Secularists have long ridiculed religion by portraying it as dangerous and divisive. Secularism, they insist, is not only objective since it is based on the natural sciences and empirical rationalism; it is also more tolerant and neutral, and therefore the best guarantor of social peace.
Secular neutrality has been brandished about as if secularism is the ultimate solution to maintaining equity and peace in a plural and diverse society where different religions, moralities and ideologies are competing for attention and assent. In the realm of politics, the secular state alone is said to be the best arbiter of conflicting commitments and visions.
According to them, the public square must be secular if the debates are to be fair and rational. Religious voices must be either excluded altogether or effectively muted if society is to achieve a ‘reasonable’ consensus on the most complex issues and challenges it faces.
But the secular neutrality championed by the most fervent evangelists of secularism is nothing but a myth. Secular neutrality does not exist because secularism is a philosophy of life, an ideology, and, as some would even argue, a religion of sorts.
That secularism is a philosophy of life, a worldview, is evident in the fact that one has to embrace a number of metaphysical ideas to be a secularist.
An orthodox secularist must believe that the material world is all that there is, and that all talk about God and the afterlife is, in the final analysis, irrational. He must believe that human beings are the source of all meaning and value. And if like most secularists he is also one who believes in physicalism, he must believe that we are hardwired (neurologically and genetically) by evolution to make sense of our world in this way.
Secularism also promotes a certain moral vision. Many secularists favour the way of understanding moral responsibility that philosophers call utilitarianism. That is why the philosopher Robert C. Solomon could describe secularist morality as a form of “naturalised spirituality”.
If worldview is defined as a set of life-regulating beliefs, secularism certainly satisfies this definition. But secularism is also a religion of sorts because its key beliefs are embraced by faith, despite its claims that they are grounded in science and reason.
Furthermore, secularism also has its rituals and its priests like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who promote its worldview.
Secularism therefore has a missionary thrust; it is a proselytising ‘religion’.
If what I’ve argued thus far is sound, if secularism is a worldview or a philosophy of life, then it cannot be neutral. Thus, by privileging secularism we are in fact saying that this worldview, this way of looking at reality, is superior to other accounts.
The myth of secular neutrality therefore allows a certain metanarrative to hold sway. And this has given rise to a new hegemony, a kind of ideological and cultural imperialism.
The myth subtly but powerfully presents secularism as the default position of rational people of goodwill by portraying secularism to be what it is not. And once secularism achieves its hegemonic aspirations, it accords itself with the power to define the role of religion in politics and in the public square.
The myth of secular neutrality is therefore democracy’s worse enemy. By pretending to be a friend of democracy, the myth in fact renders modern secular societies undemocratic by shutting down alternative voices.
As Hunter Baker has perceptively argued, “Secularism acts politically against its competitors and defines them as what it is not”. The myth of secular neutrality is therefore chiefly responsible for the tyranny of secularism.
By portraying secularism to be what it is not, the myth presents religion as the problem and secularism as the impeccable solution. The refrain that many secularists often sing is “religion is dangerous and divisive, but secularism is tolerant, fair and neutral”.
This assertion is either naive, delusional or deceptive because any belief system can be said to be dangerous if its advocates are prepared to coerce others by law or by force to practice that belief. Insofar as secularism is a philosophy of life (and I have established that it is), it also can be dangerous.
Are secularists guilty of such coercion? Secularism, asserts Robert Kraynak, “is highly intrusive in the imposition of secular liberal values”.
It is not difficult to find evidence for this, especially in the West. We see it in how schools systematically indoctrinate young people in secular humanism, free expression of religion is prohibited, and sexuality and the family are redefined.
Secular neutrality is a dangerous myth. It promotes intolerance and disrespect.
“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg/).