Secularism, as a movement, has its own core beliefs and they are clearly spelled out in humanist and secularist websites. The movement claims that is suffices to organize society around rational and free thinking, and that religions should not enjoy any special privilege and should not interfere in the building of society by influencing the process through their beliefs, power or status. This would render society more egalitarian and inclusive.
The question I put myself was, “If secularists are so rational, as they claim, why am I not one of them?” If you are a secularist, why are you one?
In order to respectfully engage with my audience who might share all or part of the secularists’ beliefs, I have spent hours listening to videos of Christopher Hitchens and browsing humanist websites. I am glad that I did because this brought me closer to the raging debate that does not seem to abate so quickly. I would like to share with you my reactions but on an emotional and on a cognitive level.
Hitchens is very confident in his presentations, he is sure of what he wants to say and if you hear his various conferences he is quite repetitive. His main starting point is his belief that there is no supernatural reality, and the line of attack is reducing to the absurd the beliefs of the main religions. He pokes fun on the most sacred beliefs of theists, for instance the divinity of Jesus. He consistently attacks the doctrines of creation and salvation turning to shreds these beliefs. He speaks irreverently of God and mocks the very concept of God.
Now the historical founder of secularism, George Jacob Holyoake used to argue that “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.” (cfr. HOLYOAKE, The Principles of Secularism (London, 1860).
However, from the start of the movement in the late 19th century, things took a different turn and another important expounder of the movement, Charles Bradlaugh linked the advancement of the movement with a direct attack on Religion, in particular the Catholic Religion. Hitchens is very much in line with Bradlaugh’s stance.
With all this in mind, I cannot but feel that the humanists’ claim that they support both freedom of religion and freedom from religion is not obtainable in their efforts to advance their cause. They attack religion relentlessly and mercilessly and I do not think that this is freedom of religion. They might defend their stance with the other freedom, freedom of speech. Freedom of speech, nonetheless, is to be balanced with respect for others. A believer who is self-respecting cannot remain neutral and accept this kind of treatment at the hands of self-proclaimed agnostics or atheists.
Secondly, is it rational not to bring solid and valid arguments other than ridiculing the beliefs of others? These could be one’s reasons for not believing i.e. finding these beliefs ridiculous in one’s eyes, but is not valid argumentation to bring others to your side. It only make people close ranks! On an emotional level, Hitchens came across to me as arrogant, disrespectful of others, and self-absorbed.
Hitchens calls believers conceited, perpetrators of evil and wicked things in the name of religion, privilege seekers, and a whole list of names. How can I be convinced that this is the case when I look at models of Christian living like the saints? Do you manage to fit Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta in this caricature? I don’t.
On the other hand, we can agree with a number of positions taken by the humanist movement e.g. respecting all religious standpoints in a multicultural pluralist society, avoiding undue influence in political and legislative issues, etc. However, these positions should be mediated with respectful dialogue not levelling down civil society to one which is a-religious but constructing a society that embraces all religions and none.
Is the secularist movement rational? It has its reasons but I do not think that it has the Reason – the Logos through whom all came into being. It did not pass my test and I remain unconvinced.