- Published on Thursday, 10 February 2011 05:32
- Written by Dagmar Gontard
- Hits: 1772
On November 26th, 2010, one among the series of Munk Debates brought together two men from different ideologies, former UK Prime Minister and convert to Catholicism, Tony Blair, and the other, Christopher Hitchens, one of the world's well-known atheists. The debate went smoothly, with both debaters showing a high degree of civility and respect for each other.
Thanks to the debaters' respectful approach to totally conflicting opinions, those who watched or listened to the debate will remember a harmonious encounter of two courteous adversaries.
I submit that this harmony amid divergent ideas is the very essence of secularism. This may come as a surprise to those who claim that "secularism aims at the eradication of religions." It is obvious that etymological confusion plays a role here, stemming probably from the common misconception of the so-called "secularization of society", where secularization is equated with atheism.
A brief etymological reminder is necessary. The term 'secularism' was coined by the nineteenth century English Humanist George Jacob Holyoake. Initially it was a socio-political program, aimed at defining sources of knowledge, best suited to informing leaders of society in making choices in areas such as education, politics, art, etc. Over time, the term evolved and secularism has been used to describe various concepts, one of them being the relation between state and religion, in other words: the separation of Church and State. In this concept, secularism is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Interestingly, on the French side, the term 'laïcité' is being threatened by etymological confusion as well. Indeed, under the constant pressure of the ever-increasing demands for religious accommodations, we now hear such terms as "open laïcité," "hard laïcité," "political laïcité," to name just a few. Confusion reigns supreme, yet the French law of 1905 successfully achieved an official separation between Church and State, thus putting an end to centuries of bloody inter-religious fights.
As a secularist, I want to make it very clear, I am promoting secularism, without any adjective. I am promoting the separation of Church and State, I am not advocating the death of religions. It is important to know what we are talking about. The concept of secularism - or laïcité - boils down to two words: separation and respect. In this conception secularism relies on the division between private life, where various beliefs belong, and the public sphere, in which each individual should appear simply as a citizen equal to all other citizens, devoid of ethnic, religious or other particularities.
This concept of secularism does not imply any hostility of the government with respect to religion. It does imply that government and political issues should be kept separate from religious ones. This is meant to protect both - the government from any possible interference from religious organizations, and, vice versa, to protect the religious organizations from political quarrels and controversies.
A recent survey of history shows that quarrels, disguised under the religious cloak, are springing up again. In God's name, killings are taking place all over the world. While, in the Middle East, Christians are being massacred, in Mumbai, where they have been peacefully living for many centuries, the Jews are now targeted. Not so long ago, in Florida, a minister of a small religious congregation threatened to engage in a histrionic show of burning korans. In British Columbia, under the pretense of religious requirements, legalizing of polygamy is demanded. In other places, frustrated faith groups strike alliances and lash out against atheists. All over the world, under the pretence of "religious freedom," inconceivable criminal acts are tolerated due to political correctness. And, everywhere, religions compete with each other - while, in the UK, the private Muslim schools, financed by Saudi Arabia, educate children about chopping off of hands, in Southern Ontario the Gideon's insist on distributing Bibles in public schools and the Muslims claim the right to distribute Korans.
What is the driving force behind this? Could it be that people are looking for some kind of identity? For some sort of community? What about those who are turning religion into a badge of identity, used in opposition to others - the burqua being such an example of religion being totally hijacked. What is it that we are observing here? Isn't it some kind of religious nationalism?
I contend that, once we take the theological clothes from these movements, they are, simply, political and social movements.
It seems to me that something important is obfuscated here. Something that harks back into the infancy of humanity, something that dives deep into our subconscious and that something is the profound yearning for spirituality. No matter what sources we get it from - some may get it from sending prayers to some supernatural being while others may get it from nature, by simply listening to babbling brooks - no matter what external envelope of any particular faiths this need for spirituality takes on, it is part of each of us. And this yearning for spirituality, this need, is documented scientifically. "God is a state of mind," writes Doctor Robert Buckman in one of his books. Let me quote him: "Our brains lead us to readily undergo experiences that we have chosen to call god or spirituality or oneness-with-the-universe or similar words or names. If the limbic system is activated by means of the right temporal lobe, a person will have an experience of spiritual or divine type. God is - literally - a state of mind."
An interesting conclusion, based on the experiments conducted by scientists worldwide, one among them being our Professor Michael Persinger, in Sudbury. It's also in line with the conclusions of Daniel Baril, a Quebec anthropologist, who sees religion as a by-product of evolution and contends that it would take the mutation of our species to make religion disappear. All this may be contradicting Sam Harris, who heralded the end of faith in his book of the same name, in 2004.
Be that as it may, from the secularist point of view, this theological-philosophical-biological debate is certainly interesting, but should be left with the experts in related fields. The secularist's interest lies elsewhere - in separation and respect. There are some fourteen hundred religions worldwide and, of course, they can't all be "accommodated." But the secularist is not interested in weighing their respective merits, or in establishing their hierarchy. Secularism strives to guarantee the right of people, of all peoples of the world, to choose and practice the religion of their choice, or not to choose any. In order to avoid inter-religions fighting, the secularist invites people to worship in places designated to the specific religions. Faith should remain a private affair! From the secularist point of view, separation and respect are the cornerstones of social harmony.
Separation and respect! Those two words have to be hammered in again and again ! In this regard, I believe, the debate of the November 26th, 2010, is of utmost importance. It is also a shining example of what a secular state can accomplish. The debate was broadcast worldwide, and I was happy to read comments coming from countries beyond the Atlantic Ocean. They read: "Well done, Canada! Way to go!" One very interesting comment came from Quebec. It read:
"It was a real joy to see two men of this caliber fencing with superlative English prose. This type of debate is quintessential to our common Western civilization. This type of public civilized debate about humanity's deepest convictions does not exist outside the West: not in China, not in Arabia, not in Africa, not yet in Latin America or Russia. It is to the credit of Canada that such a debate did happen in one of our cities rather than within the USA or Britain, as one would have expected, considering the origins of the speakers. With this debate, Canada is unexpectedly taking a kind of lead in reasserting Western values."
As a secularist and as a Canadian, I am proud of being a citizen of this great country.
Originally written: December 2010
See more on the Munk Hitchens-Blair debate here.