Secularism is under threat – and worth fighting for


Western leaders need a reminder of the value of JFK’s words. By Chris D 2006 on Flickr. Licensed for non-commercial reuse.

The theocrats are on the march in the west and beyond. Our complacent societies must learn again the value of separating religion from public policy. 

His first 100 days are almost up, and Donald Trump has put religious rhetoric front and centre. In his inauguration speech he quoted the Bible, spoke of “God’s people” living together and said his country was “protected by God”. He has told Congress that “we are all made by the same God”. At the National Prayer Breakfast he said “America will thrive, as long as we continue to have… faith in God”.

It is tempting to shrug it off. He is just playing to the gallery, we say. American presidents seem to say “God bless you and God bless America” almost without thinking. We know they have to do it: more than half of American voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who did not believe in God.

But when these words come from Trump’s mouth, we should worry. There is little evidence to suggest he has strong religious convictions. But he is also no rational thinker. He has promoted conspiracy theories such as birtherism. He has backed false science on vaccinations and called climate change a hoax. Much of his support comes from so-called alternative media sources which have disdain for standards and evidence.

Trump embraces evangelicals

Trump’s shallowness and changeability make him a threat to the US’s secular tradition. A leader with his record has no problem embracing the religious right – and Trump will play to any gallery that empowers him. In 2012 his lack of support from evangelical Christian leaders cost him votes, so in 2016 he declared himself “proud” to be pro-life and said the Bible was his favourite book.

It worked: last November he won 81% of the white evangelical vote, more than any of the Republican party’s previous three presidential nominees. He openly thanked these voters when he spoke to CPAC in February. When he suggests policies such as prioritising Christian refugees for resettlement, this is the context behind it.

Consider also the people around him. His main adviser, Steve Bannon, has criticised secularism and called for a return to “Judeo-Christian values”. His vice-president, Mike Pence, has advocated the teaching of creationism in public schools; government funding of gay conversion therapy; the criminalisation of abortion; and abstinence-only sex education.

Most US presidents, however religious they are personally, understand that the separation of church from state is a crucial element of their country’s constitution. This one sees it either as just another idea which is up for debate in a big power game or as an “establishment” shibboleth which has weakened America.

Britain turns against secularism

A similar pattern is unfolding in the UK. Many of the free schools set up since 2010 are run by religious bodies. Faith schools are back in fashion under Theresa May’s government. And it was little noticed last year that all five candidates to become prime minister were Christians.

Their private faith is their business, but it illustrated the fact that Christianity is a political advantage in a country where fewer than 1m people go to church each week. At the time the magazine Christian Today wrote that a “re-awakening” was taking place, where politicians felt more comfortable talking about their religion in public. This was also true in last year’s London mayoral race, when both Sadiq Khan’s supporters and detractors talked a great deal about the fact he was a Muslim. These trends should alarm those who believe religion – or the lack of it – is a private matter.

And this is part of a global phenomenon. India’s Narendra Modi is a Hindu nationalist. Vladimir Putin has embraced his country’s orthodox church, with intolerant results. Geert Wilders has said he wants to entrench the “Judeo-Christian tradition” in the Dutch constitution. In France, many of those claiming to defend the country’s long secular tradition are in fact posing a threat to it (for example, by pushing bans on burkinis).

An unfashionable cause

Lobbying for freedom of and from religion, and against special privileges for religious practices and ideas, has become unfashionable on left and right. The Christian right in America presents secularism as a threat to religious liberty – when it is the very opposite. Right-wing religious advocates often say the west’s moral codes come from religion. But the moral basis for values such as pluralism, tolerance and equality before the law is in the Enlightenment, which challenged the institutional power of religion.

On the left secularism has fallen out of favour because it clashes with multiculturalism and moral relativism. If you want to blame the west for everything, you need to deny that its societies are founded on better ideas than theocracies. Those who uncritically embrace globalisation prefer to water down the achievements of western nation states than protect them. Above all secularism is denounced by those who play identity politics and generically support groups of people instead of principles. For many leftists, this means supporting religious exemptions on animal welfare laws or criticising the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists after they were shot.

Both sides tend, deliberately or not, to characterise secularism as an elite ideology – when in reality it is a way of keeping the state humble. And their contrasting critiques feed off each other. When sections of the left – secularism’s traditional supporters – turn to relativism, the right’s attacks seem more credible. When the right embraces intolerant nationalism, the left can present all anti-relativists as intolerant nationalists.

Our complacency will hurt us

We have learnt to take secularism for granted. When I worked as a history teacher few people in power seemed to care that children should understand how the free societies they lived in had emerged. Many university students – or at least, those with the loudest voices – now seem to view free speech itself as a threat.

Even the grown-ups seem to have little understanding of why religion should remain a private affair. Last week the press and rival politicians questioned Tim Farron’s personal views on homosexuality – missing the point that as a liberal politician, he does not wish to impose his views on others.

In an age of polarisation, it is tempting to give in to outrage, pick a side and shout as loudly as we can at those opposite us. But if we cannot make the case from a principled position in the centre, extremists will have their way. Islamists kill people for drawing something they dislike; the left shrugs. The US elects a man who says he will “defend Christian Americans”; the right shrugs.

Continue like this and we will get a painful lesson. When you do not stand for the principle that everyone deserves the same treatment, you get poisonous divisions based on identity. When you say all value systems are equal, you throw away the privileges which free societies have created. And when you stop believing that public life should be guided by reasonable people with limited power, you get fundamentalism.

Free speech is the antidote to Trump


Benjamin Franklin got it right. By DonkeyHotey; CC BY 2.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

The polarising president is a threat to truth itself. Beating him requires a renewed commitment to the most fundamental western value of all.

We can see where this is going. Donald Trump has promised a crackdown on media companies which cover him unfavourably. He tweeted an attack on the New York Times while soldiers he commanded were taking part in a failed raid in Yemen. He held a press conference where he berated the media for more than an hour.

His and his cronies’ lies have become ‘alternative facts’. His spokeswoman has cited a non-existent massacre as justification for his most controversial policy. He has lashed out at the intelligence agencies and begun a review which threatens their independence.

This wannabe autocrat is not just a threat to a 240-year-old republic founded on small-l liberal values; the free world he pretends to lead; and the constitution he promised to preserve, protect and defend. He is a threat to the very idea of truth.

Trump lies repeatedly and brazenly. He and his fans use Twitter to spread disinformation and dismiss reality, or anything that challenges their worldview, as ‘fake news’. It is no coincidence that an unhealthy number of his tweets attack the media. We should be very alarmed that so many of his supporters believe conspiracy theories.

And this is going to get worse. The established press is weak and under pressure to chase clicks. This makes it less likely to perform desperately required scrutiny and more likely to publish emotional think-pieces written in fits of hysterical outrage.

Meanwhile fake news will get worse and Trump will give friendly media outlets greater credibility. On Superbowl Sunday he gave an exclusive interview to Fox News. He is preparing to give White House press passes to Breitbart and even the conspiracy theorist site Infowars. We can expect his warped version of events to become more mainstream.

Now consider how tough it could become to oppose Trump publicly in the next few years. Technology is advancing rapidly. The release of celebrities’ naked photos, the leak of David Beckham’s emails and the Pizzagate affair could be the tip of a very large iceberg. Trump’s most unhinged supporters could hack his outspoken opponents’ emails, text messages, phone records or iCloud accounts. They could create and disseminate plausible, but entirely false, stories to discredit anyone who dares cross his path.

Trump will not need to jail his opponents, as 20th century dictators did. His acolytes will simply bully them out of existence.

The need for humility

So how to oppose him?  The temptation since his election has been to denounce his voters as racists, sexists and bigots; to organise marches of the converted; to bleat about moving to Canada or Spain; to deliver right-on speeches at glitzy Hollywood ceremonies. Doing this brings social status, particularly among our like-minded peers. (This is a large part of the reason why thousands here in the UK march and sign petitions against Trump, but are much quieter when an authoritarian Chinese or Saudi leader comes to visit.)

This is the wrong approach. Trump can only be defeated if his supporters are won over. His opponents must pick their battles, and the battle we face now is a fight for truth and reason.

Liberal democracy requires a reinvention. People want answers on globalisation, the aftermath of the financial crash, rapid automation and the Islamist threat. They distrust the powerful and want to take more control of their lives.

Addressing these concerns will require painful concessions. Trump’s opponents must have the intellectual honesty to accept liberalism’s imperfections. They must be willing to listen and compromise.

The liberal disdain for concepts such as nationhood, patriotism and community will be challenged. Leftists must shake off their incredulity that not everyone thinks social progress is inevitable, or exclusively beneficial. And while politicians will rightly seek to deal with global challenges, they must also consider how to give citizens a greater stake in their societies.

It will be a tough ask in a rapidly changing world, especially as democratically-elected governments become less powerful. But free societies, with all their imperfections and frustrations, are still worth defending. When you can openly moan about anything you like, you know you live in the best type of society our species has invented. The only alternative is for different groups to fight – often literally – for the right to impose their will on each other.

Intolerance feeds intolerance

This is why it should trouble us greatly that, according to a new global survey, young people are highly ambivalent about the concept of free speech. Whereas vast majorities of 18-21 year olds agreed, for example, that men and women should be treated equally, little more than 50% of them in the US agreed that “people should have the right to non-violent free speech in all circumstances even when what they are saying is offensive to minority groups”. In Britain, the figure was just 46%.

Young people need to be given this message very clearly: free speech is the remedy to Trump. Do not punch a Nazi, or anyone you once heard called a Nazi. Do not cheer on those who do. One day they will punch you back – or worse. Use your right to protest peacefully, but beware the comfort zone of your echo chamber. Do not shut down people you disagree with, or riot if they come to speak at your university.

A doubling down on leftist political correctness – as a different form of PC emerges on the right – will force voters to choose between two intolerant strains of thought. Anything the right can do to shut up its opponents, the left can do too. And if the left prioritises identities over values, it will play into the hands of those on the right doing exactly the same thing.

Polarisation is Trump’s best friend. Excuse the overdone historical analogy, but when people wanted to stop the communists, they voted for Hitler. And given the communists’ record in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Cuba, the alternative was hardly more palatable anyway. The autocracies of the 21st century will be different to those of the 20th – but they will retain oppressive and perhaps even murderous instincts.

The way through the current upheaval is not to write off the other half of the population. Trump needs to be seen for what he is – a threat to freedom – and opposed wholeheartedly for it. The free press must be defended. We must be alert to threats to the judiciary and the civil service. Democracies must maintain robust checks and balances.

But almost 63m people voted for Trump. He won states the Democrats took for granted. This is uncomfortable, but it is reality. You can only change it if you engage with it. And that can only happen if people are willing to stop shouting and listen to each other.

How we became enemies

A brief reflection from a historian of the future.

We chose division. We rubbed the losers’ noses in it when we won. We protested against the result when we lost. We revelled in schaudenfreude.

We chose ignorance. We pretended facts which challenged our narrative did not exist. We shouted down the media when we disagreed with it. We read fake news. We relied on feelings instead of reason. We cared far too much about trivia. We embraced conspiracy theories. We grew complacent.

We chose echo chambers and safe spaces. We refused to talk to people we disagreed with. We banned newspapers, tried to shut down films, sacked scientists, no-platformed speakers, shouted down jokes, tore down statues, published private messages and emails, blocked or deleted people on social media and suspended Twitter accounts. We felt outrage, and we enjoyed it. We began a culture war. We made the personal political.

We chose labels. We called our opponents –ites, –ists, –phobes, bigots, deplorables, elites, regressives, apologists, Nazis, sympathisers and trolls. We pathologised the views of those we disagreed with. We invented ‘establishments’ to define ourselves against. We made lists of people whose views we disliked.

We chose comfort. We reaffirmed our preconceptions instead of broadening our minds. We wrote endless opinion pieces. We loaded clickbait. We did not make friends who disagreed with us. We tried to change other people instead of ourselves.

We chose purity. We forgot that there is good and evil in all of us.

We chose opposition. We made no effort to win others over. We called compromisers sell-outs. We pretended our side had lost when it had won. We knew what we stood against but not what we stood for. We fell for the allure of our enemy’s enemy.

We chose cults. We believed those who said they could fix all our problems. We defended leaders, not causes. We excused the inexcusable. We threw the first punch.

We chose competing interest groups. We set white against black, male against female, young against old, sexuality against sexuality. We embraced victimhood, resentment and destruction. We demanded more for ourselves at others’ expense. We abandoned our principles when the identity group we supported violated them.

We chose narcissism. We talked endlessly about ourselves. We adopted political positions because they made us feel superior, caring or rebellious. We sneered at the way others live.

We stopped listening to each other. We talked at each other. We chose to become enemies.

GCSEs are harming our kids in the workplace

International Business Times, 25 August 2016

It is that time of year again. England, Wales and Northern Ireland’s 16-year-olds, and their parents, are nervous. Teachers and senior leaders in schools know their reputations, pay – and in some cases, jobs – are at stake.

Taxpayers want to know what they are getting for their money. And journalists need a reliable story to fill pages during the silly season.

I explain why the rituals of GCSE results day are limiting our kids’ education.

Why we waste over £1bn on supply teachers

International Business Times, 23 December 2015

In October, a poll carried out by YouGov revealed 53% of teachers in England were considering quitting their jobs within two years. Between November 2013 and November 2014, a record 49,120 teachers decided to leave their profession entirely and in the same period, applications to become teachers fell.

It is unsurprising, then, that schools now spend £1.3bn per year on supply teachers, money that could pay for more than 50,000 teachers on their average salary across the UK. The figure, which emerged last week, is almost £300m higher than it was two years ago…

Find out why we are haemorrhaging cash on the IB Times website.


Ofsted inspections are making behaviour worse

Independent, 26 September 2014

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, has been on the warpath since the schools went back. Two weeks ago, he warned of school leavers being too sloppy on deadlines, punctuality and dress for the world of work. Today, he’s launching a report which says that poor behaviour is tolerated too widely in our schools.

I explain why the OFSTED regime is making pupil behaviour worse.

Don’t run public services as businesses

Independent, 1 December 2014

Six years ago today, the public got answers over the death of Peter Connelly – known then as Baby P. Ed Balls, then Children’s Secretary, sacked Sharon Shoesmith, Head of Haringey Children’s Services, live on TV. Other social workers were suspended and a doctor was charged with misconduct; the issue seemed to have been dealt with.

I explain why Britain’s public services are ripe for more scandals.

Why I left teaching

Independent, 10 July 2014

One of the first things that a new teacher learns is that they are constantly accountable. They answer to managers, governors, inspectors and the Department for Education, with the latter now playing an increasingly direct role. They answer to pupils, and they answer to parents.

The truest form of accountability for teachers, though, is to themselves…

Read my reasons for leaving the profession.

Around the grounds in 96 hours

All Out Cricket, 22 September 2014

It’s the first morning at Hove. Steven Croft and Usman Khawaja are fighting back for Lancashire after the loss of three wickets for one run to Sussex’s seamers. On comes Ashar Zaidi to have Khawaja caught behind. Lunch arrives a few minutes later and, with my team on top and the sun shining, I leave to catch the train.

Can I make it to one session of all eight county championship cricket matches?

A day with Dr Louise Irvine

Dr Louise Irvine is a GP who announced in September that she would stand against Jeremy Hunt in the general election next year. I spent a day with her as she met some would-be constituents in Haslemere, Godalming and Farnham.

Dr Louise Irvine (4th right), with some of those who had come to meet her, in a church in Farnham.

Dr Louise Irvine (4th right), with some of those who had come to meet her, in a church in Farnham.

I’ve often wondered whether alcohol has always gone hand-in-hand with anger towards the ruling classes. Did the ungodly who gathered in alehouses in 1650s England tell each other that they were “putting the world to rights”? Did the French Revolutionaries who abolished the tax on wine do so because their greatest inspiration came after a few glasses of red?

Arriving at the Apple Tree pub, in leafy Haslemere in Surrey, the crowd hardly seems poised to storm the walls of parliament. But the smartly dressed Scottish lady they’ve come to meet has an eye on upsetting the British political orthodoxy. Dr Louise Irvine, a GP with over 20 years’ experience in Lewisham, South East London, is aiming to unseat the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, as the MP for South West Surrey in next year’s election.

She represents the National Health Action Party, formed by a group of doctors in 2012 in response to the Health and Social Care Act. “We formed the party because we had the feeling that politics didn’t represent people any more, which was exemplified by the Act,” she explains. “It was brought in on a lie. The election promise of ‘no top-down reorganisation’ was followed by the biggest top-down reorganisation in NHS history.”

She became a doctor for a variety of reasons, but the interest stemmed from her youth. Her brother – one of her five younger siblings – suffered from muscular dystrophy and died at the age of 19. She described his impact on her decision to become a doctor. “I was good at science, and living with my brother helped to motivate me to use that by going in to medicine.”

Dr Irvine, who runs what she describes as “a family service,” is fighting to retain the personal touch in the NHS. “A hospital is not a shop,” she says. “Seeing a doctor has become like going to Tesco. There’s a loss of trust between doctor and patient, and we don’t have the time to deal with the complexities of all the new patients we see now.”

“There is a really good evidence base for continuity of service. It’s more popular with doctors and patients, more clinically effective and more efficient, but it’s the one thing politicians don’t want to talk about. Our doctors, like others in the public sector, are being reduced to a set of competencies, delivering something pre-packaged.”

So it’s unsurprising to hear her scathing views on the removal of traditional interaction with patients. “There’s always a narrative that makes it sound like progress,” she says, referring to the reduction of face-to-face appointments with GPs. “But these plans are usually devised by bureaucrats who don’t realise that face-to-face is so often the only way to know what is really wrong with someone. A lot of patients don’t know why they’re coming to the doctor – they just don’t feel right, or they come in for another reason. You can’t diagnose those people by Skype.”

Likewise, she says that hospitals are as necessary as ever – “There’s no evidence that better care in the community prevents hospital admissions. People get ill, they get conditions. This is a myth that’s been created, that we don’t need hospitals.”

She describes an NHS which does not match political rhetoric. Cuts manifest themselves “in subtle ways. We’re told that community care is a priority, but the number of district nurses has gone down by 45% in 10 years.” PFI “is dreadful – we owe £80 billion on £11 billion worth of investment, which is like buying a house with a Wonga loan.” The amount spent on transaction costs – estimated at £5-10 billion per year – is going up as the coalition’s reforms take hold. Privatisation is happening “by stealth,” she notes, as we drive through Haslemere Community Hospital, run by Virgin Care under the NHS badge. “Fake consultation processes” take place. There are “huge issues” in mental health and social care, which will particularly affect Hunt’s constituents. Potential whistleblowers feel “gagged” and “intimidated”.

Bottom-up reform of the NHS, then, and the necessary funding for it to work, are her top priorities, but she says “we think of our party as single-focus, rather than single-issue. Health is a social determinant which should drive wider policies.” This comes across as she suggests, for example, that a proposed multi-storey car park in Haslemere will worsen Surrey’s problem with child obesity, and that children from poorer backgrounds need to be given the chance to study medicine.

The principles which guide her view of the NHS would also be applicable to wider policies, so she says: “the labourer is worth his hire” and “You wouldn’t believe we were one of the richest countries in the world, would you?” And she says that taking responsibility for social ills will alleviate the pressures on the NHS. She tells stories of GPs facing patients with non-medical issues, such as benefits letters, as they do not know where else to go in an era of cuts, and says that the government’s “abuse of volunteers” is hurting care services.

Power is the real issue behind Dr Irvine’s campaign. Her audience speaks of being “fed up with the lot of them,” “very managed” when Hunt visited a local hospital, and angered that the Health Secretary voted against a debate on food banks, which exist in every town in his seemingly wealthy constituency, in parliament. They are hungry for meaningful democracy. In a true blue constituency – Hunt’s majority is 16,318 – which has long been occupied by a minister or shadow minister, they speak of disenfranchisement, apathy and cynicism. They speak of a cliquey local Conservative party, dominant on councils at all levels and in minimal fear of the voters. Some mutter darkly of a “one-party state”.

Dr Irvine, who describes herself as “a community activist” and whose achievements include leading the successful campaign to prevent the closure of Lewisham Hospital, is running an insurgency against what she sees as undemocratic elements in modern British politics. She says: “If we gain MPs, they will vote with their conscience. The whip system is awful. We are putting the focus on listening to people.”

Across the course of the day, she describes Hunt as “complacent,” “a hypocrite” and “in denial”. But her most damning attack on him is that he uses “politician speak”, and her criticisms of top-down meddling in the NHS translate in to an attack on the British political culture as a whole. Hence her view on the Labour party: “Although I think Labour has got better policies than the Tories, I don’t think you can trust them. They brought in PFI and privatisation.” She asserts that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is “a secretive agreement, which undermines democracy because it means that national governments can’t make laws based on the interests of their people”; that politicians spin “spurious facts,” such as the cost of ‘health tourism’; and that ministers “are shirking their responsibilities – even Hunt now uses phrases like, ‘I’ve told the NHS to sort this out’”. Her remedies are to rely only on “evidence-based policy” from above and to give power to ordinary people in the decisions that affect their lives. As she puts it: “I don’t think politics should be left to politicians”.

The maths, at this stage at least, obviously favours Hunt, but she says that her decision to stand wasn’t based on concerns over the likely prospect of winning. “Hunt is responsible. He needs to be held to account. Besides, if people only stood where they thought they were going to win from the beginning, you’d only have one or two candidates in each constituency.”

A positive alternative, she hopes, to the politics of diktat from Westminster might capitalise on the feeling of disaffection towards the main parties. The stats from the constituency in 2010 show Hunt’s dominance but also show that there is a target audience for a message against him – 17,000 people voted for the Liberal Democrats, now languishing in the polls, and 27% of eligible voters stayed away from the polls entirely. “Apathy only lasts as long as people feel hopeless,” she says.

The wider context gives her some encouragement. “It could be very exciting if smaller parties have more of a say in this election,” she says. Though the rise of UKIP saddens her – “The NHS relies very much on migrants. It’s so important that we don’t succumb to all this blaming of immigrants” – it does suggest a trend which could favour her. Politicians, she says, are “terrified of social media”, as it exposes them in ways that traditional media does not. And she takes particular heart from the recent referendum in her native part of the UK. “My family were split down the middle, so I won’t say how I would have voted,” she says. “But my sister said, ‘I want to vote for something optimistic, a chance to reshape politics’.”

That, more than anything, is the sentiment that brought a few residents of Haslemere to the Apple Tree.