The sickness of secularism

The threat to tolerance and coexistence no longer comes from religion.


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 phenomena.

“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 ahistoric reason.

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 consciousness.

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 progress.


Soumaya Ghannoushi is an academic and freelance writer. She is a researcher at the school of Oriental & African studies, University of London.