|The sickness of secularism
October 31, 2006 04:57 PM/the GUARDIAN
WE ARE WITNESSING THE rise of an arrogant secularist rhetoric founded
on belief in the supremacy of reason and absolute faith in science and
progress, dogmas which arouse ridicule in serious academic and
intellectual circles nowadays. Hearing its proponents defend their
rigid notions, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in the
presence of the fathers of positivism: Auguste Comte, Diderot, or
Condorcet, or that you were back in the Victorian and Napoleonic eras
with their high hopes of remaking the world and human destiny in light
of the utopias of reason and progress.
These high priests of rationality, who in Britain include in their
ranks such names as Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling have erected
a world of dichotomies, borders and fences: secular v religious,
rationality v superstition, progress v backwardness, public v private.
This simplistic worldview fails to take account of the complexity of
cultural and historical processes, or of intellectual and human
"Reason" itself, whose praises they sing night and day, is a
perpetually changing mixture of many overlapping elements. It is
neither abstract, nor intentional and does not confront the rich,
labyrinthine human world as its other. It is quintessentially imbedded
therein, in its emotions, languages, historical experiences, religious
traditions and cultural heritage. There is no such thing as an
This means that we do not have one but many rationalities, the
Christian European, the Islamic, the Chinese, the Indian to name a
few, each stamped by the specific conditions of its evolution, and in
turn incorporating a multitude of sub-rationalities. Neither do these
traditions of rationality exist isolated from each other. They have
much in common, the product of the interactive and communicative
activity of cultures.
Aristotle's logos, Descartes' intellect and Kant's transcendental
reason, are illusions, which no self-respecting thinker can afford to
defend in the 21st century. The truth is that today's self- proclaimed
guardians of enlightenment and rationality are offshoots of the
intellectual poverty of eighteenth century positivism and scienticism,
who disfigure philosophy and thought, history and reality. They are
the victims of what may be referred to as a sick secularist
These contrast reason's absolute virtue with the evil of a straw man
they have christened religion: a pack of superstitions, fairytales,
demons, and angels, which intervene in the world only to corrupt and
destroy it. They fail to realize that just as there are different
species of secularism - the intolerant and the dogmatic (such as
theirs), the open and the tolerant - there exist multiple forms of
religion. Religion can be legalistic, spiritual, Gnostic,
rationalized, conservative, innovative, quietist, reactionary,
moderate and radical. These many expressions do not exclude one
another but may be present in the same type of religiosity. An example
of such intricate overlapping is the great Muslim thinker Abu Hamid
al-Gazali (d. 1111), who was at once a brilliant jurist, philosopher,
theologian, and mystic.
Just as they simplify the breathtakingly complex phenomenon that is
the human being, these missionaries of secularism impoverish the
social order, filling it with sacred boundaries between the private
and the public, and strictly laying down what may and may not be
practiced in each. You may indulge in your religious "superstitions"
behind the thick closed doors of your home, church, temple, or mosque.
But the moment you step outside into the light of the secular sphere,
you must discard your cross, turban, or headscarf. Communication, they
insist, is only possible within uniformity. Such was the argument used
in France to ban the Islamic headscarf in schools and government
offices last year, and which is gaining currency in Britain today.
What these ignore, willingly or naively, is that unless you suffer
from schizophrenia, everything in your cognitive universe is
interlinked and forms part of a single coherent whole through which
you make sense of the world, its components and what takes place
therein. There is a difference between recognizing the sanctity of the
private and transforming it into a high fenced prison cut off from the
rhythm of public life. A measure of the dynamism of a public sphere is
its ability to incorporate multiple modes of expression and forms of
life. If the radically secularist have a problem communicating with
those who dress or speak differently from themselves, it is their
problem and a symptom of their exclusionist dogmatism. It is not the
problem of the religious.
Secularist dogmatism is no less dangerous than its religious sibling.
Secularism itself can be, and indeed has been in many historical
instances, highly destructive. We should remember that Europe's modern
history is scarred with the brutality of secular totalitarianism.
Neither the Jacobins, fascists, Nazis or Stalinists were priests or
theologians. They were fanatical secularists who worshipped in
reason's grand temple and sacrificed hundreds of thousands for the god
of progress, fervently vowing to create a new man and a new world on
the ruins of the old.
With the retreat of Christianity and shrinking of the ecclesiastical
institution in Western Europe, the threat to tolerance and coexistence
no longer comes from religion. What we should be dreading today is the
tyranny of an arrogant secularism which hides its exclusionist and
intolerant face behind the sublime mask of reason, enlightenment and