8 Nov 2008

Strong Secularism: Religious education can be a form of mental abuse.

Secular Humanism Online News
Vol.4 No.11

Strong Secularism
By Floris van den Berg

Secularism is not atheism. Most, if not all, atheists are secularists. They favor a neutral state, which guarantees freedom of expression, including religion, like any other hobby. However, not all secularists are atheists. Some liberal believers do agree with the separation of state and religion, like the Christian Democratic Party (CDA) in the Netherlands. However, if liberals and humanists take individual liberty seriously, and if the state is the authority that guards this freedom, then it seems reasonable that the state should protect children from religion as far as possible. The state should consider religion as a personal hobby or habit that is unsuited for minors, like drinking and smoking. This interpretation of secularism can be called strong secularism as opposed to weak secularism, which tends to grant religion privileges like tax exemption and the right to establish schools and universities.

In the Netherlands secularism is very weak. Unfortunately, as it is practiced today, secularism privileges believers of all kinds over non-believers. According to weak secularists, believers have the right to establish schools—and in the Netherlands even get state money for it. Thus, the state allows its underage citizens to be indoctrinated (the degree of indoctrination depends on the religious denomination of the school), and still the weak secularists consider themselves to be secular, liberal, progressive, and tolerant. So if you happen to be born in the Netherlands to Muslim parents, you will probably go through Islamic primary and secondary school. In schools like this boys and girls are taught separately, homosexuality is taboo, as is mentioning the Holocaust. Usually, there is also taboo on teaching the science of evolution and there are no music lessons, among other things, which would astonish liberals. Some say that parents have a right to educate their children as they please. But why allow children to be limited and indoctrinated in unreason? Religious education can be a form of mental abuse.

No, strong secularism is not Stalinist state atheism. Stalin, and other (communist) dictators, forbade religion and persecuted believers. In a state favoring strong secularism everyone is free to believe as he or she pleases—under the right of freedom of expression—as long as this does not interfere with the rights of other individuals. If parents are very fond of baroque music, they can play baroque music at home and even take their children to baroque concerts. But why would the state allow parents to send their children to special baroque schools at which only baroque music is taught, with a taboo on learning about other kinds of music? If this sounds insane, then reconsider the tradition that allows parents send their children to religious schools. Public schools should teach children about religion, history, art, and importantly, science. Children in a free and open society should be allowed to freely choose from among the many religions as described in Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion or establish one themselves or none at all.

If a child at school asks the teacher: ‘Does god exist?,’ the teacher should answer: ‘There are no good arguments in favor of god, thus god probably does not exist.’ It is a long road from weak secularism, which is embedded in multiculturalism and cultural relativism, to strong secularism. But for the sake of those who are being indoctrinated with taboos and unreason, it is worth striving toward it.

Floris van den Berg is a philosopher and co-executive Director of Center for Inquiry/Low Countries. Florisvandenberg@dds.nl. He recently published online his pamphlet “How to Get Rid of Religion, and Why. An Inconvenient Liberal Paradox,” which favors strong secularism. It can be downloaded here.

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