It seems that religion is on the rise and secularism is on the wane. If so, we are heading in the wrong direction. Secularism is the ideal on which modern civilisation was built. Secularism means more than just the separation of religion from state institutions. Generally, the notion entails a recognition that the affairs of state are too important to be subjected to the whims of ancient myths and superstitions. Historically, it was this advance that allowed scientific progress to take place, and from which all technical and economic benefits have flowed. In addition, secularism was the proven solution to centuries of religious conflict in Europe.
Despite this legacy, the benefits of secularism have apparently been forgotten and must perhaps be painfully relearned. In the 19th century, public schools in Australia were founded on the principle that education should be "universal, secular and free". These days are long gone, but the sectarian consequences of our over indulgence of religious schools will be felt well into the future.
Internationally, the economic backwardness that strict religious adherence could engender was also at one time well known. This is why Ataturk, the victorious general at Gallipoli, abolished the Caliphate and imposed secularism on Turkey. The Turkish constitution robustly mandates secularism and excludes any religious influence on legislation. By contrast the 2005 Iraq constitution, defines Islam as the main source of legislation. No country with such a constitution is a democracy and this is not coincidental. If religious laws are not amendable by the elected legislature, then real democracy is impossible. Hence the attempt to install democracy in Iraq is now a futile exercise. With its current constitution, Iraq is doomed to sectarian strife, oppression and endless economic and social deprivation.
Not only Iraq has seen the demise of secularism. Almost everywhere, politicians seem to be overtly propounding their religious credentials. This is despite the fact that populations have become less religious. The explanation for this paradox lies largely in the nature of globalisation and multiculturalism in the context of the conflicts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The abandonment of secularism, at least amongst political elites, has complex causes, but the effects are becoming increasingly dire. How have we come to this position? The nature of multiculturalism, and how it has been implemented has a lot to do with it.
When societies were more culturally homogenous, religion could more easily be criticised, since cultural sensitivities were less threatened. As we became more ethnically diverse, the ethos of multiculturalism was highly successful in fostering tolerance and in assisting the advancement of minorities. The acceptance of cultural diversity certainly does help in fostering social cohesion. However religions are cultural phenomena, and multiculturalism has had the adverse effect of placing religious cultural beliefs beyond question, shielding them from the rational assessment that they need, and to which they were previously exposed.
The effect of multiculturalism applied to multiple religions has led to a postmodernist psychology in which all forms of cultural belief are deemed to be equally valid and equally true. However since contradictions indicate falsity, this hypothesis of multiple inconsistent "truths" is inherently nonsensical. We thus have a widely adopted protocol that is fundamentally absurd. This is creates a dysfunctional mentality that is socially destabilising. At its worst, we have reached an Orwellian state where politicians are apparently able to successfully construct "the truth" to be whatever suits their purpose. "Reality based" policies are seen as just one of many possible alternatives.
Regarding religion, this situation is compounded by the fact that Islam poses challenges for multiculturalism in a way that other preceding cultural phenomena did not. Part of the motivating force behind this is undoubtedly the severe injustice that has been meted out to Palestinians over many decades. This has fostered a legitimate and understandable sense of grievance and resentment amongst Muslims globally. However a significant difficulty also lies in the fact that Muslim aspirations for governance by sharia law are inconsistent with democracy. Regrettably, as a result, we see an increasing tendency for ethnic separatism amongst Muslim minorities in Western countries.
Such sectarianism is, of course, the antithesis of multiculturalism. The solution is not to abandon multiculturalism but to secularise it. Why should this be a problem? Two hundred years ago secularism was successfully advanced as a rational solution to sectarianism, in view of the fact that a literal interpretation of religion defied credibility. Since then, scientific knowledge has advanced to the point where we can now rule out any rational possibility that the supernatural contentions proposed by religions are anything more than mythological. That the god-deluded populace denies this is merely symptomatic of the problem.
It has been held that secularism need not directly address the delusory nature of religion, but merely seek to mitigate its symptoms. This approach is not working. In the context of multiculturalism, the god delusion is the prime source of the disconnection from reality from which many others follow. The delusion arises from habit and socialisation, but such things are amenable to change given sufficient motivation and opportunity. The debacle that religion has led to in the Middle East now indicates the dire need for a revival of secularism.
At its 2005 conference, the International Humanist and Ethical Union passed a resolution in support of "comprehensive secularism". Two parts of this were impartiality between religions and the separation of religion from state institutions are essential elements, but a third component is also necessary. This is a preparedness to intervene to protect human rights from violation by religious assertions and injunctions.
The practice of comprehensive secularism must be applied to multiculturalism. This entails the acceptance of the value of cultural heritage, but without suspension of rationality and with the explicit recognition that myths are myths. People naturally react defensively when confronted with their delusions. The practical experience of multiculturalism should be an advantage in dealing with this, in that all cultural myths should be treated with equal incredulity. Internationally the advancement of comprehensive secularism will have profound benefits.
Humanity faces severe challenges that threaten global civilisation. In response we must summon all our capabilities of reason and rationality. The solution is secular multiculturalism with its ethical principles based on the universal values of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice.
Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and a founding member of the Secular Party of Australia.
This paper was published in The Australian Atheist, No 2, March-April
(C) Copyright 2007 John L Perkins