The Need for Global Secularism

By | 28 May 2009

Selective photo of Pawn piece on chess boardSecularism is the ideal on which modern civilisation was built. Specifically, secularism is the separation of religion from state institutions. More generally, it is a recognition that the affairs of state are too important to be subjected to the whims of ancient myths and superstitions. Secularism was a key historical development because it was primarily the relegation of the status of religion that it provided that allowed scientific progress to take place, from which all technical and economic benefits have flowed. In addition, secularism was the proven solution to centuries of religious conflict in Europe. Despite this legacy, secularism in now under threat.

In the past, the benefits of secularism were more widely recognised than they are today. In the 19th century, although adherence to religious traditions was strong, the advocates of secularism were respected and were reasonably successful. For example, public schools in Australia at that time were founded on the principle that education should be “universal, secular and free”. While public expressions of religious observance were common, there was a general acceptance that political decisions should not display overt religious bias, particularly in the Catholic versus Protestant context.

It may now be largely overlooked, but the economic backwardness that strict religious adherence could engender was also at one time well known. This was particularly apparent to the colonial governments of the Arab states in the 18th century and into the 19th. Seen then as a choice between “mechanisation or Mecca”, local populations tended to choose the latter. Ataturk certainly recognised this deficiency in the Ottoman legacy and was determined to overcome it in building modern Turkey. While his view that Islam was little more than superstition was not popular, being the victor at Gallipoli, Ataturk’s national stature as a military leader was such that he was able to abolish the Caliphate and impose secularism on Turkey. His reforms, safeguarded at times by the military, remain in place to this day, despite opposition from Islamists.

Secularism in general however is now very much in retreat. Almost everywhere politicians seem to be overtly propounding their religious credentials. This is despite the fact that populations have become less religious. The explanation for this paradox lies largely in the nature of globalisation and multiculturalism in the context of the conflicts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The abandonment of secularism, at least amongst political elites, has complex causes, but the effects are becoming increasingly dire, to the extent that those in significant positions of power and authority suffer from a mental outlook that now represents a dangerous disconnection from reality.

The problem of reality disconnection

When societies were more culturally homogenous, religion could more easily be criticised, since cultural sensitivities were less threatened. As we became more ethnically diverse, the ethos of multiculturalism was highly successful in fostering tolerance and in assisting the advancement of minorities. The acceptance of cultural diversity certainly does help in fostering social cohesion. However religions are cultural phenomena, and multiculturalism has had the adverse effect of placing religious cultural beliefs beyond question, shielding them from the rational assessment that they need, and to which they were previously exposed.

The effect of multiculturalism applied to multiple religions has led to a postmodernist psychology in which all forms of cultural belief are deemed to be equally valid and equally true. However since contradictions indicate falsity, this hypothesis of multiple inconsistent “truths” is inherently nonsensical. We thus have a widely adopted protocol that is fundamentally absurd. It involves a mass disconnection from reality, the nature of which has become more prevalent and the consequences of which appear to be becoming increasingly dire. At its worst, we have reached an Orwellian state where politicians are apparently able to successfully construct “the truth” to be whatever suits their purpose. “Reality based” policies are seen as just one of many possible alternatives.

Regarding religion, this situation is compounded by the fact that Islam poses challenges for multiculturalism in a way that other preceding cultural phenomena did not. Part of the motivating force behind this is undoubtedly the injustice that has been meted out to Palestinians over many decades. This has fostered a legitimate and understandable sense of grievance and resentment amongst Muslims globally. However a significant difficulty also lies in the fact that Muslim aspirations for governance by sharia law are inconsistent with democracy. Where religious laws are held to be immutable by elected legislatures, then democracy is curtailed and the multicultural compact falls apart. Regrettably, as a result, we see an increasing tendency for ethnic separatism amongst Muslim minorities in Western countries.

The dysfunctional irrationality that postmodernist thinking has spawned appears to have had serious consequences at the highest levels of global government. At least three instances where this appears to have led to grave miscalculation, if not dire cognitive error, may be cited. These are in relation to the invasion of Iraq, and regarding proposed solutions to the Israel-Palestine question, and in relation to solutions to global warming.

There are many countries that have enshrined Islam in their constitutions and none are working democracies. This is not coincidental. Secularism, at least in a weak form, is necessary for democracy. This was known to the founders of Constitution of the United States, but lost on the current leadership. Without constitutional protection, the political aspirations of Islam will always subvert democracy. With both Afghanistan and Iraq having newly installed Islamic constitutions, attempts to install democracy in these counties is a doomed and futile exercise.

Given that the disastrous consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq were not only predictable but were in fact widely predicted, the question as to the mind-set of those responsible for the debacle remains an open question. A plausible explanation is that a reality disconnection occurred amongst a powerful group of US neo-conservatives, who were motivated by a sectarian desire to protect Israel. They had effective powers of persuasion over the Bush circle that was already open to notions of “faith based intelligence”, American manifest destiny and Christian evangelical eschatology. This combination gave rise to a disconnection from reality that has been disastrous not only for Iraq, and for America, but for the entire rule of law internationally.

The extent of this debacle can hardly be overstated. The Iraq invasion is arguably the gravest war crime ever committed by the countries involved. The negligent conduct of the occupation, starting with the dismissal of the Iraqi army, police and security forces, leading to a situation of unrelenting sectarian chaos, has arguably been an even worse crime against humanity. While the consequences have flowed inevitably from the actions of the invading forces, they were obviously not intended. The whole adventure has been a disastrous failure of rational judgement at the highest levels. Only the suspension of disbelief that religion engenders would appear to provide an explanation for the cognitive disconnection necessary for what has been allowed to occur.

A second example of disconnection of perceptions from reality with grave global consequences surrounds the Israel-Palestine issue. The realisation of the Zionist dream in 1948 has not been a success. The concept of a state that has as its purpose the preservation of the dominance of a particular ethnic or religious group at the expense of other groups is not one that can be morally sustained. This holds, however much one may sympathise with the historical plight of Jews, and whatever their adversaries may do. The assertion of such a supremacist purpose by Israel has been highly destabilising, to the region, and globally.

The question is always posed in term of the state of Israel’s right to exist. This is asserted despite the routine denial of the right of a viable state of Palestine to exist. However as with the former apartheid state, the question is not whether a such a state should exist but what kind of state, and in the case of Israel, with what boundaries. In this regard, Israel’s strategy since 1967 has been to annex occupied territory and build settlements in the remainder, in fulfilment of further Zionist aspirations, and for its own perceived security, to deny any future Palestinian state any prospect of viability. In the latter regard it has been successful.

To counterbalance the existence of a Zionist state in which Jews have ethnic supremacy, the final solution is widely proposed by world leaders as the creation of an additional independent Palestinian state within the residual territories of the West Bank – the so called two-state solution. Yet since the grid network of Israeli settlements will never be removed, the remaining land available for a Palestinian state would represent a set of discontiguous Bantustans. There is no conceivable possibility that this could ever permanently satisfy Palestinian national aspirations. In addition, it is ludicrous to suppose, with so much integration of infrastructure and water supplies, that the supposed Palestinian state could be sovereign in any reasonable sense. Therefore the idea of that two-state solution for one of the world’s most serious and long running disputes constitutes a further serious disconnection from reality. The fact that this gross cognitive error is confounded by religious mythology on all sides confirms the role of religion in such psychological dysfunction.

A third example of reality disconnection concerning a dire global problem is that of global warming. All available evidence suggests that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration due to fossil fuel consumption is causing a global temperature increase that portends disastrous climate change and rising sea levels. To address this issue, on current knowledge, global CO2 emissions need to be reduced by 60 % from current rates. Yet if all current proposals, including the Kyoto protocol, are implemented fully, the best case scenario is that emissions will continue to increase by 50% over current rates by 2050. Thus there is no proposal under consideration that even remotely addresses the magnitude of the problem.

As the Stern report has indicated, global warming represents the biggest case of market failure ever in history. Other instances of market failure are well known in economics and typically occur in situations of scale economies that lead to monopoly power or in the case of externalities, where market costs do not represent the true cost to society. The known remedy is some form of government intervention to impose taxes or regulations. In relation to global warming however, the elaborate carbon trading schemes that have so far been devised and proposed do not in any way address the magnitude of the apparent problem. Instead they may be worse than useless because they give the appearance of doing something while achieving very little.

The problem seems to be that, being so gripped by an ideology of market fundamentalism, political elites are blind to the reality of market failure and hence the need to properly address it. Admittedly the nature and the scale of the problem is unprecedented, as is the required remedy. There is a similarity with the previously mentioned two problems in that errant global policies are proceeding in defiance of known realities and consequences. In this case there may not be a direct link to the dysfunctional thinking that religion may have engendered, except perhaps in that there is a hope that some miracle will intervene to save us. Such notions are typical in religions of course, and generally go unchallenged, despite that no miracle of any kind has ever been proven to have occurred in the known history of the universe.

The secular solution

Two hundred years ago secularism was successfully advanced as a rational solution to sectarianism, in view of the fact that a literal interpretation of religion defied credibility. Since then, scientific knowledge has advanced to the point where we can now rule out any rational possibility that the contentions proposed by religions are anything more than mythological. That this is denied by the god-deluded populace is a problem that we must seek to overcome. It is from this particular gross disconnection from reality that many others follow. The god delusion arises from habit and socialisation, but such things are amenable to change given sufficient motivation and opportunity. The advantages of secularism need to be vigorously promoted.

In this regard we may take note of the resolution on “comprehensive secularism” passed at the 2005 IHEU conference, as reported by Prakash Narain in Australian Humanist No.83. Impartiality between religions and separation of religion from state institutions are essential elements, but a third component is also necessary. This is a preparedness to intervene to protect human rights from violation by religious injunctions. As well as threats to life and safety, the right of children to an education free of religious indoctrination is surely an important part of this.

A further aspect of comprehensive secularism must be the advancement of the concept of secular multiculturalism. This is the acceptance of the value of cultural heritage, but without suspension of rationality and with the explicit recognition that myths are myths. People naturally react defensively when confronted with their delusions. The practical experience of multiculturalism should be an advantage in dealing with this, in that all cultural myths should be treated with equal incredulity. Internationally the advancement of comprehensive secularism will have profound benefits. I now turn to how secularism, and application of reason to policy, can be used to address the three key issues of reality disconnection cited above.

Secular, rational solutions

The disaster in Iraq can only be addressed by replacement of the Islamic constitution with a secular version. Sectarian strife, tyranny, and economic and social deprivation are absolutely guaranteed by the 2005 Iraq constitution, which defines Islam as the main source of legislation. The replacement should be modelled on the constitution of neighbouring Turkey, which robustly mandates secularism and excludes any religious influence on legislation. A further enhancement would be a provision that would limit claims of truth to issues that are subject to rational and empirical verification. Such a development is the only way that Iraq cane be rescued from the catastrophe that the 2003 invasion has created. It is a sad reflection on the state of disregard into which secularism has fallen that this necessary solution is not even on the radar of most politicians or commentators. It does however present a great opportunity to showcase the benefits of secularism and its success would provide a great example for other Islamic countries to follow.

The only conceivable long-term solution to the Israel-Palestine issue is the creation of a single secular state in which all citizens have equal rights irrespective of religion and ethnicity. The dream of a Jewish state has become a nightmare. The notion that a state could be both Jewish and secular was always a contradiction in terms. Israeli “facts on the ground” have now destroyed all possibility of a separate viable Palestine 1 . It is delusory to persist with the notion of two states or any other form of ethic cleansing as a solution. Again it is a sad reflection of secular advocacy that the only viable option is yet to appear on the radar screens of most politicians and commentators. As with religiously inspired delusions, they are mutually reinforced by frequent repetition, as if the mutual agreement to deny reality will somehow obviate it.

The one-state solution requires compromise on all sides, but the good will that such compromise will generate will ensure its success. As well as strict constitutional requirement of the separation, impartiality and interventionist aspects of secularism, the new state would also need an impetus for reason and rationality. There is no place in the world where it is more necessary that myths be separated from tradition and no place where it would be more beneficial. In lands of significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the new state, in overcoming the dark forces of ancient superstition, will truly be a light to the world.

The remedy for global warming will require far more than a mere change in mental attitude, and is therefore far more formidable in real terms. However since global warming has not been caused by religious delusion, it should therefore be more accessible to rational solution. The magnitude of the required solution is currently too daunting for policy makers to contemplate. What is required is a full mobilisation of the world economy as if for war – a war for our survival, a war against carbon emissions. The aim of this policy must be, at least in part, the total abolition, globally, of the use of coal for combustion.

The reason for focussing on coal specifically rather than fossil hydrocarbons is not only because it is more polluting per unit of energy produced. It is because it is plentiful and will therefore remain cheap, if left to market forces alone. A tax on carbon is required that will have significant cost and cause major global economic disruption. To pretend otherwise is further indulgence in delusion. Given that energy resource price increases produce a less than proportionate reduction in demand, to bring large demand reductions and energy substitutions, the price rises required are punitively large. The required tax is of the order of $500 per tonne of emission. This is a reality that is so unpalatable that it has policy makers rapidly summoning all their well practised powers of reality denial.

For Australia the prospect of such a tax may appear particularly bad. Coal is not only our major source of energy but our major export. Australia is also the largest exporter of coal. However this provides an opportunity to turn the threat into an advantage. Australia can band together with other coal exporters to implement an International Coal Tax on exports as part of a global carbon tax scheme. The revenue thus earned can be used to fund investment in alternative energy production.

The challenges that humanity faces are such that they threaten the survival of global civilisation. In response we must summon all our capabilities of reason and rationality, implementing comprehensive secularism in a spirit of co-operation based on the universal values of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice.


The One-State Solution: A breakthrough for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, by Virginia Tilley, University of Michigan Press, 2003

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and software developer. He is President of the Secular Party of Australia.

This paper was originally published in Australian Humanist, No 85, Autumn 2007

Copyright © 2005 John L Perkins