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Role for Secularism

8.15.2005

Recent coverage of the response in the UK to terror attacks by radical muslims, has got me thinkinh again about enlightenment values and the central role of secularism in liberal democracy. The recent use of radical islam to cover for extreme political and sociological violence, should and must force us to examine the manner in which we as liberals treat issues of religion.
Much of the initial response shied away from associating the attackers in London with the views of the majority of Muslims, criticism as such for the central role of religion in legitimising attacks on western related targets was resultingly muted for a time.
Nick Cohen touched on this point yesterday in relation to the stifling objective truth peddled by some imams and others in traditional religious communities. The 18th century thinkers from Descartes to Rousseau began to examine the dominant European religion of Christianity in a critical light, began to question claims to absolute truth and total knowledge. The route they took fused the issues of religion and politics into a branch of secular politics still practiced in France. Recently however it has been coming under threat from the problems of insufficiently integrating new immigrants into society. This is not to say they should become clones of ourselves, on the contrary, their difference necessitates their rapid inclusion in order to bring fresh light and new life to a culture. It is however, the fusion of alienation with the predominant trends in religious life, i.e. literalist simplistic answers to life's complex questions and the outsourcing of responsibility to a greater power, that is posing a large threat to our society and our democracy.
Liberal Secularism if it is to survive, must show that respect of Human Rights, opposition to torture and solidarity with global democratic movements is as powerful a force for change as extreme religion. The beauty of the enlightenment is that it opened a door in the intellectually stifling atmosphere of religious theocracy. It offered free thought and human solutions through reason. It also set in motion some of the bloodiest revolutions in history in France and America. The same is true now, to repeal some of the victories won in the blood of the 18th century, religion must begin to attack to sercure its position as holder of absolute truth.
Claims to truth and knowledge are dangerous and hubristic methods at the best of times, when the power to question these claims is stripped of adherents then the empire returns. This is not solely directed at the surging support or sympathy of extreme Islam, there are strains of this thought in all major world religions, including Communism and neo-Liberalism. The tendancy of Humanity to swallow precepts set out as objective global truths is the strongest argument for preservations and defence of secular values. Systems of democratic governance need to protect us from ourselves also.
The power of religion to make on feel godly should always be viewed with suspicion and grounds for claiming access to all knowledge of right and wrong equally challenged. Our response to the attacks on the west by extreme islam should be to challenge those who claim objective knowledge, seek to confront those who use religion as a front for political and social upheaval.
Rousseau in the social contract is eqully sceptical about the role of religion but realises it is a natural human condition, so he supports a state sanctioned church to feed out the needed platitudes. Until humanity learns to wean itself off the crutch which is religion, wars of objectve truth and morality look set to continue.
Stifling intellectual climates are no place to formulate policy or to seek to govern society. Thus religion is a private practice incompatible with the workings of the moders multi-ethnic state. Integrating those who would remain outside requries full and frank teaching of enlightenment values and the opening up of educational time to dialogue and independent critique. Learning that not all claims to truth are true is an important lesson in any polity.
RR

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