Secularism is not atheism!

Published: October 3, 2012
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Thus, secularism may be understood as a concept which gives breathing space to all beliefs. DESIGN: ERUM SHAIKH

It is interesting to note how shifts in the political landscape are a regular source of new vocabulary. A breeze through comments on this newspaper’s website show the frequent usage of the word ‘secularism’ which was never a part of the average news reader’s vocabulary fifteen years ago.

The word is now generously splashed around by commentators as they opine over news stories.

Quite worryingly, secularism is often referred to as a political system which is both atheistic and un-Islamic – a misjudgement which causes one to choke with laughter and cry in despair at the same time. Painting secularism with a brush of cynicism is unpardonable in times when religious intolerance runs wild. A conscious effort must be made to dissuade these extremely popular but outrageously ill researched notions regarding secularism.

It is important to understand that secularism and atheism have little in common. In coarsely basic terms, atheism is a belief system which encompasses a whole range of subdivisions – all of which underscore the non-existence of a Creator or God by claiming that science provides all necessary explanations of reality.

Most historical narratives suggest that atheism was largely fuelled by the western schism of the 14th century and Europe’s intellectual experiences during the Renaissance. This historical link is difficult to discount; the former movement saw religious faith dwindle owing to corrupt clergy men, while the latter saw an increased emphasis on scientific rationality.

Thomas Holyoake, who coined the term ‘secularism’ in 1846 , writes in ‘Principles of Secularism’ that,

“Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life — which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from atheism, theism or the Bible…”

Holyoake’s work goes on to explain that while religion might be an essential source of morality for some, there must be a wider morality which ensures tolerance and coexistence for all these different religious moralities. For instance, a Christian’s use of alcohol must be tolerated and respected by Muslim sects whose religious edicts declare alcohol unlawful under most circumstances.

Thus, secularism may be understood as a concept which gives breathing space to all beliefs.

A state which claims to be truly secular will frown upon the domination of one kind of belief (or religion) over other kinds. Secularism is far away from being any kind of an ‘evangelist’ movement run by atheists.

Secondly, it must be understood that the religious identity within a secular state is given respect – but tolerance for all religious identities is more important than preserving or protecting just one of them. By this logic, secularism can hardly champion the cause of atheism.

It is important to repudiate another popular notion; that secularism is un-Islamic.

It is true that the term originated in the West, but it must be remembered that the concept has been cradled by Islam for whole centuries. History might show that most Islamic rulers have failed to realise secularism in its unsullied form, but this observation does little to contradict the fact that Islam does provide for a wider morality which transcends hostility between belief-systems. Just because history has few examples of secularism flourishing within ‘Islamic’ empires does little to prove that Islam does not allow for such a morality. The plight of secularism is similar to that of a clause which is scripted in religious books, but has either been ignored or implemented poorly by followers.

Statements like ‘an Islamic state cannot be secular’ or that ‘secularism favours atheism’ are both laughably oxymoronic.

However, there is little one can do to dissuade whole paradigms of thought which have been artfully contrived and imposed through years and years of systematic indoctrination. The demonising of secularism by religious fanatics is just as baleful as the demonising of Islam by the misguided and under-read. Both these positions are uncompromising, illogical, and a source of religious hatred.

Hence, secularism must be embraced not as a concept which alienates different religions, but as one which acknowledges each to an equal measure.

Read more by Faiza here.

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The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.