I’ve got to be honest with you. I rather admire the National Secular Society. Irritating as they can be, they do have some admirable qualities.
They are courageous. Who else would seek to capitalise on the solemnity of Remembrance Day by pushing their own deeply unpopular agenda?
They are persistent. They don’t let a little thing like complete public disinterest and a national membership that would fit comfortably into Tranmere Rovers football ground deter them.
And they are honest. They want to stamp out public religion in Britain in the way that some other secularist organisations do but won’t admit.
The Society’s latest public intervention epitomises these qualities. It is actually two interventions. First, the Society published a paper complaining about the Christian element within the Remembrance Day services. And then, according to recent reports, it has launched a legal challenge to the Christian coronation.
Is it worth responding to the content of these positions? Legally, the challenge seems unlikely to succeed as Neil Addison explains here. Socially and culturally, the reasoning is, if anything, weaker. The Jubilee celebrations were rather popular despite having Christianity run through them like the Thames runs through London. Similarly with the Remembrance Day service: the only groups to have protested about it are militant Islamists and the secularists (though not, sadly, at the same time).
So, was this just a stunt to be ignored? Well, yes and no. It was a stunt, which worked (as a stunt), but that doesn’t mean it should be altogether ignored. Two points are worth noting.
First, having successfully challenged Council prayers in Bideford, the Society thinks it is on to something in using the courts and, in particular Human Rights legislation, to challenge tradition, custom and convention until they get what they want.
This is a problem. The language and logic of human rights is not especially popular amongst the public at the moment. When convicted murders claim their human rights are being violated by the ban on prisoner voting, or the UN’s Special Rapporteur lambasts the government’s (admittedly rather daft) “bedroom tax” for infringing human rights, that public attitude hardens still further.
The theologian Oliver O’Donovan once observed that, “There is a political problem with the language of rights, which is its apparent serviceability to the subversion of working orders of law and justice.” This is precisely what we see in the NSS’s obsessive litigiousness: the attempt to bend functioning society (“working orders of law and justice”) to its will without doing the hard work of persuading people; indeed, using the courts in opposition to public opinion. Stunts like the latest one from NSS bring human rights into further disrepute and, ironically, undermine the very legal devices with which the Society likes to arm itself.
The second point is less substantive but no less interesting. The original secular society swam against a powerful tide of public opinion. Victorian Britain was self-consciously Christian and disliked public atheism. But public opinion, the early secularists argued, was irrelevant: what was important was legal equality.
This was effectively achieved in 1917 when the case of Bowman v. Secular Society came before the House of Lords in 1917 and it was held that opposition to Christianity was not contrary to, or within the reach of, English law – since when, of course, Britain has become a lot less self-consciously Christian.
It is interesting then, that one of the repeated riffs in the today’s secular rhetoric is that of public opinion: the British are (allegedly) no longer Christian, so Christianity should be evicted from public life.
The facts and figures they use to reach this conclusion are dubious, and weekly church attendance remains somewhat higher than that of secularist meetings. It is not the numbers that matter here however, but the argument.
Having once argued that public opinion did not matter – a necessary argument as secularist membership in the Victorian period was even lower than it is today – the society now argues that it does, and we need to respect it.
So: courageous, persistent and honest, yes: but perhaps also just a little bit hypocritical too?