Interviews

Andrew Copson: “What’s changed is the political salience of religion”

For the most recent event in its Philosophy in the Bookshop speaker series, Saturday morning saw Blackwell’s Norrington Room crammed with over 150 people, all there to listen to Andrew Copson. The Chief Executive of Humanists UK and President of Humanists International is on the last leg of the book tour for his latest publication, Secularism: A Very Short Introduction. Of course, the subject itself being so topical and multi-dimensional is what has coaxed many out of bed, but Copson himself is a passionate speaker too; someone with the rare ability to talk about such a heavy, controversial topic with humour and a fair-mind – something I suspect has also drawn many into the bookseller’s basement.

Copson speaks for an hour about humanism and secularism, after which audience members eagerly ask him questions on topics ranging from his work to move the UK in a secular direction, such as campaigning against faith schools; his personal thoughts on legally requiring the stunning of animals before slaughter, (Copson admits that his views on this matter have shifted since he became owner to his cavapoo Juno); as well as candidly citing examples of problems he believes secularism can bring to a society.

I sit down with him shortly after his talk. Since we are sat just 200 yards away from Copson’s alma mater, Balliol, I am interested to learn about his own time on Broad Street and if university shaped his views at all. Somewhat unexpectedly, Copson tells me it was his studies, rather than his encounters with others, that really solidified his humanist stance:

“My time in Oxford definitely did form my views but I don’t think that was so much socially. I mean I was part, in the late 90s, of that secular generation. If anything, what shaped me was my academic experience because I was a classicist and a historian. I looked at themes to do with changing society and the long, broad sweep of the history of humanity that if you know, you find it quite hard to be religious because you see religions are just contingent with time and place and they’re just aspects of human culture.

“University changes you completely. It’s where your views are formed, it’s where you confront different ideas, it’s where you learn the value of other people’s arguments, as well as being able to steel up your own.”

Copson came to Oxford in 1999, a time of transatlantic liberal democratic hegemony. I’m curious to know how he would compare how he saw the future of secularism then, compared to the future he sees now. He sighs and confesses, “Well I don’t know how people today view it, I mean I of course started at university in that strange period at the end of the Cold War but before 9/11. So I think we probably took a secular future for granted.

“Things were all going in that direction, the world was becoming liberal, democratic, secular. Religion was on the way out, it was borderline irrelevant – I mean religion is still irrelevant to most people’s lives in this country, that hasn’t changed. What’s changed of course is the political salience of religion. We didn’t expect necessarily that political parties were going to get very interested in Islam, and minority religions [would] see that as being on the political agenda. Then it was all thrust onto the political agenda.”

Since I am interviewing Copson on the 1st February, the UK exactly 13 hours out of the EU, I feel obliged to follow up this discussion about the future of secularism, with inquiring if he speculates Brexit will affect the role of religion in the UK and the likelihood of a future secular state. On this Copson is firmly undecided: “I think we can’t know. Obviously there might be a temptation, especially if you’re a slightly sore Remainer, which many of us are of course, to say that because this is a step back into Little England that it will be bad for secularism because Little England means Church of England and the Church of England is the background cultural reference point for conservatism and isolationism.

“But of course there’s the other side to leaving the EU which is the idea that we might look to the rest of the world, be more international and that may well lead in a more secularising direction. And of course, the current government is not religious. We have the least religious Prime Minister for a while and that will also dictate the flavour of politics. Leaving the EU is going to have unexpected consequences and I think on secularism as much as anything else.”

However, Copson has no doubt in his mind when I ask him about the threat that the rise of the far-right may pose to secularism around the world: “Ethnic nationalism and far-right popularism is the second biggest global threat to secularism after religious extremism. There’s no doubt about that. For two reasons, partly because it often relies on religious identities. Think of Putin’s Russia and the rise of Orthodoxy, think of Orbán and ‘Christian Europe’. But also because it just challenges so many of the other assumptions of secularism, like equal dignity of citizens, like the rational nature of the social contract, like freedom of conscience and equal treatment. So absolutely ethnic nationalism in Europe especially but also around the world, is a big threat to secularism everywhere, on every continent.”

Before I let Copson go off for lunch, (he’d previously expressed to me a deep interest in investigating Leon’s gluten-free chicken nuggets), I want to ask him what he envisions a hypothetical secular UK would look like. Would it be like the French model? Like the American? Or something distinctly British? Copson opts for the latter.

“I mean should it ever become constitutional, English secularism is not going to be the same as French or American or Australian secularism or whatever. I do think that English secularism, if it comes to be established, is much more likely to be concerned with the rights of the individual than French secularism is which has tended to concern itself with the character of the citizenry as a whole.”

As Copson and I part ways on Broad Street, I find myself thinking about his last thoughts about secularism in this country. In a nation that seems to be hell-bent on perpetuating an internal us vs them narrative, I wonder whether establishing a British secular state would be an answer to this solution, or further divide our diverse society along both old lines and new. I flick through my freshly-signed copy of Copson’s book and upon turning to the last page, it appears he has read my mind and delivers a perfect answer to my question:

“Even in a world of diversity, we need a framework for our common life and most of us want that framework to be a fair one.

Certainly it is imperfect – no political settlement is perfect. But it is the only plausible principle on offer. Secularism as a dynamic and ongoing process of negotiation between equals seems to me to be the best way of organising our common life in a way that fair to all in the context of diversity. If we do not attempt to progress towards it, especially at a time of heightened global tensions and confrontations, the future may be as grim as the days of the wars of religion that first made secularism so necessary.”

Secularism: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Copson (Oxford University Press) is out now.