William Scholes: We need a healthy secularity, open to all faiths and none

Rival marches on both sides of the abortion debate were held in Belfast last Saturday. Pictures by Alan Lewis, left, and Bill Smyth, right.

I hadn't set foot in any Baltic state until earlier this week, when I visited Latvia.

It was most discombobulating to find out that it wasn't, in fact, Baltic at all.

Having been conditioned from childhood to believe that "it's Baltic" is a synonym for "it's teeth-chatteringly cold", I had been braced for the worst when I got off the plane.

But rather than stepping into the teeth of an icy gale blowing blankets of snow across the hostile tundra, I was instead slapped in the face by blazing sunshine and a temperature north of 30 degrees Celsius.

Later, we ended up in an enormous forest which had been part of a military installation during the Russian occupation.

Exploring this was a little eerie. Where the trees and undergrowth haven't yet swallowed them up, remnants of the Cold War apparatus can be seen, rotting where the Russians abandoned them - lumps of concrete from demolished buildings and hulks of rusting metal, once part of military vehicles and tanks.

Latvia now looks west to the European Union - it joined in 2004, having regained its independence from the Soviet shackles in 1991- but although the old communist lie is dead and buried, Russia is still flexing its muscles.

A vast track, about the width of a motorway, has been cut through the forest; beneath it is a pipeline carrying Russian gas to Riga.

Communism, Soviet-style, was really totalitarianism. The individual was subservient to the state. 'Truth' was what the state or its officially anointed representatives said it was. Any deviation from the official, narrow orthodoxy was severely punishable. The dominant worldview's claims could not be challenged or debated.

Stalinesque totalitarianism may not be our dispensation in 21st century Western Europe but there are those who, looking towards the horizon, see its outline in the direction our own social and political condition may well be heading.

It's evident in the aggressive secularism that seeks to punish and humiliate those who don't conform to its views and doctrines in the public square; "Everything not forbidden is compulsory," as T.H. White put it in The Once and Future King.

This is especially the case when conflicting expressions of opinion are seen to be informed by faith.

Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin was getting at this in his keynote address about faith and politics at the Kennedy Summer School last week.

"The moral convictions of Christians in public life," are, he observed, "automatically suspect - perhaps even illegitimate - because they are advanced by believers."

There should be a "healthy secularity", he said, which "admits a distinction between Church and State but allows the space for Christians to intervene in public debate and to make their arguments as brothers, sisters and friends alongside those of all faiths and none".

That the case for a plural public square is being made by a Catholic archbishop will be reason enough for many to ignore it. The abuse scandal and an unhealthy clericalism have crippled the Church's moral authority.

However, Dr Martin's point is broader than that. Nor is it specifically Catholic.

To marginalise faith communities like Churches from public life means that individuals of faith are also pushed out - people who "breathe, believe, live and work alongside people of other traditions, faiths and none".

Right now, abortion is probably the most contested issue in this shared space.

There are sharply conflicting views not only on abortion itself but also on the way in which Westminster passed legislation to change the law.

Those views need to be open to challenge, scrutiny and debate in a dialogue that is respectful and patient rather than sneering, wilfully offensive and ultimately deaf and ignorant to alternative beliefs and motivations.

Otherwise, we will end up hearing only a single 'official' voice in the public square as it drowns out any other contributions; and therein lies the way of tyranny and totalitarianism.

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