Over the years the meaning of the word Secularism has become confused and misunderstood. As well as changing its meaning, and being open to interpretation in different ways, the word has also been deliberately misrepresented by some religious interests who fear the influence of secularism on privileges that they have enjoyed for centuries and taken for granted. Certain religious organisations (and some humanists) have pleaded for something variously called healthy secularism or state neutrality, that appears to be meant to justify all of them getting handouts from the state for the mere merit of existing at all. They reject as ‘radical secularism’ any attempt to get them to pay their own way.
Richard Gilyead, letter to The Guardian:
“Tony Blair and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor deliberately conflate secularism with atheism. Atheism is lack of belief in gods. Secularism is a belief in equality in politics, education and law, regardless of religious belief. So when they refer to militant secularism and aggressive secularism, respectively, then they are implying that such equality of treatment is a bad thing.”
Firstly, to clerics who try to conflate secularism with atheism, the two are not the same thing. Atheism is the lack of belief in god or gods. Secularism means quite literally the separation of church and state. It does not mean to forbid or marginalise religious beliefs, only that it protects people who do not share those beliefs from having those ‘moral’ codes and rules forced upon them. The concern of secularism is to protect the rights of the individual against the imposition of a religious organisation within society so that they are dealt with on an equal basis.
- The National Secular Society affirms that this life is the only one of which we have any knowledge and human effort should be directed wholly towards its improvement. It asserts that supernaturalism is based upon ignorance and assails it as the historic enemy of progress.
- They affirm that progress is possible only on the basis of equal freedom of speech and publication; that the free criticism of institutions and ideas is essential to a civilised state.
- Affirming that morality is social in origin and application, the National Secular Society aims to promote the happiness and well-being of humanity.
- They demand the complete separation of Church and State and the abolition of all privileges granted to religious organisations.
- It seeks to spread education, to promote the friendship of all people as a means of advancing universal peace to further common cultural interests and to develop the freedom and dignity of humanity.
The word secularism was coined by the British writer George Holyoake in 1846. George Holyoake (1817-1906) was the last person in England to be imprisoned in 1842 for being an atheist (The law against blasphemy was strict in Victorian Britain.). He was jailed for 6 months for a speech which included the line:
“For myself, I flee the Bible as a viper, and revolt at the touch of a Christian.”
The 19th century saw a serious campaign against the Churches by the secularist movement. A powerful, but rather unexpected attack on Christianity came from a group of people, including the writer George Eliot, who thought that Christianity was immoral. According to the doctrine of original sin, God was prepared to punish people for a wrong that was not their fault, and the evil that He created in them, just because they were human beings. What sort of God was it, they wondered, who then decided to let us off this unfair punishment because he had punished his son instead of us?
“I would sooner perish for ever than stoop down before a Being who may have power to crush me, but whom my heart forbids me to reverence.” – James Froude, 1849
Their particular target was the state church, the Church of England, which was highly privileged (and still is). The Church was founded in 1534 by King Henry VIII when England separated from Rome. The Church of England traces its roots back to the early church, but it’s specifically Anglican identity and its links to the State date back to the Reformation.
- Until 1828 no-one could hold a public office without signing up to the beliefs of the Church.
- Until 1836 only Church of England ministers could conduct marriages.
- Until 1871 only members of the Church of England could teach at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. (Both of which have been bogged down by the intrusion of monarchy with Henry VIII, and church interference for centuries. It was not until Prince Albert was elected Chancellor of Cambridge, that the University began to focus on more practical subjects.)
The Church of England still has a law-making role in Britain. Twenty-six bishops (including the two Archbishops) sit UNELECTED in the House of Lords and are known as the Lords Spiritual. They are thought (but only by believers and those who believe in belief) to bring a religious ethos to the secular process of law. However, in an increasingly multi-cultural society, questions are being asked as to whether that role needs to be specifically fulfilled by Church of England Bishops. Future reform of the House of Lords could see the Lords Spiritual made up of a variety of Christian denominations and other faiths to reflect the religious make-up of Britain. What about non-believers and Atheists? Come on people, this is the 21st CE!!!
Most histories of atheism choose the Greek and Roman philosophers Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius as the first atheist writers. While these writers certainly changed the idea of God, they didn’t entirely deny that gods could exist. In 1877 Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were prosecuted for publishing a book containing birth control information, The Fruits of Philosophy by the American doctor, Charles Knowlton. In the twentieth century the NSS campaigned against the BBC’s excessive use of religion and for disestablishment and the abolition of religious education.
The French Republic has always recognised individuals, rather than groups: a French citizen owes allegiance to the nation, and has no officially sanctioned ethnic or religious identity. This view of citizenship is fundamentally non-discriminatory and inclusive.
“Secularists oppose religion or the religious being afforded privileges, which – put another way – means others are disadvantaged. [Religious secularists] don’t think that belief is a reason for [their own] special treatment.” BBC Online – Secularism
Bradlaugh (1833-1891) was one of the most prominent of the Victorian atheists. He edited the National Reformer, which itself was prosecuted for blasphemy, and in 1866 was one of the founders of the National Secular Society. He championed unpopular causes like birth control, republicanism, atheism, reform, peace and anti-imperialism. His views placed him in conflict with powerful interests, institutions and people, but most of his arguments have since been vindicated.
Bradlaugh was elected to Parliament in 1880, but was not allowed to take his seat because he would not swear a religious oath but wanted to affirm. He was re-elected several times over five years, but did not take his seat until 1886. Between 1880 and 1886 Bradlaugh fought for the right of non-believers to sit in the House of Commons. His act of 1888 established the legal right to affirm a Parliamentary oath rather than swear on a Bible. When he eventually took his seat he became Britain’s first openly atheist member of Parliament.
Cambridge is one of the world’s oldest universities. The University has always had strong ties with the church; in 1086 the town was an important trading post with substantial residential property and a successful commercial economy. Since before 1112, cannons in the church of St Giles and the convent of St Radegund was completed in 1135 but the site later became Jesus College. Two hospitals existed in Cambridge. One was specifically for the treatment of lepers and the other was for paupers. The latter was taken over to become St John’s college.
St John's College. Bridge of Sighs
In 1209 scholars fleeing Oxford took refuge in Cambridge and eventually settled. Henry III, in 1213, took those students under his protection from the townsfolk who were known to over charge them for food and board but also decreed that only students under the tuition of a recognised master were permitted to stay in the town due to a spate of public disturbances. By 1226 they were numerous enough to have formed an organisation, represented by a Chancellor, and have devised official courses of study. The medieval University was even more established. Ceremonies and faculties were overseen by Bedells (pronounced bee-dell) while the treasures and books were attended by a Chaplain. By the 16 CE, a registrar was needed to administer matriculations, admissions and the decisions of the Masters, and an Official Orator wrote ceremonial letters and addresses. Most of these offices are now purely ceremonial and no longer hold any official authority.
King's College Chapel, Cambridge. View from the Backs
Most of the places held at Cambridge were held by either clerks or clergymen in some form of holy orders and expecting to enter careers in the Church or Civil service. In order to obtain the support they needed during their years of study, students were required to look to the church but were first subject to the scrutiny of the local ecclesiastic authority. Before the end of the 15th CE they had managed to free themselves from this and were independent of authority with the exception of the pope. The Chancellor was then elevated to the position of an ecclesiastical judge with jurisdiction over all cases involving discipline and proving the wills of both students and masters alike. He also provided a secular court which would convene to hear civil and criminal cases with the exception of major crimes.
The crown aided the independence of the university by granting it the power to prosecute market profiteers; a move which continued to be a source of contention until the 19th century. In 1381 there was a series of attacks on the university and it’s residents (in a largely ‘Christian’ society no less). Cambridge was given the right to prosecute those caught falsifying weights and measures, endangering public health by tampering with food and drink, interruption the supply of fresh water and those wilfully introducing infection in times of plague. Even now the University retains rights over licensing and policing.
In the 16th CE Henry VIII founded Trinity College by merging the houses, King’s Hall and Michael House. Goville Hall was enlarged; Emmanuel absorbed the Dominican site; Sidney Sussex of the Franciscans and Magdalene absorbed the Benedictine house known as Buckingham College. All of these were concerned with training new ecclesiastic priests and clerics in the new National Church. In 1536, the King suppressed the faculty of Canon Law and forbade scholastic philosophy. This laid the path for Mathematics, Latin studies and Biblical Studies, and an education which was out of the reach to most of the population. The statutes of 1570 ensured the continuation of the university’s concentration on churning out future leaders (The same people who directly benefited from the power and influence of having THEIR religion be the central authority of everyone’s life so they could both rule the people and live off their efforts.) of the Church of England. Henry VIII endowed the university with five professorships; Divinity, Hebrew, Greek, Physic (purgative medicine; stimulates evacuation of the bowels) & civil law. Royal influence and pressure the Privy (private) Council continued into the 18th CE.
The Church controlled university was given a license to print and publish works of which it IT approved in 1534 but it was 50 years until this right became fully exercised. In the 1690s allowed the University, in conjunction with Oxford, to exploit their monopoly on Bible printing as well as producing the printed works required for its courses. Despite the provision for natural sciences and arts, from the late 17th century, mathematics came to dominate studies in Cambridge, and eventually ‘the Tripos’ came to mean the examination in mathematics. The University Library had expanded with the rest of the University during the later seventeenth century, and after the gift by George I of the manuscripts and books of Bishop John Moore, it outgrew its original quarters in the Old Schools.
Trinity College, main gate
Despite these developments, there was in the first half of the nineteenth century a continued call for change and reform in the University, which in part reflected the political movements of the country as a whole. The election as Chancellor of Prince Albert the Prince Consort in 1847 is an indication of the strength of the movement for reform, and in 1850 a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the two ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The Commission’s report resulted in the promulgation of new Statutes for Cambridge in the Cambridge University Act of 1856. These Statutes have been much revised since their first appearance, but the form of government which they embodied has remained as a framework. The ultimate authority in the University was at first the Senate, the whole body of graduates, together with the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, and doctors.
The natural sciences and moral sciences (now philosophical) Triposes were approved as early as 1851, and before 1900 Triposes in law, history, theology, Indian languages, Semitic (later oriental) languages, medieval and modern (European) languages, and mechanical sciences (later engineering) were all established. To develop these new branches of learning a number of new or remodelled professorships were established by the University and by private benefactors, the earliest being the Disney Professorship of archaeology in 1851.
Sidney Sussex College. View from Sidney Street
‘Extension lectures’ in provincial centres were an important feature of University activities in the late nineteenth century. They were often associated with attempts to provide professional teaching and examinations for girls through the local examinations for schools provided by the University in conjunction with Oxford. Training courses for male graduate teachers began in Cambridge at much the same time, but perhaps the most far-reaching effect of the movement was the establishment at Cambridge of two Colleges for women students (Girton in 1869 and Newnham in 1872). From the first, these Colleges aimed to prepare their students for the Tripos, and the first women were in fact examined in 1882. Attempts to make women full members of the University were repeatedly defeated until 1947.
St John's College. New library, 1994
In the First World War (1914-19), 13,878 members of the University served and 2,470 were killed. Teaching, and the fees it earned, came almost to a stop and severe financial difficulties followed. As a consequence the University first received systematic state support in 1919, conditional upon a further inquiry into its resources and organisation, and a Royal Commission appointed in 1920 recommended that the University (but not the Colleges) should receive an annual grant, and should be reorganised so as to take over responsibility for lectures and practical teaching. The Colleges retained control of individual teaching of their students and this division of responsibility continues today.
From its early days, Oxford was a centre for lively controversy, with scholars involved in religious and political disputes. The first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts were produced in the 1380’s AD by John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor, scholar, and theologian and against the explicit instructions from Rome, not to. In the 1490’s another Oxford professor, and the personal physician to King Henry the 7th and 8th, Thomas Linacre, decided to learn Greek. After reading the Gospels in Greek, and comparing it to the Latin Vulgate, he wrote in his diary, “Either this (the original Greek) is not the Gospel… or we are not Christians.”. In 1496, John Colet, another Oxford professor and the son of the Mayor of London, started reading the New Testament in Greek and translating it into English for his students at Oxford, and later for the public at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London.
The people were so hungry to hear the Word of God in a language they could actually understand (but still couldn’t read), that within six months there were 20,000 people packed in the church and at least that many outside trying to get in! The 1516 Greek-Latin New Testament of Erasmus further focused attention on just how corrupt and inaccurate the Latin Vulgate had become, and how important it was to go back and use the original Greek (New Testament) and original Hebrew (Old Testament) languages to maintain accuracy. No sympathy for this “illegal activity” (Any translation from Latin) was to be found from Rome… even as the words of Pope Leo X‘s declaration that “the fable of Christ was quite profitable to him” continued through the years to infuriate the people of God.
In the 13th century, rioting between town and gown (townspeople and students) hastened the establishment of primitive halls of residence. These were succeeded by the first of Oxford’s colleges, which began as medieval ‘halls of residence’ or endowed houses under the supervision of a Master. University, Balliol and Merton Colleges, which were established between 1249 and 1264, are the oldest. Less than a century later, Oxford had achieved eminence above every other seat of learning, and won the praises of popes, kings and sages by virtue of its antiquity, curriculum, doctrine and privileges. In 1355, Edward III paid tribute to the University for its invaluable contribution to learning; he also commented on the services rendered to the state by distinguished Oxford graduates.
In 1530, Henry VIII forced the University to accept his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and during the Reformation in the 16th century, the Anglican churchmen Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were tried for heresy and burnt at the stake in Oxford. The University was Royalist in the Civil War, and Charles I held a counter-Parliament in Convocation House, and in the late 17th century, the Oxford philosopher John Locke, suspected of treason, was forced to flee the country. The University assumed a leading role in the Victorian era, especially in religious controversy. From 1833 onwards The Oxford Movement sought to revitalise the Catholic aspects of the Anglican Church and in 1860 the new University Museum was the scene of a famous debate between Thomas Huxley, champion of evolution, and Bishop Wilberforce.
From 1878, academic halls were established for women and they were admitted to full membership of the University in 1920. Five all-male colleges first admitted women in 1974 and, since then, all colleges have changed their statutes to admit both women and men. During the 20th and early 21st centuries, Oxford added to its humanistic core a major new (remind me again when Darwin published Origin of Species? Oh yes, 1861 so hardly a ‘new’ science.) research capacity in the natural and applied sciences, including medicine. In so doing, it has enhanced and strengthened its traditional role as an international focus for learning and a forum for intellectual debate.
The less influence and authority granted to the church over matters of higher education and laws concerning blasphemy and civil rights, the further forward we have managed to progress both in science and society. No longer are ordinary people socially expected to trot along to Sunday services to nod and agree with every word a speaker bellows at them in a language they cannot understand, let alone read for themselves. The time that the church has had authority over us is long past expired. It is not surprising that they are unhappy about it, when you consider the grandeur and prominence which their church given (NOT God-given)and self-assumed authority magically entitled them too. Due to the heavy mental shackles and religious bullying hampering our progress as a species, it has taken us centuries just to get where we are today and we have had to fight every step of the way against walls of superstitions dogma and greedy power grasping.
As education was made available and eventually free and compulsory to the masses, and unhindered scientific research has provided us with solid and testable answers, religion has had to work harder and harder to not only to explain their nonsensical mythology, but to justify their artificially exalted social positions. The time has come to look the pushy believers and the church squarely in eye and tell them very firmly that we do NOT recognise their authority over us and will no longer tolerate their bullying and public tantrums over their rightfully waning authority.