In the comments to my recent post about the Pope, Ronan Lowe mentioned An Taoiseach’s recent remarks about "aggressive secularists". I thought this phrase was worthy of a post in its own right. I wondered in a follow-up comment whether Ahern was confusing secularism with rationalism (or atheism, humanism, etc.—whichever your prefer), because the phrase "aggressive secularism" just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
Secularism does not mean the abolishment of religion. On the contrary, it is the only means we have of promoting religious freedom. The word, as I understand it, means the removal of religion from the political sphere and into the private lives of its various practitioners. It means allowing individuals, whether Catholic, atheist, Protestant, Muslim, or anything else, to make their own decisions about what influence their religious beliefs (if any) will have on their lives. The alternative is theocracy (or the banning of religion, which I doubt was Ahern’s intention). In this sense secularism must surely be universally embraced by all freedom-loving people, yet we have politicians speaking against it?
Ireland is still largely governed by a large Catholic majority. Growing up, I had no access to a non-religious school, so in order to excercise my right to education I had to endure the Catholic (or the alternative Protestant) attempts at indoctrination. It was illegal for me to buy alcohol last Wednesday because, apparently, the Catholic majority can’t control themselves so they need a law in place to enforce their abstention from alcohol on Ash Wednesday. Contraception is only relatively recently legal in Ireland. Divorce even more recent. Homosexuals are still subject to state-sanctioned persecution. All this because the Catholic majority opposes the liberal ideal of secularism, that people should be free to make their own choices based on their own beliefs.
If our representatives continue to oppose this ideal, the result will be a fracturing of society into groups of opposing beliefs with no apparent common ground for interaction. Secularism is that common ground: our shared respect for the nobility of human endeavour and the freedom to live our lives our own way.