Unhappy, let alone angry, religious people provide more persuasive arguments for atheism and secularism than do all the arguments of atheists. – Dennis Prager
Secularism literally refers to that which is of this physical world, in contrast to what is of the religious and transcendental world. The word was introduced in England in the middle of the nineteenth century by the freethinker George Jacob Holyoake who gave public lectures on ideas that ran contrary to the mainstream religious worldview of the times. He was accused of blaspheme, and thrown into prison for six months as if to symbolize what one might expect in countries whose laws prescribe penalty for holding and expressing anti-religious views.
In essence, and in its original form, secularism maintained that efforts to solve humanity’s moral and societal problems should be based on reason and rationality just as its practical problems are handled by the use of science. Thus secularism downplays, even rejects, appeals to the Almighty for solving humanity’s terrestrial predicaments, whether it be drought or deluge, earthquake or epidemic.
Already in the nineteenth century secularism had its opponents. For example, James Buchanan proclaimed in a book that pantheism, materialism, secularism, development, and natural laws were all atheism in camouflage. He foresaw that secularism was sowing the seeds for the extinction of the Christian church: a prediction that has been been partially realized among many people who have been enlightened, intoxicated, corrupted or indoctrinated (depending on one’s perspective) by the results and remarkable successes of science in explaining and manipulating the physical world, and who have been disillusioned by the hurtful behavior of some so-called religious people and groups. By the close of the twentieth century Billy Graham said: “It is no secret that in New York during the last 30 years there has been a tragic exodus from the churches into materialism, secularism, and humanism.”
In today’s world harsh criticisms of secularism come also from the Non-Western world on the grounds that, since it is associated with the modern scientific outlook, it is a creation of an exploiting and colonizing West, and therefore needs to be rejected. Secularism is thus seen as an undesirable import from Western culture from where other imports of material value, creature comforts, medicinal cures, and economic modes are freely and avidly aped and assimilated.
With all that, we live in an age that is both secular and religious. It is secular where the power and prestige of science have overshadowed the other dimensions of human culture to the point of marginalizing the ontological claims and explanatory models of traditional religions. It is religious in that vast numbers of people in a great many nations have been stirred up as never before to reaffirm their religious traditions and worldviews which have been diluted or debilitated by the onward march of science and secularist values.
Secularism continues to be a grave threat to religion in the Western Christian world where science and Enlightenment have taken deep roots. It is not as yet as much a threat in nations where theocracy is strong and supreme, and secular calls are condemned and punished as in earlier centuries in the Western world..
What is not always realized is that when secularism is stifled, the mind-liberating potencies of science and Enlightenment become beyond the reach of people who have been denigrating science as inadequate, epistemically hegemonic, and arrogant in its appraisal of non-scientific modes for interpreting the world.
It must be emphasized that at the political level secularism accords equal rights to all its citizens in their religious choice, not unlike the Vedic vision in the Hindu framework which allows for polyodosism: multiple paths for spiritual fulfillment. Moreover, in the secular framework the laws of the land are scrupulously independent of scriptural injunctions some of which are anachronistic and unconscionable to awakened minds. In these matters secularism is perhaps the most civilized principle of government in all of history. It is far more just in any nation that has a multiethnic and multireligious citizenry. In nations where secularism is derided, the mind-set of blaspheme still lingers, in which the religion of the wielders of political power alone is proclaimed to be true, disallowing and castigating the religious expressions of others.
Secularism in the political sphere today is not rejection of religion, nor denial of religious rights. It is rather a framework in which every citizen can exercise one’s chosen mode of spiritual fulfillment, traditional or modern, theistic, pantheistic, or atheistic; where laws will not be dictated by rules set forth in any particular holy book. The opposite of secularism today is not sacredism as it was once declared to be, but theocracy: a form of government under which people suffer under religious laws that might be appropriate for the darkness of medieval mindsets, but that strikes those basking in the sunshine of freedom as suffocating in a sectarian smog.
It is true that the theoretical successes and practical benefits of science sometimes so seduce a people that they totalize all human experiences under a science that offers no guidance in a moral dilemma, sets no bounds on instinctive self-serving behavior, nor provides comfort and solace in times of emotional crisis. And in the name of law and of separation of church and state, some secular atheists protest when believers pray or express their faith in God in public places, in however harmless a manner. Ridiculing, condemning, or constraining public religious expressions in the name of secularism achieves little more than causing emotional hurt to believers, and driving the disgruntled to religious extremism.
We are facing many challenges: diminution of resources, growing population, deteriorating environment, and more. Now the wisdom in religious traditions can be of much help. Periodic meditation with wholesome thoughts could help us curb our more hurtful instincts. But it is equally important to curb the religious zeal that can cause pain and persecution as it has been doing since ancient times.
It may not be in our best interest to try to snuff all religious dimensions of society and culture, though it is neither intellectually possible nor socially appropriate to continue with many aspects of the religious practices of our ancestors. In a secular world, religions need to formulate worldviews and visions that are informed by the results of science and strengthened by the values that are prompted by the sages of the traditions. Religions have to attend to the needs of the poor and the sick, as preached and practiced by Christ. They must reinstate the spirit of the ethical values conveyed by the Ten Commandments. They must foster the compassion of the Buddha, the principle of non-injury of Mahavira, the egalitarian principles implicit in Islam and Sikhism. As in Hinduism, religions must teach reverence for all religious modes. Religions ought to guide people to meaningful spiritual experiences which will elevate their thoughts and inspire them to helpful and productive behavior.
It is for humanity’s good when religious leaders come together in inter-faith embrace and proclaim with conviction that even while maintaining loyalty to one’s own religion, one must recognize that there is much that is good and worthy of respect in other systems as well. It is important to strive to transform religious fervor and the inter-religious rancor that have grown over the centuries into sublime principles of love, assistance, and mutual respect. The committed collaboration of scientifically informed thinkers and spiritually enlightened leaders from all traditions can bring about an awakening in the hearts and minds of people that would free humanity from caste discrimination, zeal for faith-conversions, and religious xenophobia. This can happen only in a secular framework.