Freedom, secularism, blasphemy and Charlie Hebdo

♯Jesuischarlie has been trending around the world, but what is an appropriate Christian response to the attacks in Paris? There has been a lot talk about freedom and religious liberty. There was also a suggestion this week that it was time to abolish the blasphemy laws here in Northern Ireland.

The vlog (apparently that is what you call a video blog) below which I recorded for EA looks at what freedom is for, how we should use it, whether we need blasphemy laws and the right to offend, all in under 2 minutes!

Secular means worldly as opposed to sacred things, not concerned with or related to religion. We should see immediately that to suggest something is secular, suggests it is not God’s. Christians have used the word too easily conceding far too much as ‘not sacred’ – we have given up on work, education, sport, the environment, culture, music, arts, food, movies and books. Is there nothing redeeming, nothing of God’s creativity in these things?

The enemy does not simply seek to abolish faith, for that is often too obvious. Instead he seeks to privatize faith, driving a wedge between the public and the private. If you must have a faith, separate it out and compartmentalize it in such a way that it has no bearing on your everyday life – become a practical atheist.

France is one of the most secular countries in the world. Following the revolution, in the name of liberty, France went to war with the Catholic Church confiscating property, forcing conversion and slaughtering priests and nuns. France now celebrates its laïcité, a neutral space rom which religion is barred. In a recent piece for the Spectator, Ed Husain and Peter Welby (son of Justin), argue that with no space for the religious there is an institutional inability to understand a faith-based worldview. In contrast they argue the UK has a,

pluralist system that draws on the nation’s history, finding its roots in its religious heritage. Without this underpinning, those values that we hold dear cannot be sustained: our rights and freedoms drawn from our Judaeo-Christian understanding of the inherent dignity of the person; the rule of law derived from an emphasis on the divine appointment of government for the good of the people.

They argue in favour of a properly understood secularism, by which I would suggest they mean pluralism – not in the sense that all roads lead to God, but that we have a plural public square with a variety of views and ideas.

Giles Fraser also has an excellent piece critiquing France’s much vaunted secularism concluding that they must re-think their precious laïcité. He notes that the modern English word terrorism has its origins in the French Reign of Terror.

‘Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue,’ argued Robespierre, in what now sounds like a sick press release from Islamic State.

The systematic de-Christianisation of France did not occur due to natural decline, but through murderous, state-sponsored suppression.

And the reason publications such as Charlie Hebdo persist with their crass anti-clerical cliches is that a powerful strain of French self-understanding actually requires a sense of external religious threat against which to frame itself. But as the Catholic church is no longer planning to sponsor a coup against the state, Republican identity requires something new to define itself against – something just like radical Islam. As Voltaire put it: ‘If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.

Secularism is a bad idea – it is fundamentally anti-freedom in trying to preclude religion from the public square. But so too are state sponsored blasphemy laws. They don’t work, God doesn’t need them and in the plural society they could end up protecting things that we want to be able to say are wrong.

Charlie Hebdo want the freedom to offend the other. Christians want freedom to help the other – to release them from human trafficking or to protect the unborn child. The problem is we don’t use the freedoms we have nearly enough.

Our role as Christians is not to critique, condemn, copy or consume the culture around is. Instead, God calls us to cultivate (mange creation) and create (make new).

In the end this is a fair fight. We know who wins. We know what we believe to be true. We have certainty and hope. My objection to the Left Behind series of books is that they build the tension round the battle as if there is a doubt as to who will win.

We know the outcome, but too often act like it’s in doubt.


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