Secularism is a Human Right

Maryam Namazie interviews the philosopher, AC Grayling. A transcript also featured in Maryam Namazie: Nothing is Sacred on 31 May 2014.

Secularism is a Human Right: Interview with AC Grayling

The below is the transcript of a Bread and Roses TV interview broadcast via New Channel TV on 20 May 2014.

Maryam Namazie: What is secularism and what is the value of secularism for both believers and non-believers?

AC Grayling: Firstly let me say it’s a great pleasure to be with you as I’m a big admirer of what you do. Secularism has to be distinguished from atheism and from other isms, like for example, humanism, which are naturally associated with it.

Most people who are atheists are probably likely to be secularists, but there are religious secularists as well, because secularism is a view about the place of religion – the religious voice, the religious organisations – in the public square, as this impacts for example, public policy matters. And the idea behind secularism is that the public square of society should be neutral with respect to all the different belief systems or to no belief systems. That what people believe in their private lives and in their religious commitments is not relevant to the public debate other than as a special interest point of view.

I think it is a very important point that religious organisations and movements should recognise themselves as interest groups, lobby groups: they have a point of view, of course they want to put their point of view in public debate, but they should take their turn in the queue with everybody else – other NGOs, political parties, pressure groups, lobby groups – whereas of course for historical reasons, in many societies, religion has a massively inflated presence in the public square. It is given charitable status, it is given a seat at the top table, and is heard first by people in positions of temporal power and that, I think, is where things have gone so wrong in our world.

Maryam Namazie: On the issues of neutrality, some might say that the very fact that a secularist state demands that religion stays out of the public space, means that it is not really neutral, because it’s giving a sort of negative viewpoint on religion. That it’s not a good thing to be in the public space.

AC Grayling: It certainly is a view which has been of course developed from the enlightenment thinking, about how individuals living together in a society can best flourish. So in that sense it is a positive view about allowing all sorts of different viewpoints, all sorts of different beliefs, and no beliefs, to coexist peacefully side by side. Not privileging any one of them, and not therefore coercing others, either to believe or not believe. So in that sense it is a positive view. But the heart of it, the essence of it is neutrality with respect to these different viewpoints. That is, you allow people to have a belief and to practice that belief, providing it does not impact negatively on other people. But also, and very, very importantly, it allows people who have no religious commitment – who are atheists, who are agnostics, who don’t belong to a church or a religious movement – to live without the coercion or pressure, or a social ‘bad odour’, that used to be the case, and in some societies remains the case.

Maryam Namazie: You mention the fact that there can be believers who are secularists but can religion, can Islam, be compatible with secularism?

AC Grayling: Well this is a very interesting question about Islam because it would seem to be in the very nature of Islam that a secular society is impossible because Islam pervades every aspect of life. It is not just a religion; it is a social end and is in many ways a political philosophy as well. Of course nowadays people use the term Islamism to mean political Islam. But Islam is so all embracing. It permeates the lives and thoughts of people from the very earliest memories of their lives, all the way up through their education, and the presence of the religion’s demand on, or offer to, people is there every few hours when the muezzin cries from the mosque. So it’s very hard even to imagine a translation of the English word ‘secularism’ into Farsi or Arabic, which doesn’t have a negative connotation.

The origin of secularism in Christian countries is a very interesting one. It was actually the church that first asked for separation of church and state, of belief from temporal matters, because they didn’t want the state interfering in its business. Of course, it wanted to continue to interfere in the states business, so it was only a one-way change of relationship. But the idea of secularism started with the religious. And took many centuries actually before it was adopted by the genuinely secular wing of society, who said yes, we would like to be able to do science, education, discuss public policy matters, talk about the diversity and plurality in society and how we address it and satisfy all the competing needs in society, without having the distorting effect of a single religious outlook and that really is something that perhaps from the eighteenth century has been operative in western societies.

Maryam Namazie: One of the things that we sometimes hear is that a theocracy, or an Islamic state, is just, it’s fair, and it’s needed for a moral society. The Islamic regime of Iran or Islamists will often say that a secular society is an immoral one.

AC Grayling: Well it’s a very tendentious thing to say; I mean, it’s a party political view on the part of people who want, in a theocratic society, everybody to toe the line. It’s sort of demonstrably a false view this, because a claim that there is a one size fits all answer to how people should live, what they should believe, how they should think, how they should behave. This completely ignores the great diversity and difference, the variety that there is in human nature, and human interests and needs.

People sometimes talk about what’s called the golden rule in some cultures: do to others as you would have them do to you. But that makes you the standard for every one of the 7 billion people on the planet, which is an absurd view to take. But if you really are going to be a good neighbour to your fellows in society, you should be thoughtful about the differences in their individuality. And recognise that a society is a plural domain. In fact the very concept of pluralism is, I think, an uncomfortable one for Muslim thinkers because the homogeneity of society, the fact that everybody believes together, that it’s just one big group with a shared outlook, is of the very essence of what an Islamic society should be like.

Maryam Namazie: Some will say that secularism calls for religion being a private matter and Islam isn’t a private matter. It’s a public matter. Secularism, they would say, violates the right to religion.

AC Grayling: Well, the key thing is that Islam regards itself as a public religion. Interestingly this keeps alive something that pre-existed the rise both of Christianity and of Islam, because religion in the classical world was not a private matter; it was a public matter. What Islam has done is to combine the idea of the private aspect of it, your personal responsibility to Allah, but at the same time regard it as something which completely unifies and homogenises society; makes everyone march in the same direction and at the same pace. So, it’s an interesting hybrid of the most ancient forms of religion, and the new young religious outlook, which is represented by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

My response is to say that the demand that the beliefs and practices of the religion are a public matter, that it’s a public duty of each individual member of a society to be observant of the religion, to follow its code, its practices – even what you eat and what you wear, and women covering their hair – that this is a demand which very fundamentally violates the individual rights of people to self determination, to liberty of conscience, to choices about how they are going live and what they are going to believe. And it closes down so many human opportunities, so many human possibilities, that if everybody has to think just one way, believe and practice just one way, it’s going to shut out an enormous range of possibilities on the horizon of human life.

Maryam Namazie: So you wouldn’t agree with the idea that secularism is a western concept?

AC Grayling: Secularism is not a western concept actually, because, you look at India, there are very ancient and deep atheist traditions of thought, which imply therefore that society should be a non-religious domain.

If you look at China, now here’s a tremendous generalisation about one sixth of humanity, but the Chinese can be very superstitious people, but they are not a religious people. They’ve never had a God, a deity who issues commands and so on. They talk about the concept of ‘Tian’ – of heaven and the way of heaven – but that’s a bit like the stoic philosophers of ancient times who talked about the logos, the principal of things.

So very large numbers of human beings have never had an idea that there is a god who is like an emperor or a king in the sky, who issues orders and everybody’s got to obey. And as a result, of course, by default, the view about the nature of society is a secularist view – not given that name, maybe, but in functional terms, that’s what it implies.

So it isn’t an exclusively western idea but as we think and discuss about secularism now, it is of course an idea which is being given a great deal of impetus by the European enlightenment of the eighteenth century. So in that sense the idea was revived and was given more ‘juice’ if you like, by the debates in the enlightenment. And it has therefore been a very potent idea in the development of western societies. The growth of science, the technological developments, the building of institutions of law and democracy have all been associated with the secularist impulse that we get from the early modern period.

Maryam Namazie: Would you agree with those (I would think you wouldn’t) who say that as a result of the religious “revival” (they call it) that we’re living in a post-secular age, that secularism is no longer relevant?

AC Grayling: No, I don’t think that, because I have a very different analysis about what is happening in the world with respect to religion. I think that in the last decade, or couple of decades anywhere in the western world, the pressure on religion and religious organisations that comes from the decline of religious observance, because there is a steep and increasing decline of religious commitment in the west.

And this makes the people who have a zealous religious commitment anxious. So they raise the volume. They raise the activism. And it makes it look as though there’s more religion, but actually there’s just more noise from an increasingly smaller group of people. It’s a bit like if you corner an animal in a room, it will make a big noise, where it would have been more peaceful before.

So actually the appearance of religious revivalism is a symptom of religious decline. And the empirical data supports this analysis, because you look – even at the United States of America, which is thought to be a very religious country because of its Protestant Calvinistic origins in the seventeenth century, in fact, the Pew Centre polling data over the last 30 years has shown an increasingly steep decline in religious commitment. They have a – on their polling data – they have a box, which says ‘none’, so the people who tick this are known as “nones”. You know, a bit like the nuns in church (that’s quite funny). And the increase especially among the under 35s is very significant.

And organisations in America, the American Atheist Association (the AAA), the American Humanist Association, the Secular Society in America, the Skeptic Society, they are all of them growing very fast and becoming much more vocal.

Maryam Namazie: You’re seeing that in the Middle East and North Africa as well – the rise of secularist and modern movements.

AC Grayling: Well this is a remarkable and a very welcome thing because of course and a point I’d like to expand on in a moment is that freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of enquiry, these are absolutely fundamental human freedoms which are so important for the health of society and the health of humanity’s future that the liberation of the human mind from ancient superstitions and ancient religions, the liberation of children from indoctrination into religious views, which are either very difficult to get out of or which imprison them for the rest of their lives (in a certain view), these are crucial matters.

This is why in this age of ours, where everybody’s able to talk to everybody through a means of electronic media, this aspect of the conversation about our future, the future of humanity, is key.

It seems to me that we’re in a little bottleneck period now. And a last major player in this is Islam, and in particular, Islamism – that aspect of Islam which is perhaps nervous, frightened, feels threatened by the globalisation of western styles of secularism and you can imagine and you can even indeed sympathise with a very sincere Muslim father who’s worried about what his daughters will do, and you can see the anxiety. But maybe it’s his sons who are going to take some action, kick back at a way of living and looking at the world which they find inimical to them and which they find very threatening. So this makes us enter a little bottleneck – a dangerous period – where the people that have these deep commitments and who have become very angry, and anger sometimes turns into violence, and they do terrible things – they commit murder because they are afraid that other people do not share their beliefs. That’s the passage of time we are going through.

And we see societies, as in Iran for example, struggling. From outside Iran, when people look at what is happening there, this is an educated, mature society; many people there who would love to have the freedom to develop and to flourish, who are attracted by these ideas, these ideas are not western ideas, these are human ideas, they are ideas about human flourishing. And yet there’s a regime and there’s a powerful, influential group of people in the society who want to stop that.

For people from outside, it has the feeling of the sixteenth and seventeenth century in Europe, when something very similar happened. And you do get people saying, and perhaps it’s not a helpful thing to say, but you do get people drawing parallels. I’m talking about a stage of historical development. Personally I hope that’s not true, because if it were true, then it’s going to take another 300 years, and however long you and I live, Maryam, we’re not going to get there.

Maryam Namazie: It’s not going to take that long, I hope and I’m sure.

AC Grayling: I really, really hope not.

Maryam Namazie: You’ve argued that secularism is a human right. Why?

AC Grayling: It is, without any question, a human right for people to be free of coercion, indoctrination, proselytization, of being obliged to act, dress, live and believe in ways that other people want to impose upon them.

Sometimes people say “oh well, so you’re a secularist, you want to impose secularism on other people”. And this is a very false argument; the secularist argument is “think what you like and believe what you like, but you have a duty to others not to harm them by your choices.” That’s a very simple statement, but it’s a very deep statement and a very important point.

In fact it was made by John Stuart Mill back in the nineteenth century in his wonderful essay “On Liberty”, where he talked not only about the danger of political totalitarianism, but of social and attitudinal totalitarianism, and the kind of imposition on people’s lives that come from belief systems where very zealous, very eager people want to force you to live in the way that they choose.

It’s a key fact about moralists, and religious zealots, that they say: “I think this, therefore you must do that”. And that of course, you can see from just that example, it’s a human right to be free from the pointed finger, and other people saying “you’ve got to live according to my beliefs and my choices”.

So, there should be, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more emphasis placed on the thing that says liberty of belief and religious practice and conscience or none. And the “none” part should be taken very seriously.

Because even in a society like the English society (I don’t mean the UK society) no school child is free of religious instruction, of religious practice, of prayers or hymns, or whatever it might be in schools. There are very few schools there where this is neutral. And you have to as a parent (as I’ve done with my own children) get an opt-out from these religious observances.

It is so much like a great big oil tanker in the ocean to try and turn around people’s views. Liberate the mind; free people. Let them choose for themselves. In a matter as important, or as unimportant as religion, let the people decide for themselves when they have the facts. Don’t indoctrinate children! That seems to me to be a form of abuse, in fact, I will use that word, and it’s a strong word, but it does seem to me to be a form of abuse.

AC Grayling is a British philosopher.

About the Interviewer: Maryam Namazie is a political activist, campaigner and blogger. She is the Spokesperson for Fitnah - Movement for Women's Liberation, Equal Rights Now, One Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. She works closely with Iran Solidarity, which she founded, and the International Committee against Stoning.

She is current editor of Fitnah's monthly English publication Unveiled and will be hosting a weekly television programme in Persian called Bread and Roses broadcast in Iran and the Middle East via New Channel TV from mid-February 2014. Maryam is Humanist Laureate at the International Academy of Humanism since 2013, Central Committee member of the Worker-communist Party of Iran; National Secular Society Honorary Associate; Honorary Associate of Rationalist International and Emeritus Member of the Secular Humanist League of Brazil.

In June 2012, The Islamic regime of Iran's media outlets did an 'exposé' on Maryam entitled 'Meet this anti-religion woman'. Maryam was a character in DV8 Physical Theatre's Can We Talk About This?, which deals with freedom of speech, censorship and Islam. She was awarded Journalist of the Year at the Dods Women in Public Life Awards (2013); selected one of the top 45 women of the year by Elle magazine Quebec (2007); awarded the National Secular Society's Secularist of the Year Award (2005); selected 'Iranian of the Year' by readers (1997 and 1998); International Rescue Committee medal recipient (1988); and received the Julia B. Friedman Humanitarian Award (1987).

In the past few years, she has initiated a Day to Stand with Bangladesh's Bloggers and Activists; an International Day to Defend Amina and the Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar 2012-2013 and helped launch the Manifesto for a Free and Secular Middle East and North Africa. She has spoken and written numerous articles on women's rights issues, free expression, political Islam, and secularism and been interviewed by all the major international news outlets. She has co-authored Sharia Law in Britain: A Threat to One Law for All and Equal Rights (One Law for All, June 2010), Enemies Not Allies: The Far-Right (One Law for All, August 2011), and The Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam (CEMB, December 2013). She also has an essay entitled ‘When the Hezbollah came to my School’ in 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, October 2009) and is featured in A Better Life: A Hundred Atheists Speak out on Joy and Meaning in a World Without God (2013) amongst others.

Previously, Namazie produced a weekly TV International programme broadcast in the Middle East; was the elected Executive Director of the International Federation of Iranian Refugees, a refugee run organisation with 60 branches in 15 countries worldwide for 8 years; founded the Committee for Humanitarian Assistance to Iranian Refugees; was the Human Rights Advocates Training Programme Coordinator at Columbia University's Centre for the Study of Human Rights in New York and the NYC Refugee Coordinator/ US National Steering Committee Member of Amnesty International.

She was Co-founder of Human Rights Without Frontiers based in the Sudan, Co-founder and President of the US-based Refugee Women’s Network and ran a refugee women's leadership training programme in NYC.


  1. Thank you for carrying this, Maryam has an important perspective herself of course that needs supporting. When she (or Peter Thatchell) can be called racist or “Islamophobe” , you can see the words are in danger of losing their meaning.
    I wonder what evidence she has for this though:

    You’re seeing that in the Middle East and North Africa as well – the rise of secularist and modern movements.

    Egypt,Tunisia,Libya,Yemen, Somalia,Nigeria…etc indicate something different.


  3. I hope he and his secularist friends do really believe in liberty, not just liberty for their ideology.

    But even his minimal-morality ('as long as it doesn't harm others') faces the problem of how we raise our children: 'Don’t indoctrinate children! That seems to me to be a form of abuse, in fact, I will use that word, and it’s a strong word, but it does seem to me to be a form of abuse.'

    Do we not owe our children a duty to offer them a world-view we have come to believe is true? Are we to leave them without moral compass other than 'it's OK as long as it doesn't harm others'?

    I suggest it is a form of abuse to allow a child to think smoking pot, getting drunk, having sex, is OK. And I think it is proper for the parent to offer his/her world-view to the child as truth, even if I hold that world-view to be mistaken. The Muslim and the Marxist have that right, as do I, the Christian.

  4. Wolfsbane,

    When you were a young cub did you ever get drunk before you were 18? I did, lots of times.

    Peronally I see nothing wrong with someone having a spliff. I don't see anything wrong with it. My oldest daughter will sometimes go on a moral crusade when ever I bring the subject up and lecture me about how bad smoking joints are while she puffs on a Marlbourgh light with a glass of wine in her hand...

    She used to talk about how bad the Palestinians are and called them terrorists (she's jewish). Then I sat her down about 18mths ago and explained how the modern state of Israel came about the King David Hotel bombing and the Stern gang etc..

    Wolf, I don't do religion. But you are a Christian. Have you actually read the bible? I have. Read the Qu'ran too and few other books telling me their way is the only way..

    I'm with Eddie Cochran and do things My way (not the Frank song)

  5. frankie said:
    'When you were a young cub did you ever get drunk before you were 18? I did, lots of times.'

    Me too - and other degrading things.

    'I see nothing wrong with someone having a spliff. I don't see anything wrong with it.'

    You as an adult must make up your own mind - but surely you don't think a child of nine or ten should be left to make up their minds on it? Do you not tell them at least it is wrong for a child to have sex, smoke or drink?

    'My oldest daughter will sometimes go on a moral crusade when ever I bring the subject up and lecture me about how bad smoking joints are while she puffs on a Marlbourgh light with a glass of wine in her hand...'

    If she's an adult, inconsistency is a problem for her. If she's a child (I'm sure she's not), you would be the one with the problem!

    'She used to talk about how bad the Palestinians are and called them terrorists (she's jewish). Then I sat her down about 18mths ago and explained how the modern state of Israel came about the King David Hotel bombing and the Stern gang etc..'

    Good. We all need to see our own sins before we address the sins of others.

    'Wolf, I don't do religion. But you are a Christian. Have you actually read the bible? I have. Read the Qu'ran too and few other books telling me their way is the only way..'

    The existence of competing claims does not prove all claims are invalid. I can only say that God has convinced me He is real and the Bible is His message to mankind. I live in the light of that inward revelation each (real) Christian has received from God.

    'I'm with Eddie Cochran and do things My way (not the Frank song)'

    Same principle applies to your way as to others - 7 billion ways currently exist, many of which conflict, but 'The existence of competing claims does not prove all claims are invalid'.

    The real issue is whether or not 'my way' is the true way, (if there is a true way).

    Jesus Christ said,"I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me". If He was mistaken, you have no need to worry. If He was right, you need to come to Him.