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 Academy 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?

Andrew Copson
chief executive, British Humanist Association

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy 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

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

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

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