Multi-secularism: The New Agenda

Paul Kurtz

The battle for secularism has leaped to center stage worldwide; we find it being contested or defended everywhere. Of the world’s fifty-seven Islamic countries, virtually all except Turkey and Tunisia attempt to safeguard or enact Islamic law (sharia) as embodied in the Qur’an. Radical Islamists wage jihad against the secular society. Pope Benedict XVI rails against secularism, portraying it as the major challenge to Roman Catholicism. There have been attempts in Eastern Europe to reestablish the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the United States, the religious Right and its spokespersons—among them Pat Buchanan, Bill O’Reilly, George Weigel, and Newt Gingrich—vociferously castigate secularism. Mitt Romney claims that freedom requires religion (since when?). He says nothing about the rights of unbelievers in America and accuses them of wishing to establish “the religion of secularism.” Regrettably, leading Democratic candidates have thus far remained silent rather than defend the secular society for fear of antagonizing religious supporters. Nevertheless, secularism is growing; it is essential for flourishing vibrant, pluralistic, democratic societies and especially important in today’s developing countries.

However, secularism needs to be adapted to diverse cultural conditions if it is to gain ground. I submit that we cannot legislate secularism uberhaupt without recognizing the cultural traditions in which it emerges. Accordingly, multi-secularism seems to be the best strategy to pursue: that is, adapting secular ideas and values to the societies in which they arise.

The question that I wish to raise is: What is secularism and/or the secular society? I will focus on three main characteristics.

Separation of Church and State

First, secularism refers to the separation of church and state. In the United States, this means the First Amendment’s provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This vital principle implies that the state should be neutral about religion, allowing freedom of conscience and diversity of opinion, including the right to believe or not believe. All citizens are to be treated equally no matter what their religious convictions or lack of them. The state does not officially sanction any religion nor give preferential treatment to its adherents. We are very fortunate that the U.S. Constitution was written under the influence of Enlightenment thinking, and that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Founding Fathers wished to avoid the establishment of the church as it existed in England. Indeed, the United States was the first nation to be based on the separation principle.

I should point out that some ninety-five nation-states have since enacted similar constitutional procedures providing for the separation of church (or temple or mosque) and state. These include France, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, China, South Africa, India, and Australia. Separation is realized in various ways in each of these countries, and there are constant battles to defend separation and keep it from eroding.

Many challenges to the separation principle come from fundamentalist religions including Islam, conservative Hinduism, Orthodox Judaism, evangelical Protestantism, and conservative Roman Catholicism. To our dismay, the Bush administration has often affirmed such opposition—for example, by funding faith-based charities and opposing stem-cell research on moral-theological grounds. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has sought to reestablish the Russian Orthodox Church; in Poland, the Roman Catholic Church seeks to resume its earlier, powerful position. Thus, the idea of the separation of church and state is always under threat. In France, the Libre Penseurs are always on the barricades defending secularism against incursions from the Roman Catholic Church or Islam. In Turkey, the army is ever ready to resist efforts to restrict Kemal Atatürk’s secular constitution.

A key point to recognize is that one does not have to be an atheist or agnostic in order to defend the separation principle. In the United States, most Protestant denominations defend separation, as do secular Jews, liberal Roman Catholics, Unitarians, and members of other denominations. Secular humanists have many allies in this great battle. Indeed, both liberals and conservatives, believers and unbelievers, have stood firmly in support of the First Amendment.

The Secularization of Values

Second, when we talk about secularism we may also refer to societies that cultivate secular values; since the Renaissance, secularity in the ethical domain has been growing in influence. Secularists do not look to salvation and confirmation of the afterlife as their overriding goal, but rather focus on temporal humanist values in the here and now—happiness, self-realization, joyful exuberance, creative endeavors and excellence, the actualization of the good life—not only for the individual but for the greater community. The common moral decencies, goodwill, and altruism are widely accepted, as are the civic virtues of democracy, the right of privacy, the belief that every individual has equal dignity and value, human rights, equality, tolerance, the principles of fairness and justice, the peaceful negotiation of differences, and the willingness to compromise.

The modern age is basically secular. Quite independently of religious beliefs, the world’s economies seek to achieve growth and increase social wealth, thus providing consumers with goods and services that everyone can enjoy. (I note that Pat Robertson and some other religious Right ministers have not eschewed fancy cars and splendid homes.) It would be ludicrous to inject religiosity (save as a perfunctory formality) into the modern corporation. Here the tests are efficiency, productivity, quality products and services, and the bottom line. We are appalled that Islamists in the Middle East oppose charging interest because it is forbidden by the Qur’an, yet use every rationalization to circumvent that prohibition to tap the power of finance. The point is well recognized that no modern society can function if it does not train skilled practitioners in diverse specialties. No nation can survive unless it can master the practical arts and sciences. If I have a toothache, I want a dentist, not a priest; and if I wish to construct a building I had better be damned sure that I have competent architects to draw the plans and that the engineering is solid.

Similarly, it is widely recognized that broad-based education—cultural, historical, intellectual, scientific, and artistic—is the right of every child and that every adult must have the opportunity to expand his or her dimensions of experience and knowledge.

Not the least among secular values of course is free inquiry and freedom of scientific research, the very basis of science and technology. Religious censorship or limitation—such as that intelligent-design advocates seek to impose on scientific theories of evolution—is unacceptable. The free mind is vital for the open society. If one wants to pursue scientific inquiry, then one needs to abide by methodological naturalism: objective standards of evidence, rational coherence, and experimental testing are quite independent of the Bible or Qur’an. Actually, secular considerations are vital in virtually all human interests, from sports and the arts to pharmacology, psychiatry, and meteorology. In these and other areas, religious doctrines are largely irrelevant.

Among the secular values that emerge today is the compelling need to develop a new Planetary Ethics. Because we must share the Earth, no entity can any longer be allowed to attempt to impose an exclusive, doctrinaire religious creed on every man and woman. We live in a multicultural world in which multi-secularism needs to be developed—in which different forms of secularism need to be adapted to the diverse cultural traditions and contexts of specific societies. Thus, we need secularized Christianity, secularized Judaism, secularized Hinduism, and even secularized Islam; all are requisite for societies to be able to cope with their problems. And here the question is, Can we develop a set of shared values and principles that can provide common ground for global civilization? High on the agenda, of course, should be our first responsibilities: to preserve the environment of our common planetary abode, to eliminate poverty and disease, to reach peaceful adjudication of conflicts, and to achieve prosperity for as many people as possible. These are practical problems that demand realistic, secular solutions.

Secularization and Unbelief

There is a third sense of secularism. Some recalcitrant foes of secularism insist that it is synonymous with atheism; some militant atheists agree with them. But I think that this is a mistaken view. Far from being secular, some militant atheists have sought to protect their “faith” by abusing the power of the state. Indeed, some totalitarian regimes that embraced atheism as part of their ideology, such as those in the Soviet Union and Cambodia, have persecuted—even exterminated—their religious opposition.

One thing that distinguishes those who share a secular outlook from those committed to the rule of dogma, whether it is religious or atheistic dogma, is the acceptance of freedom of conscience. Bitter experience has taught many of the religious that a secular state works best for them. Many religious denominations have suffered at the hands of other devout believers: Roman Catholics have persecuted Protestants (as with the suppression of the Huguenots in France), while Protestant states have likewise waged war against Catholics (as in Elizabethan England). Hence, there has been “a war of all against all,” to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes. After centuries of sectarian violence in these places, a truce between contending factions was hard won, and the secular state was the result. Demands for secularity also reflect the experience of religious minorities. Jews have been hounded out of country after country by devout Christians; Sunnis and Shiites have slaughtered each other with impunity; Hindus and Muslims have engaged in bloody communal riots, as have militant Buddhists in some countries. Thus, the separation principle has been agreed to by many sects—even devout Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists in the United States. All have experienced persecution and have welcomed a modus vivendi. Thus, one does not have to be a nonbeliever to accept the separation principle.

The Enlightenment sought to liberate men and women from the stranglehold of religious morality inflicted on them by overzealous “virtue policemen” (we might call them “theo-thugs”). This long process of emancipation began with the defense of free thought in response to the persecutions of Bruno, Galileo, and Spinoza. This same impulse was intrinsic to the American Revolution, which appealed to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and to the French Revolution, which proclaimed “liberty, equality, fraternity” and “the Rights of Man.” Later, biology struggled to overcome intemperate attacks on Darwinism; in medical science, such advances as autopsy and anesthesia required defense against religious intransigence. Today stem-cell research and evolutionary theory are attacked on religious grounds. Such advances as the abolition of slavery, the recognition of women’s rights, and the acceptance of sexual freedom (contraception, abortion, divorce, gay rights, etc.) were achieved only after protracted struggles. Traditional moral beliefs, enshrined in practice and sanctified by religious doctrine, had to be modified or overcome. Modern democratic societies have known long battles to allow diversity of taste and lifestyle.

These secularizing forces grew out of the democratic-humanistic revolutions of the modern world, which recognized that all citizens have equal dignity and value and that the rule of law should apply to poor persons as well as rich ones. Hence, intrinsic to modern democratic-capitalist and socialist societies is an acceptance of the civic virtues of democracy. Again, one does not have to be an atheist to accept libertarian values or the democratization of society.

Now, I grant that it may be difficult for a very devout person to fully accept secularity in ethics. For some believers, the quest for God and/or salvation may trump the pursuit of happiness or the battle for social justice. By the same token, unbelievers may have an easier time fully achieving the fullness of life and the realization of their talents and proclivities, including the satisfaction of sexual desires.

In the war waged on behalf of democratic institutions, there is an ongoing need to defend pluralistic societies that permit individuals “to do their own thing”—even as we hope this might be modified by responsible self-control. If we were to insist that, in the last analysis, secularism is equivalent to atheism, we may do a great disservice to secularism’s importance in the battles for individual autonomy and the right of privacy.

The degree to which religiosity declines brightens the prospects for secularization of values. Many who embrace such values are formally religious, but only nominally affiliated with churches, synagogues, and temples; they are more likely to be receptive to secular attitudes and humanist values and to be tolerant of personal diversity. This is especially the case if they are broadminded, reflective, and perhaps members of their denominations only because of an accident of birth or family pressures.

That is why a negative atheism that seeks simply to destroy religion, without providing a positive agenda, will not in my judgment get very far. The wider platform for human progress as part of a New Enlightenment needs, I submit, to advocate secularism in the above three senses: (1) the separation of religion from the state; (2) the humanization of values that satisfy the deeper interests and needs of human beings; and (3) the decline of religious practice, entailing the growth of the Human City in place of the City of God.

I am not suggesting that we should not critically examine religious claims, especially where they are patently false, injurious, and destructive. The secular world constantly needs to be defended against those who would undermine it, and we need to responsibly examine the transcendental and moral claims of supernaturalism and criticize its pretensions—especially when they impinge on personal freedoms. This latter form of secularism is akin to neo-humanism, a broader, more welcoming expression of the humanist outlook (see my “Neo-Humanism,” FI, October/November 2007).

Accordingly, the secularization of society needs a more inclusive agenda to enlist like-minded nominal religionists to share in defending—and expanding—humanist values. But this must be applied to actual socio-cultural contexts. Longstanding preexisting customs will vary from culture to culture; deeply ingrained ethnicities should be taken into account, including the richness of diverse languages, culinary tastes, and differences in fashion, manners, and other normative conduct. We cannot simply repeal religion and/or hope to wipe it off the map; its tentacles are deeply rooted, and some religions profoundly define the identity of each adherent—even nominal ones. Our approach should be multisecular, adapted to
existing institutions and mores

Christians and Jews, Mormons and Sunnis, Protestants and Buddhists, Hindus and Shiites carry culturally conditioned bundles of attitudes and values; it is a long process to reform behavior and move people’s thinking onto another plane.

One of the basic ingredients of a reformation is to get a clan, sect, or denomination to transact with people of other faiths and convictions, hard as that often is. This involves dialogues and discussion, interaction and intermingling, appreciation and understanding of other points of view, as well as responsible criticism. One of the major dangers of any isolated religious system is that separation and exclusivity tend to solidify its dogmas.

The Agenda for Secularization

High on the agenda of secularization of course is education. We need to insist that all children have the right to appreciate and understand a wider range of cultural experiences—including the study of the sciences, the development of critical thinking, and exposure to world history, the arts, philosophy, comparative study of religions, and alternative political and economic systems. This entails recognizing the rights of children as human beings. Parents cannot starve, beat, or cruelly punish their children. Similarly, they should not prohibit them from receiving a full education. Indoctrination is an assault on the rights of children as persons.

The liberation of women from domination by men is also high on the secularizing agenda; women must be free to work and travel and to pursue independent careers, not be confined only to housework and menial jobs. Women have a right to an education and to pursue the roles they choose in their society’s economic, political, and cultural life. They have equal dignity and value and should have equal status. This is today widely accepted in advanced democratic societies. It is rejected in most Muslim societies, and this is the Achilles heel of those societies that so badly needs to be pierced.

It follows, of course, that individuals should be permitted to marry or partner with whomever they wish, even if that means going outside their faith. Women should be accorded the same freedoms and responsibilities as men.

The secularization process is proceeding rapidly in today’s world: Protestants and Catholics now intermarry in spite of earlier prohibitions; so do Jews and Christians, Asians and Anglos, blacks and whites. How encouraging that Ireland and Spain, formerly bastions of Catholic authoritarianism, have rapidly secularized and adopted humanistic values. Secular Jews likewise eschew Orthodoxy. Although they may retain some degree of ethnic loyalty, large percentages of contemporary Jews have sought mates outside their religion. They look to Spinoza and Mendelssohn, Einstein and Salk—modern Jews who heralded science and the arts—rather than to the ancient prophets of the Hebrew Bible. There is a beginning effort on the part of secularized Muslims, especially in Western democracies, to adopt the democratic ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity and to become more tolerant of the multiplicity of faiths as they begin to study the sciences and enter secular professions.

There are perhaps one and a half billion people on the planet today who are nonreligious, and their numbers are growing. These include agnostics and atheists but also people who are simply indifferent to existing religions. As I pointed out, there are also significant numbers of nominal members of religious bodies who are skeptical and need to break the stranglehold of the so-called sacred texts. We should point out that although we may appreciate the historical, literary, and moral values that traditional religions have bequeathed to us, nonetheless we wish to focus on other sources of inspiration that are more relevant to life today: modern science and philosophy, the vast reservoir of the secular arts and literature, and the ever- expansive richness of cultural diversity. The Sermon on the Mount is beautiful, as is much in Buddhism, but neither should yoke us to the past.

The United States is an anomaly among advanced nations because of its widespread public piety. Europe is basically postreligious; only a negligible minority still practices the old-time religion. Similar phenomena prevail in Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, and elsewhere in the world.

In the United States, the number of secularists is growing. A rapidly increasing segment of the public is the unchurched, untempled, and unmosqued. Religion has little impact on their lives. According to a recent Barna poll, the unchurched comprise 43 percent of the population. These people belong to no church and very rarely worship or attend services. They are secular too; saying that a person is secular does not necessarily mean that he or she is an atheist or even antireligious. I submit that secularism can provide affirmative alternatives for nonreligious men and women of every kind. Hence, we should focus on the nonreligious as our constituency. Indeed, a large number of ordinary folks, a majority of scientists in the United States, Nobel Prize winners, and people affiliated with our research universities and colleges, artists, and poets—people from every walk of life or occupation—express a secular outlook and exemplify ethical beliefs that are thoroughly secular and humanistic in appeal. The defining characteristic of secularists is simply that they are nonreligious.

In the spirit of cooperation and goodwill, we need to convince our neighbors that we can lead the good life and be good citizens and devoted parents without the trappings of religion, God, or clergy.

We need to demonstrate this by practicing good works. And, indeed, we do!

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The battle for secularism has leaped to center stage worldwide; we find it being contested or defended everywhere. Of the world’s fifty-seven Islamic countries, virtually all except Turkey and Tunisia attempt to safeguard or enact Islamic law (sharia) as embodied in the Qur’an. Radical Islamists wage jihad against the secular society. Pope Benedict XVI rails …

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