Some Thoughts On Douglas Murray’s Advice For Secularists

secularismI’m a keen follower of Douglas Murray’s writing and public speaking, especially his output on the issue of Islamism. I think he’s a rare voice of clarity and honesty on this topic, which to my mind, also makes him an important one. In short, I quite like the man. You can listen to a discussion between us here.

I’m also a member of The National Secular Society. I’ve attended several of their events, met their management and I’m grateful for the work they do. You can listen to my discussion with the President, Terry Sanderson here.

This brings me to Douglas’s latest piece in The Spectator:  ‘Secularists need to prioritise their targets. I agree with the basic sentiment of the title. It’s true that far too many individuals and organisations are more than happy to take a swing at the ‘lesser’ evils of a Christian flavour – yet develop a mysterious case of chronic arm fatigue where the religion of peace is concerned. However, I just feel it’s a tad unfair to make this point in the context of The National Secular Society and secularists in general.

Here Douglas takes issue with a point regarding Bishops in the House Of Lords, made by representative of the NSS, Evan Harris:

I’ve been hearing this Bishops in the House of Lords line for years and it strikes me as an increasingly eccentric obsession for anybody to have in 2015.  There are all sorts of reasons to advocate House of Lords reform, but the presence of Anglican bishops – hardly the most terrifying religious figures of our age – strikes me as approaching the barmy.  It is also a fine example of a dated and outmoded form of secularism.


I disagree. The remit of the NSS is to promote and achieve a secular state whilst challenging religious privilege. I’m not sure how they can hope to achieve this goal of separation of Church and state while 26 unelected members of clergy are able to influence decisions in state politics. It matters not how lovely and cuddly they may be, their mere presence is the antithesis of secularism. No other religion (or indeed non-religious ideology) enjoys such privilege.

This is the point I find most puzzling:

It is difficult for secularists who appear on moral discussion shows because to some extent they are involving themselves in a category error.  On the one hand a religious figure talks about the saving of souls and explains their view of the meaning of life.  The secular representative then responds by talking about tax arrangements.

Unless I’m entirely misreading here1 it appears the implication is that moral discussion is exclusively the domain of the religious – which would be especially odd given Douglas is an atheist. Of course a secular or humanist worldview should be included in any objective discussion on morality – so I cannot understand the ‘category error’ point. Religion doesn’t own this domain of discourse, rather it has simply held it hostage for the most part.

If I were a representative of the National Secular Society I suppose I might mention this point [Bishops in House Of Lords] at the very end of any long list of concerns, but I could not put it anywhere near the top.  And that is the thing about much of the outmoded secular voices we hear at the moment.

Well, if we look at the many voices existing within the National Secular Society, rather than just one – it’s clear that many of their and Douglas’s priorities align, such as The Trojan Horse Plot, Freedom of Expression, British Jihadists, Extremism and so on – which are all staples of NSS Campaigns & focus.

I was particularly pleased to be in attendance at the Secularist Of The Year Awards, where the main prize was handed to Charlie Hebdo magazine. Secularists from around the world gathered to stand with the NSS to champion freedom of expression and oppose Islamic fascism by honouring the brave at a time when too many opted for apologetics and cowardice.

It’s true that the problem of priorities, as identified by Douglas, is a genuine and pervasive one. I just feel making this point with Secularists in your sights may constitute an act of friendly fire.

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.


  1. 22/05/2015 – Douglas Murray was gracious enough to clarify this point to me via email, reproduced here with permission: ‘..the category error point is that if a religious person is talking about the meaning of life (as they see it) it seems a mistake to me to reply by talking about tax arrangements. That was the category error I was referring to. I think it makes us secularists sound like joyless tax accountants (as opposed to the joyful type)…,’


  • I think you may be misunderstanding his point about moral discussion. He seems just to be pointing out that religious people talk about right and wrong, or good and evil, whereas secular people are more concerned with ‘how do we make this society function better?’ Because if you say ‘I want gay people to be able to marry’, that’s a statement of fact (about what we want) whereas if you say ‘gay people have the right to marry’, then you’re invoking ‘rights’ which are just as imaginary as gods.
    Not all atheists are humanists.

    • Stephen Knight

      Hi Adam. I was in the process of adding a footnote on this point when your comment landed. It should now be clarified. Happily, it doesn’t appear Douglas was making the point I’d feared he was. I think the wording of the point is problematic, but I allowed for the likelihood of misreading it in my piece.

      Thanks for the comments

  • I think what Douglas was referring to was that he had hoped that Evan would have stayed on topic. As the topic was countering extremism and while the house of lords stuff is important Islamic Extremism internal and external is more important in Douglas’s mind I think. And the “It would seem to me” part includes a link to an entire explanation of why that would seem to him.

    Its similar to his speech where he proclaimed “that as a gay man he would like to get married, but that he would rather have people reserve their ire for those that want to throw him off a cliff!”

    The other error is more like this. One says: Souls exist, I save them, come to Jesus Other says: Churches don’t deserve tax exempt status. That is not directly discussing the point.

    He is also using Evans as an example here to all secularists/atheists so he is extrapolating from one to the whole. So its not so much a critique of the NSS specifically but as Evans as an example of secularists/atheists in general.

    Besides that I am sometimes under the impression that he still has some nascent wistfulness about his religious upbringing.

    Sorry first time posting here and Non English first language so hope that I made myself clear enough.

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