The latest copy of The Big Issue reminds me why I am happy to make buying it from time to time my contribution to helping the homeless and struggling. Most often what they say, and John Bird’s Creditworthiness Assessment Bill, shows just the sort of pragmatic, low-key radicalism I reckon will be more helpful to the poor than any amount of intellectual revolution or left-liberal (or ‘neoliberal’!) playacting. The Big Issue are secularism at its best.

According to the National Secular Society the ‘foundation of secularism’ is ‘separation of religion from the state’, whilst the Cambridge Dictionary identifies it as ‘the belief that religion should not be involved with the ordinary social and political activities of a country’. On that unexciting basis almost anyone could be a secularist, including those religious people, of whom there are many, who imagine that their religion can be a purely personal matter for them. No problem about having a dogmatic faith, so long as it’s not to be both classified as ‘religion’ and operate publicly – a ‘cult’ might pass as secularism.

Another irony – the one group we can definitely exclude from the class of secularists, namely, religious ‘extremists’ or ‘fundamentalists’, are precisely the people who make a nonsense of classical sociology of religion as the cohesive binding force which holds society together. In face of rebellion, disruption, or terrorism inspired by any religion traditional conservatism from Burke onward collapses into absurdity. (Roger Scruton please take note.) From a social standpoint religious extremists are the world’s best secularists.

The latest Big Issue gives us one other connection to secularism, with a review of Mary Beard’s Women & Power (very topical). Beard is one of those feminist intellectuals who devotes much energy to studying ultra-macho societies, where religion was kept thoroughly under secular control, and has much of value to say about them. For my sins, my interest in modernity makes me want to ask why we are no longer so keen to exclude and silence women at every turn. I cannot help thinking this is part of why 1914 (rather than 1917) is such a massively important date in world history.

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