Gelvin argues in Chapter 9 that modernity does not require secularism. I find it sort of odd that he opens the chapter with a paragraph about how difficult it is for interfaith (or no-faith) couples to get married in the Middle East other than in Turkey (where civil unions are performed). Is this not a glaring example of anti-progressive government policy which restricts human rights? This is exactly an example of what secularism is able to correct. In the space allotted I will respond to the first part of this chapter.
Gelvin goes on to say: “Many in the West look at the Middle East and decry the role religion plays in the public sphere. They claim that secularism is an essential part of modernity and that states that are not secular cannot be considered modern. Those who do this, however, assume that the attributes of Western modernity can be generalized for the entire world. Another interpretation of the relationship between secularism and modernity is possible, however.
It might be argued that secularism developed in the West as a result of idiosyncrasies associated with that region’s historical experience. Europe suffered from bloody religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Over the course of the centuries that followed, many in the West came to believe that the way to prevent a recurrence of that bloodshed was by severing the connection between politics and religion. In the process, they made the state, not religion, the ultimate source of authority. And since European modernity became the gold standard for “civilization” throughout the world, secularism tagged along for the ride.”
I’ll address this in two halves.
First, if we are referring to modernity(1) by its neutral definition, secularism(2) must be essential to a post-enlightenment modernity. In the age of reason, we must transcend or even reject ancient traditions and restrictions based on unsubstantiated mythology when it comes to nation building and infrastructure. The author himself, gives plenty of examples to back up the antithesis to his own thesis here, which is again, puzzling.
Religion is not necessarily excluded from modernity however. The freedom to practice a religion so far as it does not impact anyone’s else freedom or freedom from it, is generally ok but ought to be reserved to an area of personal hobbies – much like one can choose to watch football or play chess on Sundays. I do predict this strict religious influence on day-to-day lifestyles will fade away as science prevails in our understanding of the reality we find ourselves in and we’re already seeing this is many ways throughout Europe and North America. For the sake of brevity in this response I am ignoring the particular failures of American secularism since overall it is still much better than in other parts of the world where theocracies are explicit in governance or implicit where democracies exist but are subjugated by ubiquitous religious intrusion.
I agree that the attributes of Western society (broadening the authors term “Western modernity”) at large cannot be applied to the entire world. However, I believe the enlightenment and post-enlightenment philosophies (not without issues and particular failures – especially in the area of capitalism) have made the best cases for humanity’s ascension towards a progressive and liberal world-utopia. Yes, I realize a utopia is a lofty goal, but what else should our ultimate goal as a world population ultimately strive for at the highest level?!
With that said, while we ought to be sensitive about the differences in cultures around the world, I will argue that many foundational principles of the West ought to be implemented throughout the world in the cases of neutral and truly of basic human interest. This is not however, an endorsement of western imperialism or even the argument that the West ought to be the ones implementing these universal ideals in other sovereign nations. Even worse is often the erroneous or devious justification for imperialism and the undermining of sovereign governments under the veil of delivering democracy and liberty while in reality serving the interests of western oligarchies and further up the chain of power, of the western “1%”.
Secondly, I agree that the bloody, exploitative, truth-altering practices to serve their own interests, and science-denying history of the Catholic church in Europe most certainly inspired an age of secularism in modernity. But, to say that “since European modernity became the gold standard for “civilization” throughout the world, secularism tagged along for the ride”, is an incomplete and over-simplified view.
Eurocentrism is wrong when it is the lens through which a society engages in ethnocentrism, bigotry, racism, or imperialism. However so far as we qualify a Eurocentric view of the principles of the European Enlightenment, I would argue that it is in fact a neutral and universally uplifting foundation for all human beings in which societies in our global economy ought to practice. It just so happened to become realized and implemented more ubiquitously in Europe and the West first. The author points out further along in this chapter that the Ottoman Empire tried to implement some of these principles but they were often overturned.
Additionally, I want to qualify I am sensitive to the complications that arise in applying secular principles around the world, especially in the rare cases where “religions” are deeply rooted in a society and don’t necessarily harm modernity on a global scale. In the case of the Chinese take-over in Tibet, we see how this can become problematic. I support the on-going effort to preserve this micro-culture’s traditions so far as a way could be figured out that would allow Tibetan culture to thrive economically. I don’t have an answer for that though at this point in time.