A Critical Analysis of Secularism

All praise is for Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, and peace be upon His Prophetﷺ, his Companions, and his Family.

The contemporary discourse revolving around secularism and its relation to Islam has put many Muslims in a state of intellectual confusion and doubt. In order to be in a better position to understand our conundrum, the article will seek to deconstruct the philosophy of secularism and illustrate its outcomes in the long run.

Defining Secularism:

To begin with the definition, secularism rests on three pillars:

  • the separation between religious institutions and the State, where religion may participate but not dominate.
  • the freedom to practice one’s religion without harming others.
  • the guarantee of equality regardless of one’s religious beliefs.[1]

To analyze the definition, let us begin by questioning the notion of religious freedom. As per the philosophers of secularism, it is the liberty to practice religiosity or non-religiosity, as long as it does not harm others. They base it on two major presuppositions, 1) that religion is fundamentally a personal matter, 2) that religion does not prescribe commands to be applied on a societal or public level. However, both assumptions are fundamentally flawed.

As one of the major world religions, Islam does not agree with either of these presuppositions. To practice Islam, you are required to fulfill necessary communal obligations and enjoin good and forbid evil. Furthermore, despite secularism emerging from Christian lands, Christianity (as well as Judaism) itself dictates many political and public commandments, especially in the Old Testament. Thus, the above-mentioned assumptions stand in contradiction to the essence of the three major world religions. If a particular religion obligates societal involvement to some extent, and secularism obstructs such involvement, then adherents of these faiths cannot be considered to be truly free in their religious practice in a secular society. For secularism to live up to its promise (i.e., of granting religious freedom), it must allow what it disallows (i.e., public participation of religion). Such is the paradoxical nature of secularism. 

The Metaphysical Problem of Secularism:

Proceeding to our next point, we arrive at the metaphysical problem of secularism. A secular society is inherently unequipped to deal with issues of a metaphysical nature. Secularism lacks the tools to formulate any meaningful cohesion. A number of studies have pointed toward the fact that a secular society constantly devalues philosophy, religion, art, literature, and natural beauty.[2] Furthermore, secularism has a direct correlation with increased feelings of self-sufficiency, which obstructs our ability to believe and submit to a higher power.[3] Such potency of secularism renders it an adversary to faith, thus undermining their claims to religious freedom and equality.

The secular worldview hinders one from comprehending the limitedness and temporality of this world. It distorts our understanding of the things we experience on a daily basis, which leads us to mistakenly attribute a sense of everlastingness to that which is transient (see Sapience Institute). A study conducted in 2011 by Oxford concluded not only that humans are naturally inclined to believe in God but also that religion is insuppressible.[4] Accordingly, secularism denies the very reality—namely, religion—upon which most of the great civilizations of yesteryear were built. All of these factors converge to create an individual plagued by tendencies of self-superiority, egotism, and preoccupation with the mundane.[5] Individuals with such characteristics pose a catastrophic threat to the very fabric of a society.

The Moral Problem of Secularism:

The most fundamental point of contention is the moral problem of secularism. Secularism relies on moral relativism, i.e., to each his/her own morals. As per Abdullah Andalusi, secularism has no holy scripture upon which its moral foundations can be established.[6] As there is no definite interpretation of what constitutes morality, anything can be justified under the secular worldview. This can be observed in recent history where brutal colonial operations were justified under the moral pretext of civilizing the barbarians.

There are two notions that underpin secularist morality: consequentialism and scientific morality. Consequentialism is the ethical theory that actions can be classified as good or bad by analyzing their consequences. Stating that “one can act as he/she wishes as long as no harm is done to others”, the harm principle is one such consequentialist model.  However, such an ethical principle can be taken to its logical conclusion and be utilized to justify protected incest or even necrophilia, as they do not yield any immediate harm and even maximize pleasure of the doer.

Scientific morality, on the other hand, is a myth. Science cannot devise moral frameworks; just as how the study of history cannot devise scientific principles. Morality does not fall under the domain of science. Those who have ascribed (or still do ascribe) to such a paradigm of morality have often held problematic and oppressive moral notions. For instance, it is well known that the American white supremacist Ku Klux Klan attempted to justify their racist ideas by citing 20th-century scientists who classified Black people as evolutionary weak and inferior.

As per the notorious atheist Richard Dawkins, the world is merely a pitiless indifference. To break a vase or to kill a man is ultimately one in the same, for both are nothing more than a mere rearrangement of atoms. This is the ultimate outcome of taking science as a moral framework. Thus, secularism lacks the potential to solve the problem of morality, let alone the issue of objective morality. Rather, the secular society has made love of immediate and instant sexual gratification an achievement to strive for.

Lastly, in a secular state, the term immoral becomes synonymous with illegal. What is legal in a society is also perfectly moral. The culture that grows out of a secular society encourages a hedonistic way of living in which maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain are life’s primary goals. Secularism supplants moral accountability with legal accountability. Moreover, if a particular act is illegal at a given time, the secular system wields the very mechanism it needs to overturn the legal status of said act.

God, Violence, and Secularism:

After establishing humans as the center of all existence, secular philosophers remain troubled by the varying beliefs humans have chosen to hold, especially an extensive belief in God. When this natural tendency towards theistic beliefs is undermined, it will only beget mental instability, societal chaos, and moral degeneracy. Belief in God is an anathema to the anti-religious and libertine spirit of secularism.

A major mistaken notion held by secular philosophers is that God is merely a human invention. However, if God were indeed a human invention, and all the crimes and inequalities committed in the name of religion were merely human misdeeds, then it follows that humans are far less rational than what secular philosophers have supposed them to be. This would render human beings unfit to occupy the center of all existence. In trying to rationalize their worldview, they undercut their own foundations.

Furthermore, a common motif in secular discourse is that secularism is the bulwark of peace against the violence of religions. This is a baseless claim and can be dismissed by turning our attention to the fact that two of the bloodiest wars in history were fought on the basis of secular ideologies, where the death toll from the two World Wars reached up to a whopping 90 million. In addition to this, centuries of brutal European colonialism have caused countless deaths and widespread poverty across the world. Secularists often overlook the dark side of their history. Today, secular societies are being torn apart by hedonism, depression, and nihilism. Secularism is a moral and intellectual ailment; it begets societal disorder and exhibits disdain towards any moral refinement.

[1] https://www.secularism.org.uk/what-is-secularism.html

[2] M. Csikszentmihalyi, “If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy?” American Psychologist. 1999; no. 54 (1999): 821–827. (p.823).

[3] Nigel Barber, N. ‘A cross-national test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief’ Cross-Cultural Research, no. 45:318-333.

[4] News Team. (2011, May 20). God a part of human thought. The Oxford Student. https://www.oxfordstudent.com/2011/05/19/god-a-part-of-human-thought/ 

[5] Melchor Sánchez de Toca, “Looking for God: Religious Indifference in Perspective” in Passing on the Faith: Transforming Traditions for the Next Generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, ed. James L. Heft (Fordham University Press, 2007): 29.

[6] Debate: Islam or Liberalism: Which one is better for humanity?
Dr Graham Oppy & Abdullah al Andalusi, https://youtu.be/HSQ2yJqZ2GE

1 Comment
  1. Faisal Khan says

    Great analysis on secularism! Your ability to critically evaluate the concept is impressive. The historical context and philosophical foundations you’ve provided add valuable depth to the discussion. The examination of the impact and potential challenges of secularism is also well thought out. Keep up the excellent work!

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