Secularism 101: What is Secularism?
There have been various contrasting definitions of what secularism means, ever since the term was coined in 1851, by British writer George Jacob Holyoake. Holyoake’s ideas on secularism drew intellectual roots from Greek and Roman Philosophers, Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, and 12th CE Arab Islamic Philosopher, Artisan and Psychologist, Ibn Rushd. Ibn Rushd wrote a lot on Logic and metaphysics, and was a defender of Aristotle’s Natural Science, which encompassed a separation between religion and philosophical thought. Ibn Rushd’s teachings were largely controversial in the Arab and Muslim World at the time, but he had a great impact in Western European circles, and went on to become the “Founding father of secular thought in Europe“. Ibn Rushd, a muslim, argued that religion was based in faith, hence could not be tested scientifically; neither could it be understood by training. Philosophy on the other hand, he said was a science, which those with intellectual capacity, could study, test and understand. When Holyoake coined the term “secularism” it was a means to promote the principle of a social order that was separate from religion (Christianity, as was the case), without necessarily abolishing or criticizing religious belief. Hollyoake argued that:
“Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”
At the heart of Holyoake’s argument was that a secular society was one in which Christians would be free to draw motivation from their religion, cite their doctrines and spur each other on to worship and fulfill religious obligations, but that in the public square, they would have to speak in language everyone else in this same sphere of natural existence, could understand. In other words, there should be a communal language for organizing society, and this language should exist at a level that is independent of the religious truth of any one particular religious group. Though an atheist, Holyoake did not see a secular society as an atheistic society, but a society cohesively built, to recognize both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Consequently, the cause of atheism in a secular society, is not expected to receive attention to arguments, premised on the nonexistence of God, neither should atheists expect the affairs of social life to be void of religion and religious institutions. A secular society is one that seeks to uphold a fair balance between the representation of atheistic beliefs and multi-religious beliefs.
A parallel secular ideology holds sway in the U.S. The phrase “separation of church and state” was derived from a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to Danbury Baptists in Connecticut. Danbury Baptists, a religious minority, were at the time concerned that a religious majority would seize the influence of the state and infringe on their religious liberties by establishing a state religion at the cost of the liberties of religious minorities like themselves (much like religious minorities in Egypt, today, often fear). Jefferson reassured the Danbury Baptists by affirming that religion was a matter solely between a man and his deity, and that freedom of conscience could only be obtained and secured through the “separation of church and state”. He emphasized the state’s responsibility to refrain from exerting authority over ecclesial bodies, in order to not hinder the free exercise of other religious bodies.
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
This social order of rationality amidst religious pluralism, typifies what is referred to as secularism.
There are various measures of secularism: from Strong Secularism – an all-out complete separation of religion and state so that there is little or no religion in public life and the state is in fact blind to religion – to a regulated dissociation of religion and state, in which religion is present in public life, but is constantly being regulated to fit the pace of an ever-changing society; and exists in such a way that religious freedom of expression is guaranteed equally, between religious groups, without favoring, or seeking to represent any one group any more than another. Strong Secularists oppose allowing religious oaths as a condition for holding public sector jobs. They also favour the conversion of all faith schools, to community schools open to all regardless of faith. Strong Secularists also seek to separate “bits of our present-day culture that originated in religion from the religions that inspired them” Some of the ideas appealing to Strong Secularism border on atheism, as secularists essentially are not against the right of individuals to have a religious faith, but characteristically oppose special treatment and privileges based on religious beliefs. All secularists, whatever their secular dose, think that civic protection provided by the law, should be sufficient to protect believers from all forms of discrimination in society, hence are specifically opposed to special laws for certain groups, which invariably places others in disadvantaged positions.
There are also various flavours of secularism: From an all-out abolishment-of-religion type of secular society – as suggested in atheistic circles – to the notion shared by certain Evangelicals and Islamists, where secularism is seen as an umbrella term denoting all the moral ills typifying a modern world. Beyonce on the cover of GQ, Timbuktu Music Festival, Marilyn Manson or even more modest forms of live singing on stage, Consumerism, Kanye West’s ego (errm I mean, sweggu), Harry potter, Big Brother, vajazzling (or pejazzling, whichever suits), the sagging of pants, prostitution, Instagram, lack of community cohesion, and children acting berserk on Super Nanny; are only a few manifestations of a morally debauched type of secular society, from the point of view of an Islamist or a Conservative Christian. Islamists and Conservative christians view secularism as a phobic word, used by people who are only trying to reduce society to an unsalvageable morally debased condition. The G.O.P in U.S and Salafi Al-Nour Party in Egypt, are definitely secularphobic!
Regardless of perceived measure or flavour, secularism in actuality, protects free speech and expression, and is society’s best chance at creating a cohesive society in which people of all religions or none, can live together reasonably, fairly, progressively and peacefully. Republican candidate Charlie Fuqua from the U.S Far Right, actually argued in his book God’s Law, that a death penalty – as described in certain scriptures of the bible – should be incorporated into U.S legislature, to curb childhood rebellion. He offered guidelines from Deut 21:18-21, which he called “a proper procedure” for administering the death penalty.
The obvious problem with the idea of ‘God’s Law’ in the sphere of politics is, it is a recipe for perpetual confusion and inevitable disaster. Not all denominations within christianity acquiesce to the same interpretation of scripture. Catholics and Protestants do not agree on what is the most acceptable means of directing one’s worship to the christian God: shall one pray through the Virgin Mary, or is it an abomination to petition anyone but the Holy Trinity, in prayer? And even if society (meaning all christians and non-christians) agrees on a clear interpretation of the christian God’s Law, can any argument for appropriating this law be made, or justification there of be established, outside the premise of religion? Can one who does not feel about God or the christian God to be more precise, the same way christians who are in favor of legislating Deut 21:18-21 feel, understand why children should be marched to a Court by their parents, and have the court – designed to protect ‘God’s Law’ – issue a death penalty for rebellion? And how much rebellion makes a rebellious child? Does the Christian’s Law Book stipulate clearly, the different levels of rebellion? Is it rebellious for children to acquire tattoos, or is it children talking back to parents that breaks the camel’s back and warrants a state execution? A progressive society ought to maintain an objective and deductive rationale based on available facts, that all members of society can actually understand and apply themselves to. In a democratic society, all ideas and beliefs must be open to discussion. Individuals have rights, ideas do not. Legalizing matters of personal faith, just doesn’t cut it across the board in any society that seriously seeks to uphold pluralism. Secularism is the social order that safeguards neutrality and legislative objectivity.
Just across the shores from the U.S.A; first president of Ghana, and a founding father of Pan-Africanism Kwameh Nkrumah, was a secularist who established a balance between religion in public life, and a separation of religious bodies from the ‘invisible hand’ of government. Nkrumah was not irreligious. He advocated the need for religion in public life but was against politicizing it. He criticized the misuse of religion as an oppressive and colonial instrument of power in the hands of an oligarchy, against the vulnerable and weak. He also criticized the medieval church in Europe – who in league with an elitist class, exercised a ‘divine right to grab’ wealth – for its misappropriation of Aristotelianism, to “salvage sociopolitical advantages”. A christian, he praised the church in general for its humanitarian services, but insisted that religion in society could very easily become an instrument of bourgeoisie social order – one that typifies a clear-cut opportunistic mean to political gains.
Nkrumah envisaged a Ghana that allowed for incorporating religion – all Ghanian religions, including ancient traditional religions – into public life. He considered traditional African religions to be authentic forms of spirituality in their own right. As a homage to ancient African traditions, he attended a memorial service in honour of Gold Coast Native and intellectual James Aggrey, and co-led a procession to Aggrey’s tomb, where libation was poured. He got a good telling off by the church at the time, as libation was considered a “non-christian rite”, but he argued that he would be a “blind christian” if he did not “become a symbol of all that was best in christianity, and in the laws customs, and beliefs of his people” (p. 105).
Nkrumah strived for a society where everyone including all religious and civic leaders would work together to materialize Project Ghana. It was important to protect traditional forms of worship alongside non-traditional forms, because indigenous identity is considered a significant aspect of Pan-Africanism. Nkrumah recognized all Ghanian religious customs, old and new, but maintained that it was necessary to prevent the political exploitation of any religion, from government nepotism, from corrupting nationalist ideology in newly independent Ghana, and from religious fanaticism.
About preserving indigenous soul in the new state of Ghana, Nkrumah stated explicitly:
“It is essential to emphasize in the historical condition of Africa, that the state must be secular” (p. 107)
A secular state does not seek to manipulate or use church or mosque, or any other religion as a means to its own end, nor is it antagonistic towards religious beliefes and practices, but at best, maintains a position of neutrality. In practice, secularism refers to reducing ties between government and a state religion, by replacing laws based on scriptures -such as the bible, torah and sharia laws – with civic laws. A secular state would prosecute a drunken man for driving under the influence, rather than purely for drinking. A secular society would halt the construction of a church or mosque because the construction site is on a natural reserve, not because institutions of faith are prohibited. A secular society would not seek to prosecute a man for apostasy (as religion would be a matter of personal conscience anyway), but would also not defend a woman’s right to defy company dress code policy and wear a crucifix, because although going to church is a religious obligation, wearing a crucifix isn’t – similarly, staff members who believe in the Jedi Order, can’t defy company policy and come into work dressed as Princess Leia! Secularism serves the purpose of removing discrimination based on religious affinity or none thereof, ensuring equality of religious expression in comparison to other religious or non-religious groups, and adding democracy, by protecting the rights of minorities. Simply put, secularism is a movement towards the separation of government from religious institutions, and ensuring that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law!
Religio-political movements understandably view secularism as contradicting what is usually their main objective of creating a matrimony between religion and politics. There are however some deeply religious countries, or countries with majority muslim populations for example, who prefer the ideology of promoting a secular society, over one fashioned after religious laws. Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia, Mali and Senegal are predominantly muslim countries in Africa that are secular. In Asia, Malaysia and Syria are also secular countries with a predominant muslim population. How is it that there are predominantly muslim populations that acquiesce to secularism, considering that predominantly muslim countries like Egypt, Qatar and Mauritania on the other hand, for example, are staunchly opposed to secularism? There are Muslim scholars of today, who argue that secularism is indeed, the best way, or even more succinctly put, the most righteous way to observe sharia (islamic law). Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a professor of law at Emory University and author of ‘The Future of Shari’a: Secularism from an Islamic Perspective‘ argues that:
“enforcing [sharia] through coercive power of the state negates its religious nature, because Muslims would be observing the law of the state and not freely performing their religious obligation as Muslims”
Islamic secularism is a freedom of conscience notion, that parallels Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” ideal. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedom, but ensuring that freedom of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike. Secularism is applicable across religions, precisely because it is the best guarantee of freedom of religious belief, while shunning religious privilege! A secular Egypt would limit the power of the Muslim Brotherhood political party, and ensure that religious leaders do not propose jizya poll tax or enforce sharia on non-muslim citizens, or create an atmosphere that is hostile to the rights of non-muslims. Furthermore, a secular Egypt would maintain the precepts of a civic society, respect religion(s), but also protect the rights of all citizens equally.
While there is religious fundamentalism, there is no such thing as fundamental secularism, or ‘secular fundamentalism’. The only way secularism can take on a fundamentalist stance, is in dogmatically adhering to the fundamental principles of secularism itself: plurality and equality of religious/nonreligious expression. Where religious scarves of one religious group are banned (as was the case in France in 2004), that is not secularism. A secular society in keeping with the principle of equality would ban religious scarves of all groups, not just that of one group over others. Banning one group, or allowing one group freedom of expression, while not allowing others, is not in any way a secular value. It could be racism, or hostility to cultural assimilation, but in no secular rationale is this ‘exclusivity’ towards muslim women, and not muslim women and christian nuns equally, secularly explainable. The case of a banned burqa as well, does not make ‘secular fundamentalism’, because a burqa is not so much a religious duty, as much as it is an Arabic cultural expression. While the hijab is reportedly considered obligatory, “a majority of muslim scholars” have argued that the niqab and burqa are not religious obligations, but merely acts of extra piety; and that historically, muslim women who took up this form of veiling, did it to fit into societies in Arabia and the Indian Subcontinent, who were already veiling before islam. Arguments have also been put forth about how African women for many years fulfilled religious duties associated with the burqa, using traditional African attires, suggesting that the masking veil of the burqa is not so much religious expression, as it is Arabian cultural expression. If there are questions about the religious validity and verifiability of the burqa, as raised by muslim scholars, then does a ban typify religious discrimination? Like the case of the staff dismissed from work for defying company dress code policy and wearing a christian crucifix, secularism is more interested in safeguarding obligatory aspects of faith, not aspects which are non-obligatory personal interpretations at the expense of civic duty, cultural assimilation passing off as religion, and acts of extra piety unverifiable by religious scholars as actual acts of worship in said faith. These bans and dismissals fail to typify any such thing as ‘secular fundamentalism’.
Secularism is a progressive concept that can be applied globally and across religions. It can also serve as an effective bulwark against political corruption and religious extremism. Corruption and extremism are assured in every creed. These two factors will in fact always be present in public life and extremists very easily galvanize support in any society where there is a bountiful supply of disgruntled voices, more so in developing countries that struggle with high poverty and illiteracy rates. As Bob Marley puts it: “a hungry man is an angry man”. Where there is need, the allure of crime abounds. A secular political scene would drastically axe the likelihood of affording momentum to religious extremism, as well as create an atmosphere that is not conducive for the germination of such religio-political movements in the first place, and the byproduct of religious extremism. In a secular society, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being religious, but there is something wrong with allowing politicians and lobbyists to capitalize on religion. As a cherry topping, a secular ideology coupled with anti-colonial musings, would also be the most effective bulwark against imperialism, in African and Middle East countries burdened by the weight of disaster management and neo-imperial interventionism (think of Mali, and this holds true).
In summary, secularism is the process of separating religion from the ‘invisible hand’ of government, and ensuring progressiveness by making people of different religious beliefs equal before the law. It goes without saying that a secular society is the antidote to a christian state or islamic state. Secularism is also not atheism, but seeks to uphold a fair balance between the representation of atheistic beliefs and multi-religious beliefs. Secularism is the perfect balance for protecting both believers and non believers’ right to express faith, in a way that they don’t impinge disproportionately on the rights and freedoms of others. Secularism is a democratic social order that aims to do away with religious privilege and its resulting caste system, so as to ensure equal access to public services. Secularism is a socially-cohesive method of protecting free speech and expression across a religious trajectory – an achievement virtually unattainable in any theocracy!