Jun 062010

Re: The Role of Religion in Secular Society. Recently one of our members responded to Margaret Somervile’s article which was published in the Edmonton Journal :

If you’ve paid any attention to the media over the last week — for instance, regarding whether the G8 “maternal and infant health initiative” should include abortion, or The Current’s and The National’s programs on CBC that focused on Marci McDonald’s new book, The Armageddon Factor, that raises alarm about the rise in political power and influence of the “Canadian religious right” — you’ll find this secularist truism espoused front, centre and behind the scenes: Religion and religious voices and views have no valid role to play in the public square. Indeed, many secularists are openly hostile to any such participation. But are they correct?” Read more of the letter 

Letter to the Editor by Frank Friesacher Margaret Somerville has created a straw man (or rather, men and women, in this case): where are these secularists who argue that freedom from religion means that “religion has no valid role to play in forming our shared  values and has no place in the public square?” This is certainly not the mainstream understanding of secularism, which predominantly focuses on the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and the right to freedom from the government imposition of religion upon the state. To the extent that secularism seeks to critique religion beyond the scope of such governmental imposition, it is a recognition that while faith and religious belief contain universal human truths, they do so not because religion is the source of wisdom, but rather, religion is a by-product of civilization. Human achievement and thought are the true sources of wisdom, as recognized by humanist perspectives. The fact that, through the bramble of superstition and inanity found in much religious myth and practice we can see these pearls of insight, does not mean that we should accept the old canard that it is through belief in the supernatural that such knowledge is attained. Religion was humanity’s earliest attempt to understand a dangerous and unknown world; it remains a relic, sometimes innocuous, but often very harmful. Therefore, while there are legitimate arguments on both sides about the morality of such issues as abortion and euthanasia, reasoned solutions do not come from pronouncements from bearded men (never women, historically treated by most faiths as chattels) written thousands of years ago who were unaware that the earth is round, that bacteria cause disease, and that the brain is the seat of consciousness. The moral reasoning of the issues of our day, Ms. Somerville correctly notes, “is connected with [some people’s] religious beliefs”. However, correlation does not equal causation. The far more fruitful pursuit is for reasonable people to engage directly on the moral issues, considering universal principles such as suffering and compassion for one’s fellow man, and not to invoke ancient commandments based on fanciful and competing sky gods or fairies. For from engaging in debate, religious proclamations on what is right and wrong bring discussion to a standstill. Ms. Somerville invokes supposed “secular religions” and “scientism” to suggest that secularists are just like religious adherents, but of a different shade. This is akin to labeling baldness as merely another hair colour. Aside from being wrong on this classification, she confuses secularism with atheism. The fact is that most people in Western democracies embrace secularism in the daily lives, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. In short, the straw man proposed here is that secularists seek to stifle free exchange of ideas, when nothing is further from the truth. The rich irony is that it is religion itself which has routed out dissent through state-sanctioned murder, torture and violence for most of human history. Voices which seek to declare universal truths through revelation are free to do so on the public square or on the street corner, but no longer from the throne, from Parliament, or from city hall. It is time for society to end its childhood superstitions and enter adolescence.