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The Pope and Secularism: Five Mistakes | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Is secularism the root cause of the West’s current problems?

The question has been part of the political debate in Britain for the past two weeks.

The debate was launched by Pope Benedict XVI at the start of his historic state visit to the United Kingdom. Implying that secularism is responsible for what he regards as social, economic and moral ills of Western society, the pontiff invited his audiences to return to religious values.

Some critics of the Pope could not resist the cheap shot of reminding everyone that the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church for years was not caused by secularism.

The issue raised by the pontiff deserves a more serious treatment.

The Pope, along with many others, makes five mistakes about secularism.

The first is that he is misled by the ‘ism suffix of secularism. That ‘ism wrongly signals that we are dealing with an ideology like socialism, communism, and nationalism. Secularism, however, is not an ideology insofar as it does not offer a total view of human existence and takes no position on specific political, economic, cultural and moral issues.

The second mistake is to take secularism for atheism.

No two ‘isms could be further apart.

Atheism is an ideology based on the rejection of any religious explanation of existence. Secularism, however, is neutral towards all past, present and future religious explanations. Atheists often have their own ‘ churches’, worship their own ‘ prophets’, and propagate their own dogmas. Secularism, however, has no organisation and no ‘ prophets’, and promotes no dogmas.

The third mistake is that secularism is a denial of the need for a moral code.

There is no empirical data to support that allegation.

One could recall the names of hundreds of advocates of secularism in history who are known and admired for their exemplary moral rectitude.

The fourth mistake is that secularism wants to keep religion out of politics.

That charge is equally untrue.

Secularism knows that no one could control, let alone efface, a person’s religious faith. It also knows that an individual’s faith is bound to influence, or in some cases even dictate, his political choices. In countries which hold elections, no one knows what the voter thinks when he pushes his ballot paper into the ballot box.

To force people to make political choices against their religious beliefs is a form of dictatorship. But secularism is anything but a recipe for tyrannical rule.

The fifth mistake is potentially the most serious one. It is the allegation that secularism and religion are incompatible. In other words if you are secular you cannot have religious beliefs. However, even in everyday life one meets many who advocate secularism while holding strong religious beliefs.

Secularism was not invented by the godfathers of the atheist French Revolution. Those godfathers had their own pseudo-religion, complete with its doctrine, dogmas, saints and rites. In their own terms, they were as fanatical in their beliefs as the priests they were beheading daily in the heart of Paris.

Well, if secularism is none of the above, then what is it and why should we consider it?

The answer is that secularism, despite its misleading suffix, is not an ideology but a method of organising the public space.

According to that method, since the public space by definition belongs to everyone, it cannot be organised on the basis of the religious beliefs of some, or even a majority, of the population.

In other words, in secularism there is room for both faith and reason. While faith is based on belief, or as the Persian poet Roumi said ‘ seeing the un-seeable’, reason deals with the seeable. Secularism does not prevent anyone from seeing the un-seeable the way he or she likes. On the contrary, secularism provides space and protection for all manners of seeing the un-seeable.

People often define secularism as the separation of church and state. Now that all churches have been cut down to size, that definition may be inadequate.

A better definition would be the recognition of the common ownership of the public space. That means taking political decisions in accordance with political, rather than religious, imperatives and in the interests of the majority while protecting he rights of the minorities. This, of course, does not mean that religious groups cannot express their views on all issues and campaign to influence political decisions.

Why should we consider secularism?

The answer is that the global political space should be organised in accordance with the interests, and recognition of the differences, of all nations and cultures. In other words, that space should be neutral, though respectful, towards all religions.

The alternative would be religious wars in which atheism would act as one faith among many.

The Pope’ own visit to the United Kingdom was made possible by secularism.

For 800 years, England, having set up its own church regarded the Catholic Church as a religious enemy. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics were slaughtered because of their faith. Many more were transported to far away colonies. Until not so long ago, building Catholic churches, or repairing the existing ones, was not allowed.

Until just a decade ago, the very idea of a state visit by a Pope would have been laughed at as a bad joke. Two decades ago, Pope John Pal II visited the UK as a private tourist because the British protocol and policy, dictated by centuries of animosity towards Rome, would not allow a state visit.

The very secularisation that Pope Benedict criticises changed all that.

Benedict was able to become the first Pope to break that taboo because of the recognition that the public space in the United Kingdom is no longer organised in accordance with the exclusive beliefs and interests of the Church of England of which the British monarch is the Governor.

It was also secularism that enabled Pope Benedict to publicly criticise secularism, and other aspects of British life, in full freedom. While the Pope calls for a restriction of some of the freedoms of others in the name of religious doctrine, he enjoys full freedom of belief, practice and propagation, thanks to secularism.