February 4, 2018 Kamal Naffa
The time has come to consider the values and practices of secularism as a way of organising society. We live in a world where there are many sources of truth and not one and where pluralism and multiculturalism is what we really should be aiming for. The time has come for a critical reflection to challenge our inherited assumptions.
Secularism essentially means separation of state and religion. This separation does not mean antagonism to religion, in fact separation purifies religion and make it a better way of worship. As an example, and although the US is a secular state, with no official religion, more Americans go to church every Sunday than ever before. According to Gallup, close to 40 per cent of Americans report they regularly attend religious services.
Secularism means that all citizens have equal rights and equal obligations, regardless of ethnic or racial or religious affiliations. Secularism in the Middle East started with the teachings of the founder of the Syrian National Socialist Party, Anton Saadeh, who believed that secularism is the way to fight sectarianism. Thousands of his followers in the Arab world lived his doctrine of the separation of religion and state.
Here are some of the features of secularism:
Secularism goes back to ancient Greece where Greek culture was secular in the sense that the purpose of life was the glorification and celebration of life. For Greeks, the purpose of life was the attainment of human happiness and not salvation or aiming to go to heaven.
In both Christianity and Islam, the purpose of life is to prepare oneself to heaven and the aim of life is salvation and not happiness. This is why thousands of young fighters in Syria believed that death is a route to heaven where there is eternal bliss. Secularism believes that all these aspects of heaven, hell, angels, resurrection are nothing but religious myths that have no foundation in reality.
Secularism believes deeply in democracy and that everyone should be free to make his/her own choices without dictation from a despotic ruler or king. Secular countries in Europe are enjoying to a great extent democratic governance where there is an intimate connection between democracy and secularism and economic prosperity. Contrary to many countries in the Middle East who rely on religion as a way of existence. Turkey and Israel are two examples of countries claiming to be democratic, however govern with a lot of coercion and racism and legitimise it through religion. Netanyahu’s claim for Jerusalem and his call for a religious state based on Torah is nothing more than theocracy in which the “Rule of God prevails.”
History has proven that religious states have been violent, fanatical and self-destructive. Historically, this occurred in Spain, France, and England.
Secularism is the answer to the needs and freedoms of women in the Arab world. States dominated by religion have suppressed women for thousands of years and denied their rights and freedoms, and dictated unfair practices in marriage, divorce and inheritance. Solving legal matters on the basis of religion and based on what the holy books say is obsolete and changing, contrary to the requirements and needs of modern day life.
A Secular system is a system based on merit in education, employment and in the government. A system that does not acknowledge secularism remain mediocre, where hierarchy of titles and positions for example takes precedence over quality and achievement. Management and leadership become very stifling for progress.
However, with all its benefits, some criticise secularism. Secularism is based on the assumption that human beings are rational beings and motivated by rational considerations, but research has shown that human beings are sometimes irrational motivated by desires rather than rational thoughts.
This means that irrational considerations and beliefs in mortality, resurrection and religious dogmas have a great grip on the human rational and psyche, pushing a human being to desire first and think next. Therefore, it is difficult to strip human beings of these irrational tendencies, of believing in religion and all aspects of religion. It will remain with us, which means humans cannot eradicate them even if we have the intention to do so.
Life will continue to be a balance between rational and irrational, and therefore secularism will have religious dogmas attached to it now and always. The question remains how to compromise between two systems, two tendencies and two beliefs? We need to be fully aware of the permanent nature of irrational tendencies of religion and consider the fundamental positive changes that secularism will bring to our societies, communities, economies and education.
The debate in Jordan on secularism should be amplified and should be encouraged by decision makers to pave way for the gradual acceptance by the public at large of the need and value of secularism.
Kamal Naffa is former professor of philosophy at California State University, Fullerton. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.