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Artillery Row

How secularism can save us from the social justice movement

The social justice movement resembles a religion. It should be treated as such

Are we getting the social justice movement wrong? We are enabling and accommodating this intellectual and political movement to claim itself as a moral authority on important issues of social justice. It isn’t that we think that this is right. The vast majority of us disagree with it either completely or in part. Nevertheless, we are addressing it, first and foremost, as a progressive moral framework that needs to be listened to and addressed on its own terms. This is wrongIt is a category error — and a costly one. 

We should not be treating the tenets of the Social justice movement, in the first instance, as a set of ideas that need engaging with. Some of us must do so, and I won’t stop until they go away. But as a society it should, first and foremost, be treated as a matter of private conscience. That is, we need to defend people’s rights to hold these ideas, express them and apply them to their own lives while defending everybody else’s rights not to have to do the same. In other words, we need to address social justice with the principle of secularism.

Conventional religion, in the UK, has been declining for some time. Just over half of us describe ourselves as Christian now and few of those who do go to church regularly or say that their morality comes primarily from their faith. However, religion is ubiquitous among humans and has been for as long as records exist. It seems very likely that religiosity is a human trait that fulfils many social and psychological needs for community, purpose, a moral framework and even a common enemy. These needs are not simply going to go away just because literal belief in a deity or supernatural phenomena is becoming less tenable to many in the West.

Religion clearly serves a purpose for people and has almost certainly been beneficial to our thriving and procreation in the past. It has also caused tremendous bloodshed and oppression as humans have battled with each other about which god to worship and in what way and how to ensure that everybody is doing so properly. The principle of secularism arose in the West to mitigate these problems. It did so with resounding success precisely because it worked with human nature and not against it. Attempts to ban religion have only led to more bloodshed and oppression. Societies that have respected freedom of religion and made reasonable accommodations for the needs of different ones but not allowed any to interfere with the private conscience of anyone else have thrived. This principle of secularism has worked not only because it was applied to law and various institutions but because the expectation to tolerate different beliefs and not impose one’s own on others became a social norm.

As Western societies move into a new phase where a majority of people do not identify themselves primarily with a religious faith or live their lives and form their communities around one, we are bound to see the rise of supposedly secular moral communities that fulfil humans’ needs for purpose, morality, community and meaning. The social justice movement, both intellectual and political, appears to be one such community. The solution to this is not, as some hopeful religious conservatives have suggested, to try to rekindle mass belief in the Christian faith. That  atheist genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Instead, the solution is to expand our understanding of the concept of secularism to belief systems that are not conventionally religious.

The problem with the social justice movement is less that it exists as that it has institutional and social power. Social justice ideas should certainly be engaged with as should those of conventional religions, but it is not the responsibility of every British citizen to either affirm their faith in the movement or justify not doing so and potentially suffer material or social consequences. Just as we can say to a Christian or Muslim who approaches us with tenets of their faith and pressures us to agree with them, “That is your belief and you have a right to it. I do not share it” and walk away, knowing that the law, employment codes of conduct and public opinion are on our side, so should we be able to do with social justice.

The reason the social justice movement is causing so much trouble at the moment is because it is a quasi-religious movement posing as an authority on issues of social justice that all citizens should be and generally are concerned about. It has been allowed to set itself up as a secular moral authority because our laws and principles of secularism have not yet expanded to include belief systems that do not fit our outdated understanding of ‘religion.’ Nor is social justice consistently recognised as something categorically different to reasonable universal expectations not to abuse or discriminate against people because of their race, gender or sexuality. This puts everybody who wants to engage with the world in the position of having to affirm or deny the tenets of social justice or simply keep their heads down and hope not to be asked difficult questions. It is an unsustainable state of affairs that only pours petrol on the culture wars.

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