Atheism and Secularism

This is the text of a talk presented to the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church, 3 Febuary 2008.

In speaking about secularism to an audience of Unitarians, it worthwhile to mention that some of the early Unitarians were also prominent secularists. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, authors of the American constitution, were associates of Unitarianism and the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill was a Unitarian. They were also, I think, prominent secularists. While the ideals of secularism may have been effectively promoted in those days, the importance of secularism today has largely been forgotten.

Before proceeding, it may be useful to provide some rough definitions of atheism, humanism and secularism. Atheism is best considered as the acceptance that there are no gods or supernatural beings, rather than a dogmatic assertion that such things do to exist. Thus there may be little difference between atheists and agnostics who may share this view. Humanism is a non-religious ethical philosophy of life that encompasses atheism. Secularism is the humanist philosophy applied to the political realm. Generally secularism is taken to mean the separation of religion from the institutions of state, although it can mean more than that.  In short humanism is ethical atheism and secularism is political humanism.

The first thing to note about secularism is that it is not inherently anti-religious. It is merely opposed to the involuntary imposition of religious doctrines. Secularism is opposed to theocracy, in which there is no religious freedom. Secularism is the guarantee of freedom of religion at least in so far as its pursuit does not interfere with the rights of others.

It should be conceded that religions provide consolation to believers and inspire charitable works. The problem with religions is that on balance the bad outweighs the good. Religions cause division and conflict. Religion’s claim to legitimacy as a beneficial social institution ended, for many at least, on September 11, 2001. The vengeful “war on terror” that followed has raised serious concerns that religions pose a serious threat to the future of humanity. The fact that religiously inspired atrocities cause the religious to become even more religious has caused alarm amongst the rationally minded, inspiring a new wave of books on the subject, notably by Richard Dawkins.

The religious may not like the assertion, but religions are a departure from rationality, and are essentially delusions. All believers think that their religion is the only one that is true. We effectively, as a society, pretend that all religions are true (or that all somehow contain the same “Truth”). However they obviously cannot all be true because they all make conflicting truth claims. How does society cope with this gross manifestation of public irrationality? We generally avoid mentioning it.

Similar sentiments are observed at ecumenical multi-faith gatherings of religious leaders and academics. They are full of mutual congratulations as to how they are able to all come together and talk amicably. They can even express sentiments such as “we all believe the same thing”. The fact that all religions make conflicting truth claims is studiously avoided. Even then, discussions can get a bit heated if the subject of shared prayer rooms at universities arises, for example.

Something that such groups might grudgingly admit however, is that although they may resent the implication that secularism is a slight upon their beliefs, secularism may be good at keeping the peace between religions and in providing a guarantee of religious freedom.

Most religious people however, are unlikely to strongly advocate secularism, even though as minorities, they may benefit from it. Further, non-religious people may hesitate in strongly advocating secularism, for fear of offending religious people. Stronger action id now needed, by those who are able, to advocate reason and secularism.

The political philosopher John Rawls advocated a policy of “public reason” in terms of his theory of justice. He argued that no ideology or ethnic group should be privileged over any other, and that all citizens have a duty to public reason to resolve all issues that may arise. He based his theory on the notion that if one did not know beforehand what ones position in society was going to be, then one would choose a society that operated in accordance with these ideals. Regarding religion, it would seem, society is currently falling down somewhat in its obligation to public reason.

The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume was critical of religion and exposed the fraudulent nature of religious miracles. He also wrote about the distinction between fact and value, and explained that “there is no ought from is”. The distinction may not be totally clear cut however, because if something is true, it ought to be believed. Likewise patent falsity should not be. When it comes to religion, social norms fall well short of a desirable state of public rationality. Secularism at least serves to promote the improved rationality required.

A major question is why are people seemingly so prone to this form of irrationality as a mass delusion? Why do people believe? Part of the answer is sociological, in that is it induced through childhood indoctrination and pervasive cultural imperatives.  However the reasons for the persistence of religion may be more psychological.

Sigmund Freud’s proposition was that the concept of a god as a father figure is an adult projection of the infantile perception of a benevolent and seemingly omnipotent parent. Tamas Pataki in his recent book “Against Religion” elaborates on this as a projection of an infantile attachment. The psychological attachment of infant to parent is mirrored in later personal relationships and can take a narcissistic form in terms of the development of a emotional relationship with an unseen god that is perceived of as being something akin to another person.

Pataki’s argument is that religious belief had nothing to do with any rational evaluation of truth criteria, but is related to the unconscious fulfilment of emotional needs. This can suppress rationality to the extent that believers are unable to distinguish between knowledge and belief, that is, the recognition that the belief could be false.  Thus faith overcomes doubt.  Evolution may explain the propensity for belief, but the operation of these unconscious thought processes goes further and helps to us understand something of the nature and persistence of beliefs.

A greater popular understanding of the nature of religious beliefs may help us to overcome some of their most divisive consequences. By being aware of our psychological motivations, we need not be slaves to them. Secularism is the best way that this project can be advanced politically. The International Humanist and Ethical Union has adopted a three part definition of “comprehensive secularism”. This consists of impartiality between religions, separation of religion from the institutions of state, and protection of human rights from religious doctrines and practices.

In Australia we may have impartiality between religions, but we do not have “separation of church and state”. In its 1982 interpretation of Section 116 of the Australian Constitution, the High Court declared that there was no such separation. As a consequence, not only have tax breaks been extended to all religious organisations, with no accountability, but state funding to religions schools of all kinds has been massively increased. The extent of this is not only inequitable but also wrong in principle.

Globally, the biggest challenge to secularism comes from Islam. There is no “render unto Caesar” in Islam and the “law of Allah” is held superior to any civil law. Effective democracy is impossible if sectarian laws are deemed immutable. All Arab countries enshrine Islamic law in their constitutions and it is no accident that none are effective democracies. The only hope for real democracy in Muslim counties is that they follow the example of Turkey and adopt strictly secular constitutions.

Despite claims, Israel is not a secular state, because as a Jewish state, it privileges a particular religious group. Judaism cannot be completely extracted from the nature of being Jewish. The only hope for peace in Israel and Palestine is that secularists on both sides come together and unite in the vision of a unified secular state. Such an achievement would set a magnificent example and would truly be a light to the world.

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and is a founding member of the Secular Party of Australia.
(C) Copyright 2008 John L Perkins