Roy Brown replies to Libre Pensée

  • post Type / Campaigns
  • Date / 1 March 2007

Roy Brown has replied on behalf of the campaign for a Vision for Europe, sponsors of the Brussels Declaration, to concerns expressed by Libre Pensée in the National Secular Society‘s newsletter Newsline.

The letter from the French Libre Pensee in NSS Newsline regarding the Brussels Declaration (Feb 23) reveals not so much a difference of opinion but a difference of approach to the great debate about the future of Europe. The Brussels Declaration is neither a “manifesto” nor an attempt to “rewrite the preamble to the European Constitution” (although I suggest it would make a far better preamble than any likely to emerge from a joint venture between the German chancellor and the pope). The declaration is an attempt to address the problem of the increasing polarization in Europe by restating the universal values on which European civilization is founded – values common to all of the people of Europe.

Surely it is better to oppose the Vatican and the Islamists than to turn away from the debate because we are not entirely comfortable with our allies? Whilst strict separation of religion and state is the ideal to which we can all aspire, to refuse to support state neutrality in matters of religion or belief because it does not insist on total separation is, I suggest, to make perfection the enemy of progress.

The Brussels Declaration has achieved a remarkable degree of support from both secularists and religious believers concerned about the erosion of our common values. No such consensus would have been possible had we insisted on a call for total separation. But in reaching this compromise, we have not had to compromise our ideals. Certainly we were not able to insist on everything we might have wished to see included, but neither were our Christian allies. Such is the nature of the search for common ground. But while the document may not go as far as some would wish, it conforms in every respect to the principles set out in the key IHEU policy documents, the Amsterdam Declaration 2002 and the Paris Declaration of 2005. We stand fully behind every point in the Brussels Declaration.

Dealing with each of the points in the Libre Pensee letter in turn:

1. The issue of democracy. This appears to be a simple misunderstanding. We are offering the Brussels Declaration to the people of Europe to sign. They sign as the people of Europe. At the time of writing over 400 distinguished supporters have signed the declaration, and the website is now open for signature by any citizen of Europe. To suggest that one cannot speak as people of Europe until one is elected is to deny the very idea of democratic debate.

2. Europeans may not be a single people, but we are collectively the people of Europe.

3. It is simply untrue that the Brussels Declaration is “throwing confusion between humanist associations, VIPs and [politicians]”. With the exception of the French freethinkers we have received almost universal support for the campaign from the European Humanist community.

4. It is difficult to see how entering into a debate about our values transforms the campaign into a political party. Surely any debate on social issues is by definition a political debate. If the Libre Pensee were to avoid political debate they would not be campaigning to preserve the law of 1905.

5. “The very word ‘Secularism’ is not explicitly mentioned”. Indeed so. The reason is that the pope and several other Christian leaders are deliberately seeking to confuse Secularism with militant Atheism. Rather than use the word itself, we preferred to use our definition of secularism: i.e. “state neutrality in matters of religion and belief” in order to avoid any possible confusion.

6. “There is no word about church taxes, established church in the UK, Mussolini’s concordat in Italy, Franco’s concordat in Spain”, or indeed Hitler’s concordat in Germany — because the declaration is not a political manifesto. It seems strange to suggest on the one hand that the declaration is a political manifesto and on the other to complain that it isn’t.

7. The reason for launching an appeal without the major political issues being addressed is that we need to re-establish the ground rules for political debate in Europe. If you accept the values set out in the Brussels Declaration you have a touchstone by which all abuses of power and impending legislation can be judged. As I said at the launch of the declaration at the European Parliament on 27 February, “We need to concentrate all our efforts on reinforcing those values which unite us while drawing a line against attempts to undermine our cherished freedoms”.

8. We cannot of course speak for Jack Lang or for any of the other distinguished signatories, but it is noticeable that what politicians do and say when in power often differs markedly from what they say and do when released from the constraints of high office. Mr Lang should surely be allowed to repent!

Let me end by quoting just a few of the free spirits who signed the declaration. Marina Warner, the novelist, critic and historian, wrote: “I am really happy to give this letter my support” and Philip Pullman echoed her: “I’m very happy to support this”. Sir Bernard Crick called it “a very fine text”, while Cambridge Professor of Philosophy (and member of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group) Simon Blackburn signed up “with enthusiasm and gratitude. Exactly what is needed. I could think of quibbles but they are irrelevant, and the overall message is far more important. What a splendid initiative.”

The breadth of appeal of the Declaration, which has won support from prominent Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus as well as Humanists, is evident from this message from Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, who is a Roman Catholic: “I share all your concerns about the road we could be travelling down. I have had serious concerns about the erosion of the secular space and as a human rights lawyer think it is important to assert values which can be shared by all and not claimed as [exclusively] Christian.”

It is a great pity that our French colleagues feel unable to support the first initiative in decades that stands a real chance of re-establishing Secularism as the dominant political philosophy in Europe.

Roy Brown
Coordinator, Committee for a Vision for Europe.

From French Libre Pensée, Paris:

Because of our common tradition of mutual friendship, we believe it is our duty to send you this letter to explain the reasons why neither the French Libre Pensée nor freethinkers in their individual capacity signed the Brussels Declaration. Our disagreement is caused by the purpose as well as the content of the Brussels Declaration.

1. The issue of democracy. The opening “We the people of Europe” echoes the American Declaration of Independence which was written by elected representatives of the American people – or more accurately by a very small section of the American people since women, native Americans and African slaves were not allowed to participate in the election. And yet, even with those significant restrictions, the American Revolution was based on the will of the Americans to determine by themselves their own future through their legitimate elected representatives. This principle of democracy was basically established by John Locke nearly one century before the American Declaration of Independence.

Besides, how can we speak of a people of Europe? There are still European nations whereas there are not any social or democratic gains yet, on which we can establish a “European people” as a distinct nation.

In our opinion, to speak in the name of the people without having previously been elected by the citizens does not seem to be the best way to defend democracy. And yet, the Brussels Declaration is throwing confusion between humanist associations, VIPs and representatives of political parties elected by the citizens. The same confusion can be found in the implied purpose of the Brussels Declaration: is it a political manifesto sent to the European Commission? In fact it is proposed to re-write the preamble of the European Constitution which the peoples of France and the Netherlands democratically rejected by ballot two years ago. While the French Libre Pensée is committed to the general political debate, it should not be confounded with a political party, or it would disappear as an independent association. This is one of the major reasons why we did not sign the Brussels Declaration.

2. The issue of secularism. The reference to religious freedom and neutrality of the State as it is written in the text does not address the real problems of secularism – the very word is not explicitly mentioned! Not a word about the church taxes in Germany, on the established churches in the UK, on Mussolini’s concordat in Italy or Franco’s concordat in Spain, on the domination of the Roman Catholic church in Ireland, on anti-secularist laws in France, which is public funding of the Roman Catholic church. Why launch an appeal if major issues are not addressed? Why isn’t there any explicit demand for the Separation of Religions and the States whereas a resolution was passed by the IHEU committing itself on this issue?

In France, we were not surprised to see that the former Minister Jack Lang – who signed the infamous Lang-Cloupet agreement allocating hundreds of millions to the Catholic church, and who was among the donors of public funds to build the cathedral of Ivry near Paris – and Monsignor Gaillot, bishop of Partenia (a place that does not exist), were among the signatories of the Brussels Declaration.

Those are some of the reasons why the French Libre Pensée was not willing to sign the Brussels Declaration. In conformity with our tradition of mutual friendship, please feel free to ask for more information on this issue or other issues if you wish so. In solidarity.

WordPress theme developer - whois: Andy White London