Friday, 18 February 2011

Freedom: secularism's gift to the world

Interesting article by Tom Flynn over at The Washington Post which provides food for thought:

Freedom: secularism's gift to the world

In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach to the Muslim world.

Politico's Ben Smith wrote this week that the Obama administration "clearly sees an opportunity," signaling "that they're hoping the changes in Tunisia and Egypt spread, and that they're going to align themselves far more clearly with the young, relatively secular masses" in countries like Iran, Algeria and Lebanon.

Is this a new moment for American relations with Muslim countries? Is freedom a religious or secular idea?

Much as I may be setting myself up for later disappointment (I felt euphoric after Obama said he'd close Guantanamo too), I feel hugely encouraged by the popular revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and [insert the name of your favorite Arab country here]. For decades there seemed to be only two live possibilities in the Arab world: secular authoritarianism or some flavor of Islamic radicalism. Or in the case of Turkey, a prolonged slide from possibility number one to possibility number two. Of course America has repeatedly found itself siding with authoritarian despots because they were secular. Tunisia and Egypt mark the emergence of a third way that for too long seemed out of reach in that corner of the world: an impulse toward reform that's secular and free.

That combination should surprise no one. Secularism has its roots at least in part in the Western Enlightenment, which is where most of our concepts about freedom got their start. Almost without exception, these evolved in opposition to the dominant religion of their day, which was Christianity.

Of course, Christianity shares with the other Abrahamic religions its concept of a god patterned on ancient kings and of a spiritual realm organized on the plan of royal courts. Human beings stand to Yahweh, God, or Allah as peasants before a king. Everyone knows that in Arabic Islam means "submission," but traditional Christianity and Judaism are little different in their picture of a deity before whom men and women have no rights save those the occupant of the throne of heaven condescends to grant them. (Actually, that's a pretty fair summary of the Christian concept of grace.)

The simple fact is that across the Christian and Muslim worlds, almost every concept we associate with freedom arose in reaction to Abrahamic religion, beginning with the once-radical notion that kings might, just might, not rule by the will of God. Ever since, the ideas that fueled the development of freedom have come from what we would now identify as the secularist camp. That's not to deny the possibility of back-fertilization; sometimes religions can genuinely absorb secular ideals of freedom (witness liberation theology in the Catholic Church in the 1960s and 1970s). But secularism, not faith, has been the historic crucible of freedom.

Of course that doesn't mean that every secularist is a freedom fighter. Mubarak is only the latest counter-example. But while not every secularist fights for freedom, I would argue that if you find a freedom fighter, scratch deep enough and you're almost bound to find a secularist.

Freedom may be the biggest idea secularism ever gave the world.

By Tom Flynn
February 15, 2011; 1:43 PM ET


  1. Hmmm, not sure that is sound. I like Stacy's take on it:

  2. I'd be very surprised if you agreed with it Leila, but I appreciate your comment, and I will look up Stacy's post. Like so many words, it also depends on what you take secularism to mean. Definitions range from the separation of Church and State, to actively marginalising religion. And when a lot of those who advocate secularism talk about religion, they don't just mean Christianity, which is most cases quite benign, but there are other religions that are less so.

  3. We're having an multi-blog discussion. What you said there, a little different discussion than the other ones, about Christianity vs. other religions is a good point. I get frustrated when we are compared to religions who kill innocent people in the name of God just because they are infidels. Christians don't do that. Thank you for making that distinction.