Religion and secularism

This is evident from a treaty between Muslims and non-Muslims almost 1,400 years ago known as the Medina Charter, in which basic human rights were recognised and honoured by the government of the day.

Senior Fellow / Director, Centre for Syariah, Law and Political Science

RELIGION is a belief in, or the worship of, a god or gods.

The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus defines it as the belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship. It may also refer to anything to which one is totally devoted and which rules one’s life. In the first definition, religion basically refers to those like Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism as well as the animistic beliefs of pagans.

In the second, it may include beliefs in certain philosophies, value systems, thought, ideology or -ism with no supernatural power like atheism, scientism, fascism, secularism, human-rightism, even extreme passion, say, in football or mountaineering! As these may be regarded as false or pseudo-religions, this writing will focus on religion in the first meaning.

“Religionism”, next, must not be understood in the extreme sense of excessive religious zeal. It is here applied as a generic term merely to refer to how one may associate oneself to any particular religion, or one’s desire to govern one’s life according to the teachings of that religion.

What, then, is “secular” and its relation with “secularisation” and “secularism”? “Secular” concerns the civil affairs of this world, matters that only relate to this world, not the heavenly, spiritual or sacred. It is not concerned with religion or religious belief and is not bound by any religious rule.

“Secularisation” refers to the process of making something secular. A Dutch theologian, Cornelis van Peursen, defines it as the liberation of man “first from religious and then from metaphysical control over his reason and his language.”

It is by means of reason and language that one develops and reflects one’s views of things. The combination of these perceptions constitutes one’s worldview.

One is secularising oneself if one takes away the role or influence of religion and metaphysics from one’s thought and words, and consequently actions.

According to Harvey Cox, a Harvard theologian, secularisation is “the loosing of the world from religious and quasi-religious understanding of itself…” It is man turning his attention away from life beyond this world, and giving attention to only this worldly life and this lifetime.

Cox adds that the secularisation process is a “liberating development”, whereby the end product is relativism, i.e. everything changes according to time and location, including man or society’s value system and standards.

Cox writes further that the integral components of secularisation are three: (i) the disenchantment of nature, (ii) the desacralisation of politics, and (iii) the deconsecration of values. Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas explains them as follows:

The first means the freeing of nature from its religious implications. It involves the dispelling of godly, animistic spirits and magic from the natural world.

This separates the world from God, and distinguishes man from it. As a result, man may no longer view nature as a divine entity.

This idea will allow and “empower” him to act freely upon nature as he wishes, to exploit it according to his needs and plans.

The second means the abolition of sacral legitimation of political power and authority. There is no such concept, for example, as “the vicegerent of God” on earth or any form of supernatural representation of one’s worldly power.

There is no such thing as ruling or controlling people on behalf of any religious institution. This notion is the prerequisite of political and social change, again as man deems them fit and necessary.

The third means rendering transient and relative every value system which includes religion, and world views having ultimate and definitive significance for one’s life.

In this way, man’s future is open to change and evolution. It means man is free to create the change and immerse himself in the so-called “evolutionary” process, moving from the state of “infantility” to “maturity”.

This attitude requires man to be aware of the relativity of his own views and beliefs. Today he may believe in something, and tomorrow he may change it.

In other words, as Attas puts it, “he must live with the realisation that the rules and ethical codes of conduct which guide his own life will change with the times.”

Last but not least, “secularism” is the view that human values and standards should not be influenced or controlled by religion. It concerns only worldly human affairs without any element of spiritual or sacred intervention.

“Secularist” thus refers to a person who favours secularism.

The above explains why, upon studying the various principles of human rights, I said that human-rightism is based on secularism. There are ideas and notions in the doctrine of human rights that collide head-on with some fundamental teachings of certain religions, or against the established norms of ethics and morality.

When a conflict occurs, the tendency is always for human-rightism to prevail. This is not right, as a more appropriate approach is to reconcile the two.

It is true that certain religions do suppress certain things that may come under the purview of basic human rights. It became worse when religion was manipulated as a tool to legitimise or justify certain political powers of certain people, as reflected in the coinage of the “church-state relationship” in human history.

History shows that when the two forces came together, many requirements and restrictions were imposed on the masses. At certain eras in Europe, intellectual freedom was tightly controlled by religious institutions for centuries.

Those who questioned the rationality of certain religious principles, let alone if they were proved wrong and contradictory to sound logical conclusions, were cruelly persecuted and branded as blasphemers and criminals.

But not all religions are suppressive of human rights, whether political or civil. Islam, for instance, from its very inception preserves and promotes them, both for Muslims and non-Muslims.

This is evident from a treaty between Muslims and non-Muslims almost 1,400 years ago known as the Medina Charter, in which basic human rights were recognised and honoured by the government of the day.

So any statement to the effect that religion does not support human rights may be true of certain religions, but not necessarily the case with certain others. Do not assume that what has been experienced by Christianity, for example, is applicable and transferable to Islam.

If transgressions of human rights are found in the tradition of Islam, do not blame the religion, but chastise the perpetrators who may not understand their religion.

Anything against the welfare and good interest of man, Muslim or otherwise, is never a part of Islam.

I am a strong believer in the notion that the most appropriate understanding of human-rightism is within the framework of religion. This means that in any contradiction between the two, the preference must be given to the latter.

If one talks about ethics and morality, one cannot but admit that their values are ultimately derived from religious teachings. There are no real good or evil values outside religion. Good values are evident in all religions, and most, if not all, run parallel with each other.

It is in this sense of ethical parallelism that secularism becomes the common enemy of all religions, as the former promotes the relativity theory of values. It is in this regard that one is obviously wrong to argue that religion is compatible with secularism, especially in the case of Islam.