Thinking Secularism Through: The Open Society and Its Enemies–Part 3

Floris van den Berg

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4443-3521-7) 328 pp. Paper $29.95.

Secularism is one of those concepts that is widely used without a clear notion of what it is. Dutch humanist philosopher Paul Cliteur’s The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism supplies a theoretical clarification of what secularism is and what it is not. However, the book is more than a helpful analytical exercise—it is also an urgent plea for political and moral secularism:

[This book] is not primarily concerned with defending atheism, nor does it defend theism—its central concern is to show how religious believers and unbelievers can live peacefully together and what principles the state should try to stimulate in its citizenry to achieve social harmony and social cohesion. The underlying idea is that the basic principles of secularism are important for the time in which we live. (p. 2)

Cliteur takes the reader on an intellectual journey into the history of ideas, highlighting (nowadays not often read) nineteenth-century freethinkers like George Jacob Holyoake and William Kingdon Clifford. Cliteur is exceptionally well read and an enthusiastic guide to intellectual history. He delineates four aspects of the secular outlook: atheism, criticism of religion, freedom of expression, and moral autonomy. As such, if you are an outspoken liberal atheist, you have what Cliteur calls “a secular outlook.” The so-called New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, and the British philosopher Anthony Grayling all have a secular outlook. Cliteur’s book itself is part of the recent explosion of New Atheist books (although there is some friction, which I will elaborate on), but he shifts his focus from atheism to secularism, and atheism is not secularism. Atheism is an intellectual position declaring the nonexistence of God. Secularism is an intellectual position on the relationship between morality and religion (moral secularism) and politics and religion (political secularism).

Cliteur makes a helpful distinction between secularization and secularism. Secularization is a measure of how much social and political life is influenced by religion. It is the process of a decreasing influence of religion on politics and society. Secularization and its causes are much studied by social scientists. Secularism, on the other hand, is a normative notion. It is a nonreligious outlook on how ethics and politics—including their relationships with religion—should be. Religion’s domain is in the private sphere, according to Cliteur; religion is like a hobby.

Cliteur is a liberal who holds that, in the Millian tradition, the freedom of the individual is the ultimate value. Individuals are free to think and do what they like, as long as they do not harm others. It won’t come as a surprise that Cliteur is a political secularist who argues for a strong separation of religion and state. It is a pity that he does not address the hard issue of the involvement of religion in education.

The Secular Outlook seems to miss a concluding chapter. Cliteur assumes that he has moved the ball toward the goal and because there is no keeper, anyone can kick it in. The problem is that Cliteur’s intellectual journey is so long and winding that readers may have difficulty summing up a conclusion. In this review, I will try to “kick the ball in” and sum up the book. The clear structure of the four chapters provides help.

In chapter 1, “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism,” Cliteur makes a plea for a narrow interpretation of atheism. I am quite sure Cliteur does not believe in zombies or the Hindu pantheon, but he chooses to limit his definition of atheism to a disbelief in monotheism because he believes it to be the most dangerous. He contrasts atheism with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Cliteur’s narrow atheism is at odds with the broad atheism of New Atheists like Grayling and Dawkins. One of Grayling’s books, for example, is titled Against All Gods. Broad atheists not only deny the existence of the monotheist god, but of all gods and transcendental entities (like fairies and zombies). Cliteur is concerned about the negative connotations the word atheism has in common usage: “. . . although atheism is a defensible position, the odds appear very much against it” (p. 65).

Another strategy would be to proudly use atheism and call oneself an atheist. As I have argued elsewhere, nonbelief (=atheism) is the default position; believing in something without evidence is the essence of belief and is irrational. This principle is why Dawkins speaks about delusions (The God Delusion): people who believe in God, gods, or zombies are deluded.

Atheism as part of the secular outlook should primarily be private atheism or non-theism: skeptical towards public atheism, and downright dismissive of political atheism. (p. 68)

Cliteur, because of his liberal approach, writes against “political atheism”—a position promoting atheism and forbidding religion. It is not quite clear to me what he means by “public atheism”; would this include writing books about atheism, lecturing about atheism, and the atheism campaigns of 2009? Why could public atheism not be part of the secular outlook, or only regrettably tolerated? Cliteur concludes that atheists had better not call themselves “atheists” but instead “nontheists,” and that they should preferably keep their nontheism private. In this sense, Cliteur distances himself from the outspoken “missionary” New Atheism.

Surprisingly, the second chapter is titled “Criticism of Religion,” which is usually a form of public atheism: atheists are atheists because they publicly criticize religion. Cliteur argues that in an open society, religion should be allowed to be criticized like any other idea or opinion. He brings to the reader’s attention the largely forgotten tradition of freethought (though freethought organizations still linger on). Freethought, according to Cliteur, consists of two pillars: criticism of religion and (the subject of his next chapter) freedom of expression. Although, according to Cliteur, atheism should be a private matter, freethought “has an important function to fulfill”:

My claim is that the secular outlook manifests itself primarily in the attitude of the freethinker. Freethought is a public doctrine. It has great significance for the furtherance of culture. Characteristic of the freethinker is: (a) the conviction (or at least the acknowledgment) that religions also have darker sides and (b) that freedom of speech is an important principle in questioning and criticizing those darker sides. (p. 172)

It seems that the distinction between freethought and (public) atheism might be problematic. Dutch freethought organization De Vrije Gedachte (“Free Thought”) calls its preferred stance “atheistic humanism.” Freethought usually entails atheism and criticism of religion. Indeed, not everyone criticizing religion or an aspect thereof is an atheist, though critically thinking about religion quite frequently leads to atheism. Critique of religion has been—and in some countries still is—very difficult due to the threat of violence, submission, and censorship. Religion still has a privileged position among the spectrum of ideas. For example, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) not only mentions freedom of expression but also freedom of religion. Those two freedoms can contradict each other; when religion is being criticized, believers can argue that their freedom of religion is being curtailed.

Cliteur shows that, in the texts of the Abrahamic religions, passages exist that justify and encourage violence and terror. In other words, terrorists can find justification in the scriptures. “The problem is that if Scriptures are, indeed, considered ‘holy,’ even though they contain only a small number of passages that incite violence, they can still cause much harm” (p. 121). Cliteur then quotes Islam scholar Bernard Lewis, who has written that “terrorism only requires a few.”

“Freedom of Expression” (chapter 3) is the second pillar of freethought:

Although freedom of speech is the real motor behind all change and all cultural, political and scientific improvement, we always have to remind ourselves that freedom of speech was once a highly contested principle (and still is in many parts of the world). (p. 143)

. . . Religious intolerance is still a major factor in contemporary society and one can even say that an upsurge of it has manifested itself in recent years. (p. 144)

Cliteur argues that freedom of expression is in danger due to (1) violence (as in the murder of Theo van Gogh); (2) the threat of violence (as in the fatwa placed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie); and (3) public intellectuals and politicians who believe that freedom of expression should not include (involuntarily) offending or insulting believers. As a result, there is an upsurge in self-censorship in open societies because of this threat of violence.

The Secular Outlook reminds me of Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals (1927), in which Benda denounces as moral traitors those who betray truth and justice in favor of racial and political considerations: what we today would call “political correctness.” Cliteur argues that many intellectuals do not want to criticize religion, even if they are not believers themselves, like the cynical British philosopher John Gray. In not wanting to criticize religion, and in attacking those who do, these intellectuals form a cordon sanitaire around religious fundamentalists as they promote multiculturalism and postmodern relativism. These (indirect) apologists of religion are enemies of the open society. In the 1940s, when Karl Popper wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies, the dangers to the open society were Nazism and communism. Popper argues that danger comes from within our own philosophical tradition—that thinkers like Plato, Hegel, and Marx deferred to the utopian temptation to create the ideal of a closed, totalitarian society in which the individual subjects to the state.

Cliteur adds a new enemy of the open society: the heteronomous tradition of ethics, exemplified by the divine-command theory. Religion is not part of the solution, but part of the problem. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all share the moral horror story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac when asked to by God. It is the apologists of religion who do not want to see that the monotheistic tradition is in itself a danger to secularism, freedom of expression, and individual liberty. Christianity nowadays is more or less tamed by secularization—though the danger of moral heteronomy still lurks—while Islam inspires religious terrorism. To defend freedom and humanist values, the secular outlook is of the utmost importance. The enemy of the open society is not only Osama bin Laden and his disciples but also politicians like Tony Blair and Job Cohen (former major of Amsterdam) and intellectuals like Karen Armstrong, Tariq Ramadan, and Gray, who serve as apologists for religion.

In the fourth and last chapter, Cliteur pleads for moral and political secularism—the distinction between them having originated in my pamphlet How to Get Rid of Religion? An Inconvenient Liberal Paradox. Moral secularism means that morality is not based on the commands of others (moral heteronomy), but on moral autonomy. Political secularism is about organizing the state so that religion is separated from it. Political secularism means that religion is seen as a club of individuals, without any privileges over other clubs. Political secularism is easier to organize than moral secularism. Education and public discourse could and should encourage moral autonomy above moral heteronomy (that is, religious ethics). Cliteur shows that in the wake of religious terrorism, many Western states have chosen the path away from political secularism toward “liberal religion” (i.e., liberal Islam). He sharply analyzes the dangers of this approach, which undermines the open society as based on freedom of expression, freedom of the individual (which Cliteur however does not emphasize), and critique of religion.

In conclusion, or trying to “kick the ball in”: the secular outlook entails (private) atheism (nontheism), criticism of religion, freedom of religion, and political and moral secularism. Thoroughgoing secularism is the best way of coping with the problem of multireligious societies. The secular outlook provides the framework within which “religious believers and unbelievers can live peacefully together” (from the book’s back cover jacket.) It also provides the “principles the state should try to stimulate in its citizenry to achieve social harmony and social cohesion.”

A large part of the strength of The Secular Outlook is in the detailed analyses. Paul Cliteur criticizes many politically correct “thinkers,” such as Ramadan and Armstrong, who deny that there is anything wrong with religion (especially Islam) per se. He reminds us that—despite what many popular writers on religion and many politicians (like Tony Blair) say—theism can be used to inspire and justify religious terrorism. A well-argued secular outlook is the cure for the problem of religion-inspired and religion-justified terrorism and subjection of freedom. The secular outlook is the moral and political ideal necessary for the open society to embrace to protect itself from the enemy of religious terrorism.

Floris van den Berg

Floris van den Berg studied philosophy and works at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, as a program maker for the Department of General Studies. He is completing a thesis on the incompatility of religion and morality. The author thanks Annemarieke Otten for her many useful comments in preparing this article.


The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4443-3521-7) 328 pp. Paper $29.95. Secularism is one of those concepts that is widely used without a clear notion of what it is. Dutch humanist philosopher Paul Cliteur’s The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism …

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