Religion is not Dead – and Neither is Secularism

Buddhist Temple surrounded by trees on a suburban road.

This Buddhist Temple in suburban Sydney was first opened in 1992 and rebuilt in 2000.

At the start of each meeting of the Bideford Council in England a guest minister of religion led the council members in saying prayers.  This practice had occurred for many years but in January 2008 Mr Bone, a newly elected councillor, objected to it.  Mr Bone was not Christian and he did not want to be involved with this religious practice.  After various unsuccessful attempts to amend the Council’s practice, the issue came before the courts.  Last week the High Court of England and Wales rejected the claim that the practice contravened the Mr Bone’s human rights or discriminated against him under the relevant laws of the United Kingdom and Europe.  However, the judge ruled that the saying of prayers as part of the formal proceedings at council meetings could not continue.  This decision may be appealed.

For most of the twentieth century it was widely accepted by western scholars that modernisation would lead to the disappearance of religion.  The ‘secularisation thesis’ became a fact in the academic world.  Most scholars accepted it unquestioningly and it became a largely unacknowledged assumption underlying research in the humanities.  However, towards the end of the twentieth century researchers noticed that religion had not disappeared.

Surely if the secularisation thesis was correct religion would have faded away by this time?  Yet young Catholics flock to World Youth Day, evangelical movements continue to thrive and churches are still crowded at important times for Christianity such as Easter and Christmas.  Christianity is not the only religion of influence in the west.  Islam is a growing presence in many western countries as is Buddhism and ‘New Age’ beliefs.  Having said this, it is also important to recognise the influence of those who do not believe in God or are ambivalent as well as the fact that many western nations are clearly more secular than they were two hundred years ago.  Clearly the historic processes that have been at play are more complex than the secularisation thesis suggests. Continue reading

Book Review: Secularism or Democracy? by Veit Bader

Cover of Veit Bader's book, Secularism or Democracy

‘Secularism or Democracy? Associational Governance of Religious Diversity by Veit Bader, (Amsterdam University Press, 2007).

This is a comprehensive book that explores issues of religion and state such as what role should religions have vis-a-vis the state, the role of secularism in government and society and how the state can deal fairly with the various religions.  The author, Veit Bader, is an emeritus professor of sociology and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.  This is an academically rigorous book.  It is most definitely not bedtime reading.  However, if you want a deeply thought and carefully argued book that does not shirk difficult questions or pose glib solutions this book is for you.

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The Transformation of a Word

Dana Street2

Dana St. Primary School, Ballarat. Built in 1856. (Source: Wikimedia)

We all know that the meaning of words can change over time.  Words such as gay and cool are used in ways not contemplated one hundred years ago.  Historians need to be aware of this when reading old texts.  In my research of the  education debates in the Australasian colonies from the 1860s to 1914, I had to understand what the word ‘secular’ meant at the time.  It is much more complex than I would have ever imagined.  The word ‘secular’ has not just changed – it has undergone an extraordinary transformation. Continue reading