Does secularism guarantee support for social justice?

There are worrying signs that the liberalisation of social attitudes may be slowing down. How can this trend be reversed?

Izzy Goldstein
28 July 2019, 4.51pm
Wikimedia Commons/Spiridon Ion Cepleanu. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Earlier in July, the results of the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey were released. Beleaguered journalists were busy reporting on Boris Johnson’s unfailing talent at evading questions, so coverage was unusually lite. Where there was any comment, it tended to focus on the survey’s headline insight about the decline of religiosity, with the results showing that the number of British people describing themselves as religious has dropped by more than 20% in the last decade.

There was, however, very little mainstream commentary on one of the survey’s other key discoveries – that tolerance towards gay sex is falling for the first time since the Aids crisis.

One reason for this lack of coverage might be its ostensible incongruence with conventional wisdom surrounding the liberalisation of social attitudes, which is usually attributed to the growth of secularism.

Yet recent events suggest that the findings are not so inconsistent after all, since - at least in the case of LGBTQ+ normalisation, equality and visibility - the presumed relationship between secularism and liberalisation has already been thrown into question by a string of recent backlashes.

The BSA survey is just one example of this trend, coming in a Pride Month in which MEP Ann Widdecombe assured a national TV audience that “science may yet produce an answer to being gay,” a lesbian couple were viciously attacked on a London bus, and plans for nationwide school protests against “No Outsiders” were announced – a primary school programme designed to teach children about the characteristics protected by the Equality Act, and featuring LGBTQ+ inclusive lesson materials.

Though admittedly anecdotal, these incidents give us pause to examine the tendency to treat secularism as the driving force in favour of liberal progressivism. They point to a divided social landscape in which the majority in favour of LGBTQ+ acceptance stand diametrically opposed to a small yet increasingly emboldened minority who vocally resist it.

This is a binary which is undoubtedly inflected by religion, but it isn’t one which will be resolved by further passive drifts towards secularism. If we want to bridge this gulf and ensure that social views continue to shift forwards, then we must challenge the psychology that underscores all regressive attitudes, whether motivated by religion or not.

That means introspecting on the ways in which we construct culture and engender normative beliefs, and taking active steps to enshrine the liberal values of the majority into the institutions of secular society.

We are the stories we are told about ourselves.

Being a gay member of the Jewish community has made me acutely aware of the role of religious and cultural narratives in shaping social identity and supporting or stifling subjectivity.

Unlike many LGBTQ+ people, I am fortunate never to have suffered direct homophobia - having benefited from an accepting home and attending a liberal synagogue. But like every other LGBTQ+ person, I have been regularly exposed to dialogue which presents homosexuality as incapacitating at worst and manageable at best.

The truth is that, no matter how privileged their background, every LGBTQ+ person will at some point be subjected to language and assumptions which implicitly reinforce a set of negative stereotypes.

The impact of this prejudice on childhood development was confirmed by last years’ pioneering Adverse Childhood Experience study, which found that the most damaging childhood experience was “recurrent chronic humiliation” - in other words, being consistently invalidated, pitied and critically judged.

Such negative judgement may pale in comparison with being attacked or imprisoned, but the repressive effects of growing up hearing that your life will be more difficult, or that you’ll never have a family of your own, or that - if you’re lucky - your formative relationships may turn out to be nothing more than a “phase,” should not be underestimated. These narratives all create shame, and shame leaves scars, as the higher-than-average rates of self-harm and suicide in the LGBTQ+ community attest.

The universalism of this experience suggests that it has more to do with the gendered and heteronormative ways in which we are socialised, and patriarchal traditions of sex, family and marriage, and less to do with religion per-se.

Of course, religion can’t be extricated from this picture. The toxicity of much homophobic discourse is situated in the oppressive, “othering” character of the beliefs which underscore it. These are beliefs which religious teaching – at least where it is ideologically orthodox – plays a key role in disseminating.

Conservative theists’ have a right to advance these ideas as part of their religious freedom, but this freedom always carries a cost: whenever anyone advances a negative moralistic view of any type of identity, the psychological effects are borne personally - not by LGBTQ+ ‘the group’ but by the living, breathing and feeling individuals who comprise it.

This was the first thing that came to mind when I read the Christian Institute’s comments on the BSA findings, which described the regressive attitudinal trend as pushback from people of faith “who are happy to tolerate relations between adults of the same sex” but have come under “increasing pressure” to “endorse or celebrate it.”

Tolerance may be all that is legally required of religious groups, but I know from experience that for LGBTQ+ people, acceptance and celebration it is an emotional necessity, and the very best expression of equality.

That is why it is disingenuous for activists opposing “No Outsiders” to claim that their arguments are simply about state overreach and have no relationship to homophobia. When pious believers seek to obstruct future generations from becoming enlightened to the impact of illicit characterisations of homosexuality - and from being offered access to a more egalitarian discourse - they jeopardise social justice for everyone, not least members of religious communities who then unfairly suffer generic accusations of bigotry.

Telling new stories.

The values that we espouse through our politics, legal system and institutions – and which form the basis of our social and community structures – are at the heart of this conversation. One of the reasons that Christianity has retained its influence across many societies is because the public systemisation of religious ethics has continued long after the separation of church, state and judiciary. To find evidence of this in Britain, we need only look to the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, and religious schools.

Of secularism, the opposite is true. While non-belief in religion has grown exponentially over the past half century, efforts to replace religion with liberal values in key institutions have been far less successful. This suggests that our ability to continue along the arc of justice depends on stepping up our efforts across society to enshrine and defend the principles of equality that have underscored hard-fought social progress.

The British High Court’s decision last week to place an injunction on the “No Outsiders” protests was a welcome move to clarify the responsibility of government and education professionals to do just this and, in the process, to assert the limits of parental autonomy. But it can’t stop there.

If we are to counteract the tide of illiberalism that has begun to rise in the West, then we must be prepared to create a clearer and more expansive code of national ethics, and promote these ethics stringently through law, communication and policy.

This need not constitute a further drift away from religion. Indeed, it may even provide an opportunity to reassert the many positive religious conventions that I’ve benefited from myself - like bonds of community and a sense of duty and responsibility, neighbourliness and self-sacrifice. We already have models for these kinds of ethics in terms of religion’s role in driving charitable giving and supporting social and humanitarian work. If we leverage it properly, religion could help to provide further antidotes to the rampant individualism which has been the source of so much cultural alienation and polarisation in Britain and elsewhere.

But to get to a position where such traditions can be synthesised into state structures, we must first be clear and uncompromising about the shape of secular society - the principles on which it is founded, and the boundaries it proscribes in regard to individual rights and freedoms. Only then will we be able to agree a model for national values which prioritises the self-attainment of the individual whilst also respecting the traditions of the group, and promoting empathy between these two perspectives. That is a precondition for developing a common language which doesn’t merely describe what this model should be, but rather, constructs it into being collectively.

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