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14

SECULARISM

Acknowledge your shadow

What does it mean to be secular? Secularism is sometimes defined as the negation of religion, and secular people are therefore characterised by what they don’t believe and do. According to this definition, secular people do not believe in any gods or angels, do not go to churches and temples, and do not perform rites and rituals. As such, the secular world appears to be hollow, nihilistic and amoral – an empty box waiting to be filled with something.

Few people would adopt such a negative identity. Self-professing secularists view secularism in a very different way. For them, secularism is a very positive and active world view, which is defined by a coherent code of values rather than by opposition to this or that religion. Indeed, many of the secular values are shared by various religious traditions. Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. They don’t think that morality and wisdom came down from heaven in one particular place and time. Rather, morality and wisdom are the natural legacy of all humans. So it is only to be expected that at least some values would pop up in human societies all over the world, and would be common to Muslims, Christians, Hindus and atheists.

Religious leaders often present their followers with a stark either/or choice – either you are Muslim, or you are not. And if you are Muslim, you should reject all other doctrines. In contrast, secular people are comfortable with multiple hybrid identities. As far as secularism is concerned, you can go on calling yourself a Muslim and continuing to pray to Allah, eat halal food and make the haj to Mecca – yet also be a good member of secular society, provided you adhere to the secular ethical code. This ethical code – which is indeed accepted by millions of Muslims, Christians and Hindus as well as by atheists – enshrines the values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility. It forms the foundation of modern scientific and democratic institutions.

Like all ethical codes, the secular code is an ideal to aspire to rather than a social reality. Just as Christian societies and Christian institutions often deviate from the Christian ideal, so too secular societies and institutions often fall far short of the secular ideal. Medieval France was a self-proclaimed Christian kingdom, but it dabbled in all kinds of not-very-Christian activities (just ask the downtrodden peasantry). Modern France is a self-proclaimed secular state, but from the days of Robespierre onwards it took some troubling liberties with the very definition of liberty (just ask women). That does not mean that secular people – in France or elsewhere – lack a moral compass or an ethical commitment. It just means that it is not easy to live up to an ideal.

The secular ideal

What then is the secular ideal? The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith. Seculars strive not to confuse truth with belief. If you have a very strong belief in some story, that may tell us a lot of interesting things about your psychology, about your childhood, and about your brain structure – but it does not prove that the story is true. (Often, strong beliefs are needed precisely when the story isn’t true.) In addition, seculars do not sanctify any group, any person or any book as if it and it alone has sole custody of the truth. Instead, secular people sanctify the truth wherever it may reveal itself – in ancient fossilised bones, in images of far-off galaxies, in tables of statistical data, or in the writings of various human traditions. This commitment to the truth underlies modern science, which has enabled humankind to split the atom, decipher the genome, track the evolution of life, and understand the history of humanity itself.

The other chief commitment of secular people is to compassion. Secular ethics relies not on obeying the edicts of this or that god, but rather on a deep appreciation of suffering. For example, secular people abstain from murder not because some ancient book forbids it, but because killing inflicts immense suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because ‘God says so’. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches, adulterers or foreigners?

Of course, in the absence of absolute divine commandments, secular ethics often faces difficult dilemmas. What happens when the same action hurts one person but helps another? Is it ethical to levy high taxes on the rich in order to help the poor? To wage a bloody war in order to remove a brutal dictator? To allow an unlimited number of refugees into our country? When secular people encounter such dilemmas, they do not ask ‘What does God command?’ Rather, they weigh carefully the feelings of all concerned parties, examine a wide range of observations and possibilities, and search for a middle path that will cause as little harm as possible.

Consider, for example, attitudes to sexuality. How do secular people decide whether to endorse or oppose rape, homosexuality, bestiality and incest? By examining feelings. Rape is obviously unethical, not because it breaks some divine commandment, but because it hurts people. In contrast, a loving relationship between two men harms no one, so there is no reason to forbid it.

What then about bestiality? I have participated in numerous private and public debates about gay marriage, and all too often some wise guy asks ‘If marriage between two men is OK, why not allow marriage between a man and a goat?’ From a secular perspective the answer is obvious. Healthy relationships require emotional, intellectual and even spiritual depth. A marriage lacking such depth will make you frustrated, lonely and psychologically stunted. Whereas two men can certainly satisfy the emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of one another, a relationship with a goat cannot. Hence if you see marriage as an institution aimed at promoting human well-being – as secular people do – you would not dream of even raising such a bizarre question. Only people who see marriage as some kind of miraculous ritual might do so.

So how about relations between a father and his daughter? Both are humans, so what’s wrong with that? Well, numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that such relations inflict immense and usually irreparable harm on the child. In addition, they reflect and intensify destructive tendencies in the parent. Evolution has shaped the Sapiens psyche in such a way that romantic bonds just don’t mix well with parental bonds. Therefore you don’t need God or the Bible to oppose incest – you just need to read the relevant psychological studies.1 This is the deep reason why secular people cherish scientific truth. Not in order to satisfy their curiosity, but in order to know how best to reduce the suffering in the world. Without the guidance of scientific studies, our compassion is often blind.

The twin commitments to truth and compassion result also in a commitment to equality. Though opinions differ regarding questions of economic and political equality, secular people are fundamentally suspicious of all a priori hierarchies. Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it; and knowledge is knowledge, no matter who discovers it. Privileging the experiences or the discoveries of a particular nation, class or gender is likely to make us both callous and ignorant. Secular people are certainly proud of the uniqueness of their particular nation, country and culture – but they don’t confuse ‘uniqueness’ with ‘superiority’. Hence though secular people acknowledge their special duties towards their nation and their country, they don’t think these duties are exclusive, and they simultaneously acknowledge their duties towards humanity as a whole.

We cannot search for the truth and for the way out of suffering without the freedom to think, investigate, and experiment. Secular people cherish freedom, and refrain from investing supreme authority in any text, institution or leader as the ultimate judge of what’s true and what’s right. Humans should always retain the freedom to doubt, to check again, to hear a second opinion, to try a different path. Secular people admire Galileo Galilei who dared to question whether the earth really sits motionless at the centre of the universe; they admire the masses of common people who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and brought down the despotic regime of Louis XVI; and they admire Rosa Parks who had the courage to sit down on a bus seat reserved for white passengers only.

It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown. Secular education teaches us that if we don’t know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our ignorance and looking for new evidence. Even if we think we know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of doubting our opinions and checking ourselves again. Many people are afraid of the unknown, and want clear-cut answers for every question. Fear of the unknown can paralyse us more than any tyrant. People throughout history worried that unless we put all our faith in some set of absolute answers, human society will crumble. In fact, modern history has demonstrated that a society of courageous people willing to admit ignorance and raise difficult questions is usually not just more prosperous but also more peaceful than societies in which everyone must unquestioningly accept a single answer. People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

Finally, secular people cherish responsibility. They don’t believe in any higher power that takes care of the world, punishes the wicked, rewards the just, and protects us from famine, plague or war. We flesh-and-blood mortals must take full responsibility for whatever we do – or don’t do. If the world is full of misery, it is our duty to find solutions. Secular people take pride in the immense achievements of modern societies, such as curing epidemics, feeding the hungry, and bringing peace to large parts of the world. We need not credit any divine protector with these achievements – they resulted from humans developing their own knowledge and compassion. Yet for exactly the same reason, we need to take full responsibility for the crimes and failings of modernity, from genocides to ecological degradation. Instead of praying for miracles, we need to ask what we can do to help.

These are the chief values of the secular world. As noted earlier, none of these values is exclusively secular. Jews also value the truth, Christians value compassion, Muslims value equality, Hindus value responsibility, and so forth. Secular societies and institutions are happy to acknowledge these links and to embrace religious Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus, provided that when the secular code collides with religious doctrine, the latter gives way. For example, to be accepted into secular society, Orthodox Jews are expected to treat non-Jews as their equals, Christians should avoid burning heretics at the stake, Muslims must respect freedom of expression, and Hindus ought to relinquish caste-based discrimination.

In contrast, there is no expectation that religious people should deny God or abandon traditional rites and rituals. The secular world judges people on the basis of their behaviour rather than of their favourite clothes and ceremonies. A person can follow the most bizarre sectarian dress code and practise the strangest of religious ceremonies, yet act out of a deep commitment to the core secular values. There are plenty of Jewish scientists, Christian environmentalists, Muslim feminists and Hindu human-rights activists. If they are loyal to scientific truth, to compassion, to equality and to freedom, they are full members of the secular world, and there is absolutely no reason to demand that they take off their yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs or tilakas.

For similar reasons, secular education does not mean a negative indoctrination that teaches kids not to believe in God and not to take part in any religious ceremonies. Rather, secular education teaches children to distinguish truth from belief; to develop their compassion for all suffering beings; to appreciate the wisdom and experiences of all the earth’s denizens; to think freely without fearing the unknown; and to take responsibility for their actions and for the world as a whole.

Was Stalin secular?

It is therefore groundless to criticise secularism for lacking ethical commitments or social responsibilities. In fact, the main problem with secularism is just the opposite. It probably sets the ethical bar too high. Most people just cannot live up to such a demanding code, and large societies cannot be run on the basis of the open-ended quest for truth and compassion. Especially in times of emergency – such as war or economic crisis – societies must act promptly and forcefully, even if they are not sure what is the truth and what is the most compassionate thing to do. They need clear guidelines, catchy slogans and inspiring battle cries. Since it is difficult to send soldiers into battle or impose radical economic reforms in the name of doubtful conjectures, secular movements repeatedly mutate into dogmatic creeds.

For example, Karl Marx began by claiming that all religions were oppressive frauds, and he encouraged his followers to investigate for themselves the true nature of the global order. In the following decades the pressures of revolution and war hardened Marxism, and by the time of Stalin the official line of the Soviet Communist Party said that the global order was too complicated for ordinary people to understand, hence it was best always to trust the wisdom of the party and do whatever it told you to do, even when it orchestrated the imprisonment and extermination of tens of millions of innocent people. It may look ugly, but as party ideologues never got tired of explaining, revolution isn’t a picnic, and if you want an omelette you need to break a few eggs.

Whether one should view Stalin as a secular leader is therefore a matter of how we define secularism. If we use the minimalist negative definition – ‘secular people don’t believe in God’ – then Stalin was definitely secular. If we use a positive definition – ‘secular people reject all unscientific dogmas and are committed to truth, compassion and freedom’ – then Marx was a secular luminary, but Stalin was anything but. He was the prophet of the godless but extremely dogmatic religion of Stalinism.

Stalinism is not an isolated example. On the other side of the political spectrum, capitalism too began as a very open-minded scientific theory, but gradually solidified into a dogma. Many capitalists keep repeating the mantra of free markets and economic growth, irrespective of realities on the ground. No matter what awful consequences occasionally result from modernisation, industrialisation or privatisation, capitalist true-believers dismiss them as mere ‘growing pains’, and promise that everything will be made good through a bit more growth.

Middle-of-the-road liberal democrats have been more loyal to the secular pursuit of truth and compassion, but even they sometimes abandon it in favour of comforting dogmas. Thus when confronted by the mess of brutal dictatorships and failed states, liberals often put their unquestioning faith in the awesome ritual of general elections. They fight wars and spend billions in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo in the firm belief that holding general elections will magically turn these places into sunnier versions of Denmark. This despite repeated failures, and despite the fact that even in places with an established tradition of general elections these rituals occasionally bring to power authoritarian populists, and result in nothing grander than majority dictatorships. If you try to question the alleged wisdom of general elections, you won’t be sent to the gulag, but you are likely to get a very cold shower of dogmatic abuse.

Of course, not all dogmas are equally harmful. Just as some religious beliefs have benefited humanity, so also have some secular dogmas. This is particularly true of the doctrine of human rights. The only place rights exist is in the stories humans invent and tell one another. These stories were enshrined as a self-evident dogma during the struggle against religious bigotry and autocratic governments. Though it isn’t true that humans have a natural right to life or liberty, belief in this story curbed the power of authoritarian regimes, protected minorities from harm, and safeguarded billions from the worst consequences of poverty and violence. It thereby contributed to the happiness and welfare of humanity probably more than any other doctrine in history.

Yet it is still a dogma. Thus article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights says that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression’. If we understand this is a political demand (‘everyone should have the right to freedom of opinion’), this is perfectly sensible. But if we believe that each and every Sapiens is naturally endowed with a ‘right to freedom of opinion’, and that censorship therefore violates some law of nature, we miss the truth about humanity. As long as you define yourself as ‘an individual possessing inalienable natural rights’, you will not know who you really are, and you will not understand the historical forces that shaped your society and your own mind (including your belief in ‘natural rights’).

Such ignorance perhaps mattered little in the twentieth century, when people were busy fighting Hitler and Stalin. But it might become fatal in the twenty-first century, because biotechnology and artificial intelligence now seek to change the very meaning of humanity. If we are committed to the right to life, does that imply we should use biotechnology to overcome death? If we are committed to the right to liberty, should we empower algorithms that decipher and fulfil our hidden desires? If all humans enjoy equal human rights, do superhumans enjoy super-rights? Secular people will find it difficult to engage with such questions as long as they are committed to a dogmatic belief in ‘human rights’.

The dogma of human rights was shaped in previous centuries as a weapon against the Inquisition, the ancien régime, the Nazis and the KKK. It is hardly equipped to deal with superhumans, cyborgs and super-intelligent computers. While human rights movements have developed a very impressive arsenal of arguments and defences against religious biases and human tyrants, this arsenal hardly protects us against consumerist excesses and technological utopias.

Acknowledging the shadow

Secularism should not be equated with Stalinist dogmatism or with the bitter fruits of Western imperialism and runaway industrialisation. Yet it cannot shirk all responsibility for them, either. Secular movements and scientific institutions have mesmerised billions with promises to perfect humanity and to utilise the bounty of planet Earth for the benefit of our species. Such promises resulted not just in overcoming plagues and famines, but also in gulags and melting ice caps. You might well argue that this is all the fault of people misunderstanding and distorting the core secular ideals and the true facts of science. And you are absolutely right. But that is a common problem for all influential movements.

For example, Christianity has been responsible for great crimes such as the Inquisition, the Crusades, the oppression of native cultures across the world, and the disempowerment of women. A Christian might take offence at this and retort that all these crimes resulted from a complete misunderstanding of Christianity. Jesus preached only love, and the Inquisition was based on a horrific distortion of his teachings. We can sympathise with this claim, but it would be a mistake to let Christianity off the hook so easily. Christians appalled by the Inquisition and by the Crusades cannot just wash their hands of these atrocities – they should rather ask themselves some very tough questions. How exactly did their ‘religion of love’ allow itself to be distorted in such a way, and not once, but numerous times? Protestants who try to blame it all on Catholic fanaticism are advised to read a book about the behaviour of Protestant colonists in Ireland or in North America. Similarly, Marxists should ask themselves what it was about the teachings of Marx that paved the way to the Gulag, scientists should consider how the scientific project lent itself so easily to destabilising the global ecosystem, and geneticists in particular should take warning from the way the Nazis hijacked Darwinian theories.

Every religion, ideology and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the naïve reassurance that ‘it cannot happen to us’. Secular science has at least one big advantage over most traditional religions, namely that it is not terrified of its shadow, and it is in principle willing to admit its mistakes and blind spots. If you believe in an absolute truth revealed by a transcendent power, you cannot allow yourself to admit any error – for that would ify your whole story. But if you believe in a quest for truth by fallible humans, admitting blunders is an inherent part of the game.

This is also why undogmatic secular movements tend to make relatively modest promises. Aware of their imperfections, they hope to effect small incremental changes, raising the minimum wage by a few dollars or reducing child mortality by a few percentage points. It is the mark of dogmatic ideologies that due to their excessive self-confidence they routinely vow the impossible. Their leaders speak all too freely about ‘eternity’, ‘purity’ and ‘redemption’, as if by enacting some law, building some temple, or conquering some piece of territory they could save the entire world in one grand gesture.

As we come to make the most important decisions in the history of life, I personally would trust more in those who admit ignorance than in those who claim infallibility. If you want your religion, ideology or world view to lead the world, my first question to you is: ‘What was the biggest mistake your religion, ideology or world view committed? What did it get wrong?’ If you cannot come up with something serious, I for one would not trust you.

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