European Transition to Secular Thought


The official story of the rise of the West, widely believed, is that replacement of religion and tradition by science and reason has led to tremendous progress and advance. The reality is very different, as this article shows.

Edited versions with different titles were published in following two newspapers:

Friday, December 19, 2008. Jakarta Post: Social Movements: Lessons from European History The News (Pakistan) on Friday, Oct 24, 2008: Not Just Europe

See also Eurocentric History for articles debunking the Eurocentric Worldview

Non-Eurocentric History, for alternative points of view

and Building Self Confidence, for undoing damage caused by Eurocentric History

A longer version of this article [2433 words] is entitled: The Ways of the Eagles This was published in the Intellect magazine.

For related articles, see: Islamic Worldview & Countering Eurocentricism; Building Self-Confidence, Non-Eurocentric History

A full length academic paper, which described the process by which European lost faith in Christianity in much greater detail: European History: Lessons for Muslims.

European Transition to Secular Thought

Dr. Asad Zaman [1450 words]

Future historians writing on the basis of official US documents would be convinced that the USA selflessly invaded Iraq to bring benefits of democracy and civilization to a barbarian nation, and to protect the entire world from Weapons of Mass Destruction possessed by a mad dictator. They would not pick any clue in these documents to the fact that the war destroyed lives of millions of Iraqis so that USA could control their oil. For the past few centuries, people of European origin have been telling us about the wonderful effects of the modernization of Europe. The other side of the story is not well known. The self-centered and self-glorifying point of view of Europeans, which completely disregards the problems and difficulties of modernization, is implicitly absorbed by anyone who consumes their literary, cinematic or other intellectual or social products – a category to which virtually every reader of this column belongs. Earlier Henri Pirenne showed how the attempt picture themselves at the centre stage of history at all times has led Europeans to a substantially distorted understanding of world civilizations, their close interrelationships, dependency and balances, and their contributions to weaving the fabric of global history and society. Many recent books show how Eurocentric bias has led to the West to claim the achievements of other cultures in the invention of (notably) democracy, universities, capitalism, individualism, and science. Efforts of such scholars have led to the understanding that much of our common stock of wisdom about human beings and their history in the past few centuries is “Eurocentric.” Deep and valuable insights about ourselves emerge when we try to learn about the achievements of other cultures, and also the failures of Europe, which are all suppressed in European writings.

One of the central themes of the European view of the world is the idea that whole world was in darkness and ignorance, and dawn of the age of reason first occurred in Europe. The term “Age of Enlightenment” was used by 18th century European writers, who were “convinced that they were emerging from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a new age enlightened by reason, science, and a respect for humanity. The period also often is referred to as the Age of Reason” (from Internet Encarta). This led to the “White Man’s Burden” to take his civilization and powers of reasoning to ignorant and superstitious people living in darkness all over the world. This picture of world history, which ignores the presence of many ancient and advanced civilizations, is embedded deeply into Western intellectual traditions. All non-Europeans who acquire a Western education automatically imbibe this story, which results in an exaggerated respect for Western traditions and an inferiority complex about one’s savage and primitive ancestors.

In fact the story of the Western transition to a secular system of politics and thought is not, as we are told, a story of the triumph of reason over superstition. The emergence of secular thought in the West was a consequence of the moral bankruptcy of the upper echelon of the Catholic Church. The crisis caused by openly flaunted moral corruption of a sequence of Popes (which involved living extremely luxuriously, legitimizing bastard progeny, selling pardons for sins to raise money for supporting lavish lifestyles, etc.) has been termed ‘the most momentous event in the history of Europe,’ in The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. She has documented how this directly led to the rise of the Protestants, who attempted to preserve their faith while breaking from the corrupt Catholic Church. The Protestants split into several different Christian sects and factions, which fought among themselves as well as with the Catholics. The intolerance of these sects for each other, and battles, carnage, oppression and injustice, all carried out in the name of Christianity, convinced Europeans that religion could not serve as a basis for ordering a society. Even religious leaders realized that social harmony required principles which could be agreed to by all members of the society without invoking controversial and conflicting religious principles. Secular thought developed due to the lack of character among religious leaders of Europe, and aimed at development of higher character by using reason and factual knowledge instead of religion. The Enlightenment thinkers hoped to create a more humane and just society which was free from poverty, wars and social evils of all kinds.

Have the hopes of the enlightenment thinkers been borne out by subsequent history? Religion provided the basis for morality, which has gradually become weaker and weaker in Europe. The consequences of this weaking of moral forces in the Western civilization have been noted by many authors, and are visible for all to see. For example, Gertrude Himmelfarb in her book The De-moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values has documented the increase of violent crimes and illegitimate childbirth as a consequence of the decline of Victorian concepts of morality in England. The resulting breakdown of the family in Europe and USA has led to an epidemic of social disorder. The Social Justice Foundation in England has documented how the the children of single parents, now the majority of all European children, are likely to have poor outcomes in terms of education, mental health, drug abuse and criminal offending.

Julie Reuben in her book The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality, shows how a university education was aimed at developing character in students up until early twentieth century. However this mission was abandoned by modern universities in favor of providing a purely technical education, without any spiritual or moral guidance. The results have been disastrous as students learn how to build bombs, but not that it is immoral to kill innocents. About the Nazi gas chambers used to burn millions of innocents men, women and children, Holocaust scholar Franklin Littel writes that “the credibility crisis of the modern university arises from the fact that the death camps were not planned and built by … illiterates, ignorant savages, but by products of one of the best university systems in the world. In The Brightest and the Best, David Halberstam has documented how graduates of the best USA Universities ran the Vietnam war on the pattern of an efficient business, with callous disregard for human suffering. Much of Vietnam became, in essence, a free-fire zone - more than one million civilians died as "collateral damage" in the mass bombings and napalming - and atrocities and massacres were common. Villages were torched and destroyed in order to "save" them, in the famous words of a U.S. major. McNamara now repents his role in that slaughter, and urges America's leaders not to repeat a similar history in Iraq.

With the widespread breakdown of family values, and the abandonment of the moral mission by Universities, children growing up in Europe and USA have no place to learn ethics and morality. In single parent families, now the majority, children do not know their fathers, and do not experience the warmth and love of their working mothers. In addition, Hollywood and TV promote highly immoral lifestyles; for example, people who murder innocent civilians for money are portrayed as normal, decent, loving and kind human beings in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and many other similar movies. This has resulted in monstrosities such as the public statement in a CBS Nightline TV interview by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright that it was acceptable to kill half a million Iraqi children to achieve objectives of US policy. She has vastly better Public Relations team than Genghis Khan and Hitler, whose names have been blackened forever in history for far lesser deeds.

Many of our leaders and modernized elites insist on blind imitation of the West as the only route to progress. For example, ministries were established to teach European dancing, music and theater to the Turkish people, and similar efforts are under way all over the Islamic world. The point of this article is to argue that we must be discriminating. Certainly we must learn from the West, but we need to distinguish between their failures and success, and avoid the former while adopting means to acquire the latter. The impacts of the ongoing efforts to follow the European pathways in Turkey is plain for all to see in the most modern areas of Turkey. People do not know their neighbors, children have lost respect for their parents, family values have deteriorated, and relations based on lust rather than love have come into existence. Is it not worth examining more carefully all sides of results of modernization before we throw our old-fashioned traditions of hospitality, warmth, strong family values, and ethics out of the window?