Secular intolerance

May 2016    

In November last year, The Straits Times reported that, according to Attorney-General George Brandis, Australia is experiencing an“alarming emergence” of religious intolerance. “Members of the Christians faiths”, Australia’s top law officer reportedly said, “are routinely subject to mockery and insult by prominent writers and commentators” (ST, 4 Nov 2015).

To be sure, Australia is not the only country to witness the surge in public attacks on religion by atheists. This phenomenon is seen across Europe and even in America, making plain what Christian theologians have known to be true all along – that secular tolerance is a myth.

Atheists and secular humanists have for a long time demonised religion, blaming it for intolerance and violence, and held up secularism as the bastion of tolerance and freedom. As British journalist Matthew Parris has so provocatively and unabashedly put it, “Godlessness is a humanising force”.

However, it is not very difficult to show just how vacuous and deceptive such rhetoric is in reality.

For example, on 15 Sep 2001, just four days after the horrific events in New York, Richard Dawkins laid the responsibility for the unconscionable act of violence at the door of religion.

“To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind”, he said scornfully, “is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used”.

Dawkins was applauded for his courage, but this surely is a typical example of secular bigotry.

In recent years, secular intolerance has reared its head in a number of famous court cases involving the central Christian symbol, the cross.

In Lausti v Italy, the atheist applicant Mrs Soile Lausti sought to have the cross or crucifix removed from classrooms across Italy. Their presence in thepublic square, argued the applicant, tantamount to coercion and even indoctrination.

In Eweida and Chaplin v United Kingdom, the applicants Nadia Eweida and S. Chaplin sought the right to wear the cross visibly in the workplace. Eweida’s employer, British Airways, had insisted that the cross she wore around her neck should either be hidden or removed.

It would be a mistake to think that these examples are rare exceptions, quirky blips on an otherwise admirable record of secular tolerance.

The dark history of secular intolerance can be traced to its birth during the great cultural and intellectual movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex movement that can be variously characterised, its most venerated thinkers were fiercely anti-clerical and antagonistic to revealed religion.

For example, Voltaire, one of the Enlightenment’s most eloquent advocates of tolerance, is also well-known for his ferocious and relentless attacks against Jews, Catholics and Calvinists, and for rubbishing the most cherished tenets of Christianity. Karl Marx, arguably one of the most important heirs of Enlightenment rationalism, sought nothing less than the “abolition of religion”.

The philosopher John Gray has exposed the intolerance of secularism with brutal honesty. Tracing the roots of the violence perpetrated by atheist regimes in the 20th century, Gray, himself an atheist, observes that “the mass murders of the 20th century were not perpetrated by some latter-day version of the Spanish Inquisition. They were done by atheist regimes in the service of Enlightenment ideas of progress”.

Secular intolerance comes in many different guises in modern society.

It may be seen in the erroneous view of religion – widely advanced by secularists – as being only concerned about “spiritual” matters, thereby forcing the conclusion that religion has no place in the public square where political and social issues are debated.

Secular intolerance may appear in the argument that because religious language is incommensurable with other forms of public discourse (a fallacious view), religious actors in the public square must put aside their theological and religious commitments and adhere to a hegemonic secular rationality euphemistically referred to as “public reason”.

Secular tolerance is a myth.
This myth has been used again and again by public intellectuals, politicians and the media not only to discredit the church and Christianity, but religion in general.

It is therefore in the interest not only of Christians and people of faith but also of society as a whole that the myth of secular tolerance is exposed and challenged.

Picture by Creativa Images/

“Soundings”is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

Dr Roland Chia –is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor to the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity (


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