

Williams's mistake was failing to make clear that the principle of one law for all is sacrosanct.
Secularism requires a neutral public space in which people of all faiths and none can come together to debate and legislate as equals. As long as we maintain this, there is plenty of room in private and community life for people to live by their very different, deeply held beliefs.

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