Is Secularism the New Religion of the 21st Century?
I was watching an Al Jazeera news program with a panel of Middle Eastern and North African experts commenting on the recent wave of protests that have struck the region and what it means for the countries in the region in terms of democratisation. A comment made by one of the experts concerning Egypt and the drawing up of a new constitution in that country piqued my interest and got me thinking again.
The military council which is running Egypt in the interim has mandated a group of constitutional law experts to draw up a new constitution so that free and fair democratic elections can be held as soon as possible. The head of this constitutional group is a judge who is known to hold very strong Islamic convictions, and upon hearing this, one of the panellists on the Al Jazeera programme proceeded to express his genuine disappointment that a judge with religious convictions had been appointed to oversee the constitution-making process as he had hoped that they would find a secular judge who would ensure that the new Egyptian constitution would be a secular one with no religious undertones. The other experts seemed to agree that secularism and a secular constitution was the best way forward not just for Egypt but for the region as a whole.
This seems to be the accepted paradigm for society’s that are modernised/modernising and are seemingly “enlightened.” It seems that secularism has become the new religion of the 21st century. There seems to be seeming consensus that the best way for human beings to structure and order society, is to build secular society’s that are not heavily influenced by religion and religious convictions. It is assumed that secularism is the best way to ensure that society is constructed in a manner that ensures that everyone’s views are respected and no one’s views are marginalised.
All this sounds quite good but upon closer inspection one begins to realise that proponents of secularism are not as tolerant as they would like us to believe. They are seemingly tolerant of all people except for those who hold very strong religious convictions. Proponents of secularism are highly intolerant of those with fundamentalist Islamic and Christian convictions for example. They seek to rid the world of all such people. In this manner secularism is like the religion of the twenty first century. Remember in the past when there was no clear distinction between church and state and anyone who believed anything contrary to what the church and Christianity taught was not only ostracised, persecuted and marginalised but often faced a death sentence for holding those beliefs. Witness the persecution of Galileo Galilei for example for promoting a view which was contrary to what the church taught in his time or the Spanish Inquisition, where all those who taught and promoted ideas that where contrary to what the church espoused where eliminated. These are all examples of intolerance which characterised the world when the church and the state where inextricably linked.
The same thing often happens in countries that are run under Islamic Sharia law and for this reason proponents of modernity have tried to move away from religion and religious beliefs when looking at constructing society but in a strange twist of history it is now the proponents of secularism who are guilty of marginalising those with strong religious convictions. Religion is often ridiculed and made to look out-dated, irrelevant and intolerant by those who strongly believe that society should be secularised. People who hold very strong traditional religious beliefs are caricatured as unsophisticated simpletons who have not moved on with the times. Secularism is made to appear as the only option for the “reasonable man.”
On university campuses and amongst the intellectual elite in most modern/modernising societies, there seems to be an unspoken alliance to try and put religion on the periphery of society. This is the same kind of intolerance that we have seen being manifested in societies built on religious principles. Secularism has in some ways become the new intolerant religion of the 21st century modernised, “enlightened” man. In a world that is truly just, fair and tolerant even those with deep religious convictions, bordering on fundamentalism should be allowed to express and live out their beliefs without being made to feel Jurassic, out-dated and out of sync with the realities of the “modern” world.