Secular humanism and secularization

March 24, 2016

Yesterday a member of the public asked me, "What could secular humanism have done to prevent today's slaughter in Brussels?" Here (aside from a very few edits) is how I answered:

In the short run, secular humanism could have done nothing to prevent the deadly bombings in Brussels. On the other hand, while the Belgian security agencies, the European Union, or even NATO more credibly might have done something to prevent the carnage, they didn’t either. In a sense, the question is unfair: why should anyone expect a medium-sized, principally American movement concerned with values and worldviews to have foiled the bombers?
But in the longer run, I think secular humanism – and more broadly, secularism generally – have important roles to play in ultimately overcoming the threat that Islamic extremism poses for Western civilization. (I am among those who view the religion of Islam as an important, if not the sole, motivator of the Islamist threat.)
Among other things, secular humanism stands for:
1) Demanding respect for the position that divine beings do not exist, no supernatural realm exists, and no religions are objectively true.
2) Relegating religious language and observances, wherever possible, to the private rather than the public sphere.
3) Demanding that political decision-making be carried out using vocabulary and arguments that citizens of any worldview can accept. In practice this means excluding explicitly religious doctrines and motives from public policy discussion.
4) Campaigning for an approach to values and ethics rooted in the results which moral principles yield, not how they square with the alleged demands of an alleged divine being.
Obviously Islamic radicals, from the Iranian revolutionaries to ISIS, are opposed to those principles in their entirety. They are principles that swept the Islamic world during the twentieth century – think Ataturk in Turkey, Nehru in India. Presently there is a strong reaction against them – think Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, and of course at a far more radical level, ISIS.

On a horizon of ten to twenty years, I suspect that it will be demonstrated to the satisfaction of many in the Muslim world that religious dominance of political processes and radical anti-secularism usher in highly negative social consequences. The more optimistic side of me hopes it will happen sooner, In any case, secular humanism can play a significant role in campaigning to maintain secularism at home (mostly by opposing religious and political conservatives). America and Europe need to demonstrate by their example that a secularism that presumes no divine warrant, buffers public forums against distraction by purely religious arguments, and relies on consequential rather than command ethics leads to preferable social outcomes.

Some think that for better or worse, twentieth-century secularization is on the way out in the Muslim world. In a fortcoming book (and an article in the upcoming FREE INQUIRY) scientist-philosopher Taner Edis dismisses the Ataturk-Nehru sort of secularization as an elite phenomenon that never seized the imagination of the more devout middle class (to say nothing of the masses) and is unlikely to resurge. He is far from the first to do so. With respect, I disagree; I think there is enduring wisdom in the muscular view of secularization. And I dare to hope that desecularization along the Erdogan-Modi-ISIS spectrum is by comparison a passing fad. Time, I suppose, will tell.
Secular humanism is not a vast movement. But we can be influential out of proportion to our numbers because we have on our side the fact that organizing society on secular lines simply delivers better results.