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.


#1 Taner Edis (Guest) on Thursday March 24, 2016 at 9:37am

Just as a clarification: “dismisses the Ataturk-Nehru sort of secularization as a concept that Western imperialism imposed on members of unrepresentative local elites.” does not reflect what I say. Imperialists imposed no such thing on either Atatürk or Nehru—they were westernizers who were also anti-imperialists. On the other hand, they certainly led unrepresentative factions of local elites, and their secularism has in large part been undone by more populist factions.

#2 Stephen Law (Guest) on Thursday March 24, 2016 at 10:38am

Hi Tom By (2) do you mean that religious observance etc. should be conducted our of public sight, should be behind closed doors, that religious opinion should not be voiced in public earshot, etc. Or do you mean only that it should not be State-performed, State-supported, State-funded, State-platformed, etc.? I would happily endorse the latter. Not so keen on the former!

#3 Stephen Law (Guest) on Thursday March 24, 2016 at 10:44am

ouT of public sight, I meant….! I mean, I’d prefer it if people weren’t religious, but I don’t want to stuff socks in their mouths when they express religious views in public.

#4 Tom Flynn on Thursday March 24, 2016 at 11:15am

Hi Stephen,

By “relegating religion to the private sphere” I meant barring religious ceremonies, symbols, etc. from state-owned spaces. That still leaves plenty of places for believers to express their faiths in the earshot of others. That said, there was an American ethic, more prevalent in the 1960s, that gently discouraged many public expressions of sectarian religiosity, sort of along the lines of “Never talk religion and politics at parties” I think this was (so long as it was enforced solely informally) a useful ethic. It strengthened the role of all public spaces (not just the state-controlled ones) as buffer zones where Anericans of different religions could come together somewhat insulated from the strife of sects.

#5 Tom Flynn on Thursday March 24, 2016 at 11:16am

Taner, you may have found your concerns addressed by my most recent edits.

#6 Stephen Law (Guest) on Thursday March 24, 2016 at 12:04pm

We’re on the same page Tom. My worry is that many of our critics say we want to ‘push religion out of the public sphere’ by which *they* mean we want to get authoritarian, gag them, push them behind closed doors, etc. It’s bullshit, of course - as political secularists we defend their right to publicly express a religious opinion as our own right to publicly criticise one. I don’t want to give those guys any ammunition in the form of words they might then twist and use against us.

#7 Philip Rand (Guest) on Friday March 25, 2016 at 6:09am

Enoch Powell was a prophet… a prophet that secular humanism ignored and classed as a racist (so much for free-speech)...

I suppose in Secular Humanism, free-speech is enshrined for all… except some free-speech is more free…

Now, look what problem both secular humanism and Secular humanism has created for the West…

A case that Secular Humanism has caused this fiasco for the West could easily be made…

Accept I don’t want to give you “guys any ammunition.” (Nice turn of a phrase Dr Law…ammunition? weird…)

You are really getting very stale Dr Law… Wittgenstein said this could happen…

#8 Oisin (Guest) on Friday March 25, 2016 at 3:47pm

Don’t you think that your view of Humanism is maybe too political, and not social enough? Shouldn’t we work on developing secular communities and spreading secular moral values over focusing on restricting the public religiosity of others?

#9 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Saturday March 26, 2016 at 1:08pm

Oisin, I have a short answer and a longer answer.

The short answer is, No.

As for the longer answer. keep in mind that I write as a secular humanist, not a congregational humanist or religious Humanist. To me, one very powerful way of spreading secular moral values is *precisely* to restrict the public religiosity of others, specifically members of the majority religion and only in public (government-owned or -controlled) places. In that way we help to preserve those public places as welcoming spaces for citizens of all religions and of none.

Left to their own devices, majority Christians will invariably give public spaces a strong enough Christian flavor to project the message that non-Christians are second class citizens. Most Christians don’t do this purposely, but when your religion makes exclusive truth claims, that’s what you do. (Sorry for sounding like a GEICO ad there.) The remedy to this is for religious minorities to push back, consistently and vigorously. Secular humanist don’t seek public spaces that salute each religion or worldview in turn, but rather for public spaces that leave religion strictly alone. Only majority Christians will perceive this as discrimination, because only they are accustomed to regarding public spaces with a strongly Christian flavor as the norm. Only they perceive actual fairness as taking something away from them (which it does—their unfair privilege.)

Treating each religion fairly in public spaces is hard. Treating each with benign neglect by operating public spaces insofar as possible as “religion free zones” achieves the same objective—fairness—more reliably.

As a secular humanist, I think humanist community is of some limited value. Yes, it’s good for humanists to have local groups and national organizations. But to me as a secular humanist it’s bad if we start building a walled garden where humanists can lead most aspects of their lives in the sole company of other humanists. To the degree we’re truly secular, we don’t want to live our whole lives in a humanist community, the way many mid-20th century Catholics and contemporary evangelicals lead their whole lives in church. As seculars we want our humanist identity to be respected, but we don’t want a walled garden, we want to spend most of our time plugged in *as free individuals* to the larger culture, rubbing elbows with fellow citizens without regard to religion.

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