Friday, November 03, 2006

Secularism and the good fight

I’m adding my tuppence worth to the discussion involving Shuggy, Norm Geras, David T, Chris Dillow and Matt C, who have made good criticisms of Melanie Phillips’s latest philippic against secularism. She writes:

“[O]nly a strong indigenous faith has the capacity to resist Islamisation. That is why the collapse of Christianity in Britain and Europe and its steady replacement by secularisation is so catastrophic for the defence of the west. The useful idiots who believe that only a secular society can hold off the forces of irrational belief at the heart of the Islamic jihad have got this diametrically the wrong way round. Secularisation produces cultural enfeeblement, because the pursuit of personal happiness trumps absolutely everything else. The here and now is all that matters. Dying for a cause, however noble, becomes an absolute no-no.”

I can think of no greater intellectual decadence and moral cowardice than to advocate the state-backed spread of a religion that one believes to be false in order to reap its supposed sociological effects.

If the aim is to avoid falling under the control of “the forces of irrational belief” inherent in Islam, it is an equal and abject surrender to throw ourselves at the feet of another religion on the grounds that its particular doctrinal features are less bad. If human nature were so contemptible that it needed to be controlled by high priests, and mobilised in their war against rival preachers, then why on Earth would anybody think it worth saving?

Phillips approvingly quotes Paul Belien: “Secularists, it seems to me, are also less keen on fighting. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, this life is the only thing they have to lose. Hence they will rather accept submission than fight.” But this confuses secularism first with atheism and then with a selfish, hedonistic individualism – also slipping amoral relativism into the mix.

To believe that this life in this world is all that there is does not in any way obviate or undermine moral principle, personal virtue and good behaviour.

A godless morality asserts that we matter and that we must treat each other well – not because a supernatural superpower has decreed it so, not because of reward or punishment after death, not because our lives are the property of a creator whose rights must be respected. Our moral worth is inherent and not the sort of thing that could be bestowed or annulled in the name of a deity.

(If you want to raise philosophical quibbles about where right and wrong then come from, then these apply equally to religious moralities. Deities aren’t a secure foundation for morality, as we’ve known since Plato. And we’ve all know since childhood that one can ask “But whyyyy?” until hitting a wall. If we’re talking morality rather than obedience, then theists and atheists are in much the same boat here.)

To say that humanity is metaphysically alone is not to endorse the fiction that each human is socially alone. That we are psychologically bound to each other is deeply entrenched in our evolved nature. And it’s beyond factual dispute that we can and do morally value each other, and stand up to challenge cruelty or alleviate disaster, with or without the dubious benefit of religion. Those of us who know this mustn’t be afraid to shout it out, to give each other moral support that is universal and human; those who try to deny it as a means of promoting their sectarian politics must be exposed.

The fact that this life is my only life means that it’s also the only life of my friends, my family and all the people across the world whose mere existence grants them the right to live it as healthily, securely and happily as is feasible. The understanding that we all matter means that an atheist has much more than their own individual life to value and, if necessary, to fight for.

Norm thinks that the Phillips/Belien claim that secularists would rather submit than fight does at least gesture in the direction of a legitimate concern, that “there seem to be many citizens of liberal societies who can't imagine any serious threat to them, or that these societies may need to be fought for – literally. And that is a mistake.”

It strikes me that Norm’s point is right, but in a way that undermines the argumentative use to which Belien and Phillips wish to put it. Yes, there is a real challenge to tolerant, liberal secularism from militant Islamism, and this surely has been under-appreciated by much of the liberal left. And furthermore, there are some cases in which Islamists will have to be fought, literally, with the use of force.

But these are cases involving groups of jihadi terrorists (themselves a small subset of Islamists) and/or fundamentalist theocratic movements trying to tyrannise whole populations. Given the small scale of individual groups of the former sort, and the overwhelming likelihood that the latter threat will not arise in militaristic form in Western countries, the appropriate defence is immune to any cowardly hedonism among the public. Even if it is true that individual secularists/humanists/atheists are loath to go to war themselves to defend their way of life, this is beside the point. The nature of the threat is not such that Western societies will be engaged in a total war. There won’t be mass mobilisation and conscription. The fighting that does need to be done will be carried out by the professional armed forces, who are quite capable and courageous enough.

As for the more mundane (but still important) cultural challenge posed to secular societies by strident Islamism, the right response will be social and political rather than street-to-street combat. Perhaps I would indeed be defeated by my own fear in the face of physical violence, but – to mix clichés – in the battle for hearts and minds, the pen is mightier than the sword. This is a campaign of ideas and arguments.

Secularism is not about hating religion, nor even about promoting atheism; it’s about freedom. It comes from a recognition that religious diversity (which is inevitable) leads to either massacre and persecution or peaceful agreement to disagree. If we act as though we’re itching for a fight, then that’s what we’ll get. If we try to persuade others that tolerating difference is the only way to avoid a mutual bloodbath, then we can isolate and weaken those who really do want the fight. Phillips uses the fine phrase “the forces of irrational belief at the heart of the Islamic jihad”. And yet she tries to make all of Islam the enemy. In doing so, she alienates potential support for tolerance and freedom.

It has struck me from time to time that when you try to draw a line aggressively, you’re likely end up on the wrong side of it. On 9/11, al-Qaeda repelled most Muslims into sympathising with the US. The Iraq war (and to a lesser extent Afghanistan), Bush and others helped make extremism a more attractive form of resistance.

Violent fights are sometimes necessary. But if you’re careless in the way you pick them, your enemies will multiply. The greatest threat to extremist Islamism will come not from atheists or Christian, but from Muslims who would rather just get on with their own lives than control those of others. For secularists to deprive ourselves of these allies by acquiescing to strident Islamophobia would be to make the mirror image of the fatal mistake that Phillips mistakenly diagnoses.

[Update: I've also just spotted this from the Ministry of Truth.]

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