Secularism from Two Planes: Philip Trower vs Daniel Baril

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 1 September 2009
(Dear readers,  unlike earlier editions of the e-zine that allow for only one article, this edition accomodates two views on secularism. Though written some times ago, yet the issues addressed by both are still quite germaine to the discourse on humanism, secularism and religion today. Now, my suggestion is that you find time to read both views; you wont regret it. Happy reading!)

Secularism as a State Religion
By Philip Trower

Western cultures are losing sight of the critical distinction between a non-confessional state and a secularist state.

At last someone has said it. At least as far as I know, it’s the first time it’s been said in a major English newspaper. On September 20 of last year, the Daily Telegraph — England’s largest quality national daily — carried an article about the problems the French government is having with some of its Muslims. “At the start of the school year,” the report ran, “several Muslim girls nationwide were suspended or expelled for arriving at schools with their heads covered.” In most French state schools this is forbidden. The French educational authorities see the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls in state schools as a statement of religious belief, which — in the words of the relevant government document — would “constitute an act of intimidation, provocation, proselytizing, or propaganda.”

To defuse this potentially explosive situation, the French education ministry has appointed a special official to mediate between the Muslims and the local education authorities. The press have nicknamed this official “Madame Foulard” — Mrs. Headscarf. 

Secularism is an Expression of Humanism
By Daniel Baril

“Our nation was chosen by God and mandated by History to serve as a model of Justice!” This quotation from George W. Bush could just as well be attributed to Ben Laden, as the two men think so much alike.

The American president, who refers to the will of God to justify each of his political decisions, declares unequivocably that he welcomes “faith to help solve the nation’s deepest problems.” This is not the banal opportunism of a politician seeking to increase his popular appeal: George W. Bush, a confirmed fundamentalist, really thinks that God is with him, and hence with the United States.

Several commentators remarked on Bush’s exaggerated piety following the September 11th attacks when he launched his “crusade against the axis of evil”. But in fact he originally arrived in the political arena claiming, like Claude Ryan, to be invested with a divine mission: “I came to the White House,” declared Bush, “because I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer.” And George W. Bush prays, as he himself says, in order to thank “a generous, all-powerful God”, the same God who commands him to maintain the death penalty and to oppose the right to abortion.

Religion and Prejudice
Such a conservative and utilitarian piousness, supported by the certainty that one possesses The Truth, is designated by specialists in religious studies as extrinsic religiosity (as opposed to an intrinsic religiosity manifesting itself through expressions of spirituality and empathy). Studies have shown that individuals who display this type of religiosity also hold prejudices of all sorts against those whose religion, culture, ethnic background or moral system differs from theirs. Believers who fit this profile erect an impenetrable wall between “us” and “them”, between good people and evil people. When Bush declares that Good is on his side and that those who do not think as he does are “evil”, he is behaving in a way which is typical of extrinsic religiosity.

This thought process, whether it be motivated by Christian, Muslim, Jewish or other faith, can only exacerbate political tensions when it becomes the reference frame in which a head of state bases his analyses and formulates his decisions. When that head of state is the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, economically, politically and militarily, and when he justifies his actions not on the basis of rational policy but rather religious fervour, then there is good reason to be worried. The convergence of religious fundamentalism, politics and military might is the perfect recipe for fanaticism which runs the risk of leading to fascism. In a recent book, the economist Rodrigue Tremblay advances the idea that the United States, if it continues on its current path, is in danger of becoming to the 21st century what Germany was to the 20th. Wake up brothers and sisters!

For a Secular Republic
How could such a situation arise in a secular republic? The fact is that the United States is not a completely secular nation. The 1st amendment to the American constitution does not establish the secularity of the state but rather it ensures that the state will not favour any one religion over another. This partial secularism guarantees a certain separation between the state and the churches but not between the state and religion in general. Nothing prevents the head of state from governing like a preacher.

A truly secular state distances itself completely from all that is religious, but does so without opposing religion. In this respect, Canada–a monarchy whose constitution recognizes the supremacy of God and whose head of state is also the head of a church–displays paradoxically a tradition and a political culture which are decidedly more secular that those of its republican neighbour.

But if religious fundamentalism can so easily insinuate itself into the halls of power of a democratic republic, then there is every reason to fear that the same could happen in a monarchy founded on the recognition of the supremacy of God. Just imagine what could ensue if the Alliance Party came to power. In order to prevent the slide into religious fanaticism, it is urgent that Canada, and Quebec in the context of sovereignty, adopt a declaration of state secularism as exemplified by French and Mexican models.

Secularism in its truest form is indeed much more than a mere separation of religions from the state. Secularism is the republican ideal embodied in the protection of fundamental human rights. All charters which recognize liberty of conscience and equality of individuals, without discrimination based on sex, race or religion, are expressions of the quintessence of secularism.

Secularism is in fact an expression of humanism

Humanism, by definition, promotes the wellbeing and advancement of human beings, motivated solely by considerations of justice and equality, without reference to any hypothetical divinity. A humanism worthy of the name is consequently intrinsically secular. (Indeed, it is on this basis that the Quebec Secular Movement recently decided to define itself as a humanist association and to take appropriate measures to revise its statutes and its name accordingly.)

Of course, the secularism of the state cannot in and of itself prevent wars and is not a sufficient condition for democracy; the example of certain totalitarian regimes reminds us of that fact. Nevertheless, it is a necessary condition for peace among individuals, among groups, and among nations. Secularism promotes the lessening of tensions and encourages political realism rather than religious fanaticism. Today’s world is in great need of it.

Daniel Baril was vice-president of the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ, Quebec Secular Movement) when this article was written in 2003.

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