We’ve recently seen in France that the Islamic full-face covering (the Burqa) has been outlawed. Whilst my opinions on this specific issue are conflicted (I really don’t like the idea of them, and they are obviously impractical, I don’t feel that simply making them illegal is a good solution: although the hefty penalty imposed on men who force their wives or daughters to wear them is something I can approve of 100%), it naturally leads to a debate as to how far a secular country can tolerate religion, and whether enforced secularism is persecution of religion.
I imagine you can guess what side of the debate I will come down on: secularism is absolutely about religious neutrality, and is as important for those who are religious as those of us who are not. Though some would frame secularism as some kind of communist-style state-enforced atheism, the reality is that secularism when correctly applied is merely about removing any particular religion from a place of undue prominence or favour, and making sure no religion can break secular laws.
There are many religious commentators in countries which are or have been majority Christian – mainly the USA, but we have our fair share in Europe and elsewhere – who claim that secularism is eroding their rights. Something they unfailingly fail to grasp is that removing one group’s position as favourites is not taking away their basic rights – it is simply putting them on a level-playing field with everyone else. When the USA made it illegal for a white man to own a black man, it wasn’t taking away the rights of the white man: it was giving rights to the black man. When a government makes it illegal to proselytize in a public school, it isn’t taking away the rights of religious people to indoctrinate children, it is granting the children the right to have an education free of undue religious influence. For the pedantically minded (which includes myself), obviously rights are being taken away – but these are rights which should never have been granted in the first place.
Religion should never be an excuse to break the law of the land, assuming the law of the land is just.