Secularism is a greater threat to Christianity than Islam
Royal Geographic Society
June 29th 2011
Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP
Prof Tariq Ramadan
The Very Rev’d Patrick Sookhdeo
Fr Timothy Radcliffe, a Dominican friar based in Blackfriars Oxford, proposed the motion arguing that secularism appeared in ‘strong and weak’ varieties. Weak secularism meant the
exclusion of religion from the public sphere. Strong secularism entailed a belief that the only valid truths are the verifiable and falsifiable propositions approved by science. ‘Strong
secularism is dangerous. It threatens Christianity and civilisation because it makes a totalitarian claim for one branch of learning.’ Science cannot cope with the fundamental questions of
life which are the domain of philosophy, poetry and religion. Mocking the self-professed ‘secularists’ he knew at university, he said ‘they fell in love and kissed one another for
The Very Revd Patrick Sookhdeo, Dean Theologian of the Church of Nigeria, identified the true threats to Christianity as ‘loss of faith and loss of soul; and these come from within.’ We
value secularism because it creates an impartial forum for the free exchange of arguments. ‘Secularism has never destroyed Christianity but Islam has.’ As a former Muslim he outlined
for us the bitter and bloody conflicts between his adopted religion and the faith he inherited at birth. Mohammad drove Jews and Christians out of the Arabian peninsular. His followers seized
Damascus and Jerusalem from Christian control. Under Shariah law Christians were tolerated provided they paid a special levy. ‘At one time their inferior status had to be demonstrated in the
style and colour of their dress.’ What makes Islam unique, he said, is the pressure it places on rival religions. He recited historic massacres of Christians by muslims and updated this with
a list of recent atrocities in Afghanistan and Egypt. In Iraq, militant Islamists have attempted to drive Christians from a land where they have worshipped since the earliest days of their faith.
Which would we prefer, he asked, an Islamic state or liberal democracy?
Damian Thompson, Blogs Editor of the Daily Telegraph, argued that Christianity is moribund in secular Britain. ‘This country is one of Christianity’s dying rooms.’ Barely seven
per cent of us worship every Sunday. This figure, he claimed, represents a decline of 50 per cent since the 1970s. ‘And what’s putting us off? The music. The most chilling sentence in
the English language is, “our next hymn is, ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’.”’ He regarded secularism as less as an ideology than a process, ‘like the weather’,
which has replaced Christianity with ‘fads and confused spirituality’. The clergy have become secularised themselves. They embrace gay adoption and quietly support attempts to prevent
church schools accepting practising Christians. He deplored ‘the secular spinelessness of the multi-cultural bishops’ who fail to speak out against Islamic oppression of Christians for
fear of seeming ‘racist’ or attracting opprobrium ‘across the dinner table.’
Observer columnist Nick Cohen rejected Fr Radcliffe’s categorisations of secularism and offered us the definition written into the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom by Thomas Jefferson.
‘All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, opinions in matters of religion.’ This precept stands in clear opposition to faith schools which, Cohen said, ‘put
children into boxes according the poisonous concepts of religion and race.’ Hazy notions like religious respect made him uncomfortable. ‘Should we not condemn persecution out of
“respect?”’ Though no admirer of fanatical atheism, he reminded us that ‘militant atheists carry books; militant theists carry guns.’ In the great social battles of
the 20th century — for women’s freedom, gay rights and racial tolerance — it was always religious movements that impeded progress. Free societies are precious, he declared. We
mustn’t take our values for granted.
Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford, found the motion, dangerous and reductive. For him ‘the dogmatic mind’, occurring in both religious and secular
societies, is the problem. Secularists are apt ‘to reduce all of Islam to the radical approach of some.’ He characterised this anti-religious creed with the rhetorical device, ‘I
doubt, so I am right. You believe, so you are dangerous.’ He wants respect rather than just ‘tolerance’. ‘I suffer your presence but I cannot remove you from the pictures.
This is patronising’. And he highlighted the hypocrisy of western societies which deplore extreme forms of Islam and yet prop up states that propagate it. ‘I would like to free Saudi
Arabia. But who is supporting Saudi Arabia, where you cannot build a church? The UK.’
Douglas Murray, founder of the Centre for Social Cohesion, opened with an ironic concession. ‘Islam is not violent per se, though they’re quite good at it when they’re in
charge.’ He accused Christian churches of reacting with ‘moral blindness and cowardice’ to the deaths of their co-religionists around the world. He recited a chilling catalogue of
kidnappings and murders committed in North Africa and the Middle-East during April and May this year. He then added the Archbishop of Canterbury’s response on June 20th: ‘it’s a
very anxious time for Christians worldwide.’ The problem, Murray said, lies not with religious texts but with their elevation into legal instruments. ‘Secularism isn’t a problem.
It’s the answer. The only answer anyone has come up with.’
Challenged from the floor to deny that secularism led to moral relativism and nihilism, Murray refused to frame the debate in those terms. ‘In a secular society you can make your case. If
it’s a good case it will win. And others can make their case and carry on making it. It’s the best hope any of us have.’
During the debate the house shifted decisively in favour of the opposition. The motion was defeated.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 2, 2011