Papal plots, burqa bans: what does it mean to be secular today?

Thursday 7 October, 6.30pm until 8.00pm, Foyles Charing Cross, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0EB

Venue: Foyles Charing Cross, 113-119 Charing Cross Road London WC2H 0EB

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Institute of Ideas website.


With the French and Belgian parliaments having moved to outlaw the burqa in public places, the issue of religious freedom in secular society has once again been pushed to the fore. While such bans have been hailed variously as a victory for female emancipation and assertion of Western secular values over religious privilege, critics counter that such bans are an attack on freedom in general, and consider them a gross overreaction to a practice limited to a tiny minority in these societies.

While enthusiasm for such bans in the UK has been muted, and widely thought to be against the British tradition of tolerance and personal liberty, other religious groups feel their freedom is under threat. From equality legislation which interferes with religious organisations’ right to employ those who share their moral code, to the leaking of Home Office emails which mockingly suggested for the Pope should visit abortion clinics during his visit, Christian groups regularly complain they are singled out for criticism. The fall-out from the Catholic care home abuse scandals even led to some prominent atheist and humanist commentators calling for the Pope’s arrest for crimes against humanity; a more widespread view holds abuse as a damning indictment of the ‘behind closed doors’ hierarchy of the Vatican. Beyond Catholicism, concern is spreading across secular and liberal Western religious circles alike about the apparent rise of fundamentalism across all faiths: from evangelical US churches, ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews and hard-line Islamists.

Can a secular society uphold its values of tolerance without encroaching on the rights and freedoms of religious groups? Are some liberals guilty of complacency in underestimating the growth of religion, or is the return to a sense of moral value actually something to celebrate in an otherwise relativist age ? Do forceful interventions, such as banning religious symbols or equality legislation, actually risk deepening divisions rather than challenging them?  Is ‘militant secularism’ really just a call for state-enforced atheism, or is its influence overstated by thin-skinned religious leaders looking to play the victim card? With both sides in the burqa debate laying claim to Enlightenment values, just what does it mean to be secular today?

Speakers
Andrew Copson
chief executive, British Humanist Association

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Khola Hasan
director, Albatross Consultancy; speaker, broadcaster, and writer on issues of Islamic Law, Muslims in Britain and women's rights

Eric Kaufmann
reader in Politics, Birkbeck College; contributor, Prospect; author, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

Maleiha Malik
professor of law, King's College London; co-author, Discrimination Law: theory and practice

George Pitcher
journalist; Anglican priest, St Bride's Church, Fleet Street; author A Time to Live: the case against euthanasia and assisted suicide

Peter D Williams
executive officer, Right To Life

Chair:
David Bowden
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
Papal plots, burqa bans: what does it mean to be secular today?

“The Devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand,” warned Tom Waits on Blood Money. Not as well as American atheists it seems.

David Bowden, Independent Blogs, 4 October 2010

Science Knows Best

Rather than consulting Aristotle or Kant (let alone the Bible or the Koran) about what is necessary for humans to flourish, why not go to the sciences that study conscious mental life?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York Times, 2 October 2010

I'm an atheist but this anti-Catholic rhetoric is making me nervous

The church's critics have been mobilised by the Pope's visit but the rhetoric is tipping over into the extreme

Padraig Reidy, Guardian, 23 August 2010

Why France is banning the veil

Sarkozy's legislation is only the latest move in a centuries-old grapple between the French state and organised religion

Ruth Harris, Prospect, 14 July 2010

Veiled Threats?

In Spain earlier this month, the Catalonian assembly narrowly rejected a proposed ban on the Muslim burqa in all public places — reversing a vote the week before in the country’s upper house of parliament supporting a ban. Similar proposals may soon become national law in France and Belgium.

Martha Nussbaum, New York Times, 12 July 2010

Are Women's Rights Really the Issue?

On Wednesday, Spain became the latest European country to advance legislation to ban burqas and other such face veils. Many of those in favor of such laws cite women's rights, but does criminalizing their clothing help?

Der Spiegel, 25 June 2010

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

Dawkins and Hitchens have convinced many western intellectuals that secularism is the way forward. But most people don't read their books before deciding whether to be religious. Instead, they inherit their faith from their parents, who often innoculate them against the elegant arguments of secularists.

Eric Kaufmann, Profile Books, 25 March 2010

Why should we defend the veil?

Even if hijab-wearing is a genuine choice, does that make it obligatory for us to respect it? Any more than hijab-wearers respect women who wear shamefully little? What we would not ban, we do not have to condone.

Cathrine Bennet, Guardian, 23 January 2004

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