Secularism is anti-religion. This is the myth heard most often about secularism. But it rests on a misunderstanding. Secularism is a political theory, borne of harsh experience, that religion and politics are a bad mix. The history of government-sponsored intolerance and persecution of religious minorities and of non-believers is long and bloody. Religious people, no less than non-religious, understand this fact. Secularism’s solution, contrary to popular misconception, does not involve banishing religion from the public sphere, but simply to abstain from according it a privileged status. In this atmosphere of freedom for all and special privilege accorded to none, true dialogue can take place.
All secularists are non-religious. This development of Myth One is no less false. Secularists are just as likely to be religious as non-religious. The secular education system in New Zealand, as an example, was brought about largely by religiously committed people who did not trust other religiously committed people to accord them their due freedoms. They understood, wisely, that a secular education system, where no one viewpoint enjoys a special privilege, was the safest option for all beliefs to operate peacefully and without interference. Religious people around the world are waking up to the value of secular societies as the best guarantee for their religious freedoms.
Secular and spiritual are binary opposites. This is another false variation of Myth One. As the Muslim scholar Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na‘im has argued, secular societies are essential for true spirituality because only when an individual can freely chose their religious or spiritual commitment can that commitment be genuine and deep. What value is choosing to be Muslim, to carry on with this example, if the alternatives are against the law or run the risk of ostracism, harassment, even injury or death? In this way, secular and spiritual are not binary opposites but are complementary.
The twentieth century showed how vicious secularism can be. This error rests on the misconception in Myth One and on bad history. The bad history is when Nazi Germany is cited as a secular country and Hitler as an atheist. This is simply not true. Nazism insisted it was a scourge against the decadent, secular Western and Bolshevist nations surrounding it. Freethinkers were persecuted consistently by the Nazis. The Soviet Union, however, was an atheist state but was demonstrably not a secular one. Like religious theocracies, it accorded special privilege to one world view and persecuted others. Secularism opposes the promotion by government of any exclusionary belief system, whether religious or not. Secular societies work best in democracies.
Secular societies are shallow and consumerist. People who make this claim ignore the fact that consumerist values are also rampant in Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of the tightest theocracies on the planet. And the United States, with significantly higher rates of religiosity than other Western countries, is the home of consumerism. It makes no sense to observe the problem of consumerism in secular countries and then to conclude that secular societies are the cause of consumerism. Secular or theocratic, religious or non-religious, we can all agree that consumerism is a blight which needs addressing.
Secularism is just another ideology that has had its day. Some like to speak archly of our becoming ‘post-secular’. The truth is that ‘post-secular’ would also mean ‘post-freedom’ and ‘post-diversity’. Once again, history shows clearly that cultures which embrace diversity and accord freedoms to all and special privileges to none are those most able to prosper, both economically and intellectually. There is no imposing body of theory attached to secularism. It is a simple reflection of a long-understood truth that government should be kept out of religion and religion should be kept out of government. The day we become ‘post’ this insight will be a dark one for us all.
Bill Cooke is an historian of humanism. He is also International Director of the Center for Inquiry, an American-based humanist think-tank. He lives in Auckland.