Secularism Is Not an Affirmation of Atheism

Cape Times (South Africa), December 7, 2007 | Go to article overview

Secularism Is Not an Affirmation of Atheism


BYLINE: Saliem Fakir

Zarina Maharaj, the wife of former minister of transport Mac Maharaj, wrote in her memoir, Dancing to a Different Rhythm, that when she first encountered members of the Communist Party in London, during her life in exile, she was struck by their dogmatism and their certainty that history was to vindicate their cause.

When she asked one of the members of the party why he saw Marxist theory of history and society as "the undisputed winning horse in the race of social theories", he rebuked her and replied: "It is the only horse in the race!"

Maharaj was quickly initiated into the strange occult world of Marxist historical materialism, which one had to accept with faith if one was not to be alienated from party apparatchiks.

The debate about whether or not to include evolutionary theory in the school education system is treated both by evolutionists and the religious establishment as if there could be only one horse in this race. Dogmatic scientific materialism, fundamentalist religion and liberal science can also be a closed-minded affair, as Maharaj experienced.

While evolutionists want their winning horse in the race, the religious establishment wants to be sure that it is excluded, and that, in fact, there is no race.

In the US, a war of inclusion and exclusion is being waged between secular fundamentalists and the evangelical right wing. Right-wing religion has been on the rise, seeking to claw back from the entrenchment of secularism in US public institutions.

Ever since George Bush came into power, the religious right has attacked various secular triumphs: the right of women to have an abortion; evolutionary theory as opposed to creationism; stem cell research and the status of embryos; even the election of Supreme Court judges.

This reaction to secularism says more about the failure of secular traditions than about the rise of religious fundamentalism the world over.

This has a lot to do with the historical arrogance of secularism that developed with its association with modern science - that there is only room for one point of view and that this must be subject to the standards of reason. As the philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend, noted poignantly in his book Against Method, "There is a separation between state and church, there is no separation between state and science."

The reliance on reason meant blind application, always with the goal of defeating religious faith - this is how the sanctuary of secularism, it was thought, should be built.

Confidence and faith in the superiority of secularism has led to treating the model as something infallible, and the success of science in the last century has bolstered this state of affairs.

But clearly, anyone who believes science has the answer to all human realities and problems needs their head checked.

The debate about evolution versus religion raises questions about how secularism has become hi-jacked by the scientific establishment. The political right of science over other forms of knowledge is often bolstered by a cacophony of slogans (objectivity, rational, rigour, method) that are meant to disguise the political intent behind the objections - the emphasis on method as an objective excavation of truth is meant to exclude all other forms of knowledge.

Feyerabend argues: "Every step that protects a view from criticism, that makes it safe or 'well-founded', is a step away from rationality. Every step that makes it more vulnerable is welcome."

There is nothing to suggest that secularism in general should only be the preserve of the scientific worldview - this is largely a result of historical accident than a confirmation that the scientific tradition has superior access to truth. Science clobbered its way into dominance just like the Church once did. Its special privilege is a result of patronage through power rather than its own merit. …

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