Left DebateOpinion

God, Culture and the Republic

Secularism is the core of progressive politics, argues Ultán Gillen  


“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The passing of this First Amendment to the US constitution was a truly revolutionary moment.

In embracing secularism, the American revolutionaries, influenced by the En- lightenment, sought to redefine the rela- tionship of people with the state, and to introduce greater liberty and equality for all. This secular vision of politics also lay at the heart of the French Revolution and the ideology of the United Irishmen, and has been a key part of democratic and revolutionary struggle worldwide ever since.

There can be no truly progressive politics without secularism, what the French call laïcité. The law and political rights must be the same for everyone. Wherever religion has been allowed to shape law, politics and society, reactionary consequences have inevitably followed. We in Ireland know this better than most: sectarianism has long stunted class politics, and the surrender to religious organisations of aspects of education, health and social care has had catastrophic outcomes.

Whatever religious doctrines may say, religion has been used for centuries to support the oppression of women, to deny them equal rights and control over their own fertility. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar was caused by the fact that, as one of her medical care team informed her husband, “this is a Catholic country”. Both North and South, the laws surrounding reproductive rights reflect Christian religious doctrine. Secularism is the solution.

The majority of people in Northern Ireland live under what is effectively religious apartheid: separate housing, separate schools, separate social spaces. For example, 90% of public housing estates are inhabited by at least 80% from one perceived religious affiliation, and only 7% of schoolchildren are in integrated education. It is little wonder that sectarian attitudes have been found in children as young as two.

Politics in the north is dominated by sectarian thinking, with the four largest parties committed to a communalist approach. The farcical Building a United Community strategy of the Stormont Executive in reality seeks to institution- alise further the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’. The total hollowness of this strategy is evident from the fact that it talks about building ten shared educational campuses, but says literally nothing about integrated education.

A revolution is needed in Northern Ireland, a secularist revolution. This is not simply about government policy and laws. It is about attitudes. Sectarianism cannot be overcome and progressive politics cannot be built unless a secular mindset can be created among the people. There can be no compromise on this issue.

Across Ireland, education must be taken into the hands of the state, and a secular education provided. A secular education system teaching the values of equal citizenship is essential to build cohesion, to challenge the traditional divisions within Irish society, and to integrate families coming to Ireland from elsewhere.

Worldwide, reactionary forces rooted in religion are resurgent. The most spectacular examples might be Islamists perpetrating sectarian massacres and throwing gay people off buildings, but they are far from the only ones. The European far-right seeks to exploit the idea of a Christian civilisation to garner support in Greece and elsewhere. The religious Right in the US has mounted numerous successful attacks on women’s rights, secularism, and even science itself. In its support for an aggressive US foreign policy and opposition to environmental- ism, it may well be the most dangerous of religious reactions in the long term.

Secularism is an essential part of any democratic, progressive or socialist struggle. Progressives can never compromise on the secular agenda. Irish history and politics demonstrate that, but so too does the recent rise of religious-based politics across the globe. Imperialism has been the only winner, as no kind of religious reaction threatens capitalism. Secularism challenges many of the fundamental bases of oppression.

Where politics and society are not secular, working people, especially working women, have been the big losers. This is a lesson socialists and progressives must never forget.

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Ultan Gillen

Ultan Gillen