This article was the subject of a talk to the South Place Ethical Society in Jan 2005 that was published in the Ethical Record.
What is A SECULAR HUMANIST POLITCAL AGENDA?
It has four elements, each of which bring something important to the process, none of which are sufficient in themselves, but combined can, produce the best model for government so far: -
Just as no single tax can deliver a perfectly fair system for financing the state and public administration and services, no single aspect of political organisation can deliver a perfect form of government. In my view the position that maintains the maximum freedom of the individual while also balancing the rights and freedoms of the society is a left leaning, secular, democracy with guaranteed freedom of information.
1) Democracy - Can and does give to the citizen an element of participation and some control over policy and decision-making but it is not by itself a panacea. There are many kinds of democracy, and factors that affect their effectiveness, how candidates are chosen, boundary demarcation, timing and counting procedures, intimidation of voters and even the best are flawed.
It does not necessarily ensure the rights of minorities in fact it can reinforce the power of the majority at the expense of these minorities. And we can all find examples of ’elected dictatorships’ including tyrannies & clerical governments - theocracies. Corrupt voting procedures can result in the very opposite of democracy. Democracy may or may not extend to secularism and progressive political ideology that also affects the freedom of the individual and peaceful nature of the society. Nor should it be assumed that multi-party government is the only way to get diversity and choice In most Western countries there is the choice between US style capitalism amd US style capitalism, and this is the pattern being enforced by the world financial institutions on the developing world.
The quality of democracy depends on many factors such as history, constitution, economics and natural resources – many of which ensure that voters (and governments) actually have little real choice. ‘Charter 88’ has much to say about the quality of democracy, and measures that need to be taken to improve on the somewhat minimal representative democracy that we have today in Britain today.
Nor can democracy be relied upon to curb the unbridled accumulation of wealth - and the privileged access that money gives to the rights and freedoms that it can buy, often to the detriment of others. And as with individual freedom, democracy can be corrupted by massive wealth and the control of resources, the economy, and the media.
Democracy is subverted by not ensureing freedom of speech or information
2) Secularism - brings Freedom OF Religion and Freedom FROM Religion and the freedom to criticise and oppose religion, within a state that is neutral on such matters - and that prevents oppressive domination by any one of them and gives no partisan privileges or subsidies.
Secularism does not necessarily have anything to say about many human rights issues or political freedom, equality, autonomy, or to participation in government.
But there are specifically secularist human rights issues, issues that arise out of the beliefs and practices of the religions, prejudice, discrimination and women's reproductive autonomy is (or should be) a case in point, as is prejudice against gays, and other such minorities, and of course anti-Semitism that has been and still is such a curse.
Secularism does not curb the greed of the most powerful, and although it protects the rights of religious minorities it does not necessarily protect other minorities. Nor should it - Though it is clear that many if not most secularists are active in promoting personal, social and political progress.
3) Left / Liberal Political Ideology I do not intend to go into the polemics of the Left, but by Left/Liberal Political Ideology I differentiate it from ‘The Right’, particularly regarding: -
Competition vs. co-operation: The right of all citizens and states to autonomy, equality and freedom - including the poor : The economic independence on which other freedoms rely : The rights of minorities : The security of the individual with an adequate welfare safety net : A standard of living below which no one should fall.
Left Liberal ideologies are about re-distribution of wealth that brings economic freedom to the many - from the few. Those without financial independence and security cannot claim their freedoms if they are not affordable. Wealth buys power and privilege that can easily distorts both democracy and equal rights if it is only in the hands of the few. It is not an ideology that is popular with the ‘haves’ of this world!
The lack of economic freedom subverts democracy and secularism - through the financial considerations of political organisation, the law, education and the flow of information through control and use of publishing, advertising and media, all of which are restricted and distorted in favour of the few who have the money to buy their services or own and control them.
Left/Liberal policies may bring about economic security and independence, but do not necessarily ensure democracy, secularism or the rights of minorities.
Unfairness and huge discrepancies in the reward system causes resentment and alienation that leads to civil strife and foments prejudice and scapegoating. It threatens peace and progress at community, national and international level.
'Libertarianism' is also part of the agenda - Freedom of consenting adults, in their sexual preferences, no censorship except in the most exceptional circumstances such as child pornography, and many social and personal issues of life and death, voluntary euthanasia and drug use etc. But libertarianism can also subvert good governance if individual freedoms are not consistent with the public good.
4) Freedom of Information and Freedom of Expression
Freedom of information and expression is essential for all the above to be effective, citizens, voters cannot take meaningful decisions or judge the performance of their governments or administration without Freedom of Information. And this includes not only the freedom to find out what information is being kept on individuals, but also freedom to find out official information on public issues, who is taking the decisions and on what basis.
Education of children and adults must be honest and objective and enable the individual to develop a critical faculty and not just used as a tool for social control. People need to be able to assess information, evidence and research, see through propaganda and political tactics. Education should not simply be tailored to serve other masters, commerce, nationalism, political, religio or academic elites .
We also need a free press that can be relied upon to take full account of the public ‘right to know’, over and above its own biases and sectional interests.
This is not just the ‘free press’ we have now which is a license for those who own and control the press, but genuine freedom that could come from wider media ownership, an insistence on honest and objective reporting with penalties for infringement; a right of reply and measures to improve the access for individuals or small organisations. ‘Campaign for Press Freedom’ advocated decades ago by the Glasgow Media Group is still in being though it is a shaddow of its former idealism But there have been successes in Freedom of Information legislation - Your Right To Know http://www.yrtk.org/ - http://www.direct.gov.uk/
Imagine a world in which countries on every continent, from the US to Russia, the Balkans, the Middle East - Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iran Iraq, Central and South East Asia, North and sub-Saharan Africa, and the South American Republics - were left/liberal, secular democracies, based on co-operation and human rights!
Poverty, the Sectarianism of Fanatical Religious Extremism, including Evangelical Christianity and the Power Politics of Capitalism are the real WMD - And what are we doing about it?
Sue Mayer - Conway Hall - Jan 2005