It is evident that a considerable expansion in discussions related to Secularism took place lately, especially in cyberspace. While the response from public to the idea of separating religion from state was mostly a mixed one, many self-proclaimed opponents of secularism seem to resort to the claim that “no nation is in fact secular”. While it is necessary and tempting to dig into the question of “which countries are secular?” I do not believe that question is at all relevant in determining “if WE need to be secular”. Let me explain this in a while.
As you are aware by now, secularism is the idea that religious or other personal and subjective beliefs, attitudes, practices et cetera should not be used while making common or public decisions. This idea, like any other idea, can exist in various strata of social fabric. For instance, some nations as whole can be declared “secular” by constitutions or other legislation. Some other nations however, may lack such distinct legislation but still can function as “secular states” by mutual agreement between governing bodies. With or without this luxury of “secular governance”, still other nations may have a significant public opinion and thus a practical drive towards secularization (while the current governance of the country is not secular). The truth is, various nations have different combinations of above factors (and other factors not mentioned here), making it humanly impossible to brand a given country as “secular” or “non-secular”. However, if it is utterly necessary, or being strongly demanded by public, it is theoretically possible to come up with a reliable scale, in which various nations can be placed depending on their respective “levels of secularization”. Such measures however, are extremely subjective.
Most opponents of secularism are in the opinion that “secularism is a western concept” and despite that “west is not secular”. The proposition that “secularism is western” is in fact no better than the proposition “science is western”. While it is undeniable that geographical west took a significant part in rapid recent evolution of science, it by no means implies that objective analysis used in scientific methodology has anything inherently western in it. While it may well be true that the way people think can be shaped by their culture and many other local attributes, there is nothing ambiguous among people of different backgrounds about square root of nine, and neither should there be about a simple fact like “Dinosaurs lived on earth 70 million years back”. Scientific models used for explanation of world such as gravity, electro-magnetic field et cetera, are however man-made models rather than facts by themselves. Understanding of such models may or may not be culturally affected (which is unlikely in any case), but any fair minded person may agree that those models must be accepted or rejected based on their relative usefulness and reliability, and not the cultural biases either for or against them. So what about secularism?
It is a justifiable and an undeniable argument that evolution of modern concept of secularism largely took place in geographical west. American, French and English revolutions helped turn the tables of political arena of respective countries, and accompanied drastic reductions of power and clergy in governance, and gave way to a multitude of concepts including individual freedom, equality, government non-interventionism, libertarianism, and secularism. Scientific and technological advances (and not to forget colonialism), brought prosperity to geographical west and lead to a mushrooming of new ideologies, which promptly spilled into the rest of the world, and among which no doubt, was modern concept of secularism. So it would do no harm to accept for sake of argument that “secularism is largely a western concept”. So what?
Like we said before, “gravity” is a western concept, and so is electro-magnetism. But only the worst of “eastern fanatics” have problems with accepting those models as reliable explanations of the world. (Even those fanatics use the concepts whether or not they accept them philosophically). So what is so different (and difficult) about secularism as a social model? I do not think “secularism being western” is a valid argument any more than rejecting gravity for being western. No indeed. This rejection and bashing of secularism has some not-so-revealed reason behind. Since the rejection comes mainly from extremist fractions of majority ethnic/religious sect, my guess is they are merely afraid of losing the privilege status they are in, as the (self-proclaimed representatives of) numerical majority. While I will leave it to other writers to elaborate on this point, let’s look once back at secularism. Despite the fact that specific word was mentioned seldom until recently, what is so special about it? I mean what is so complex and peculiar about secularism compared to more fundamental concepts like freedom, humanity, justice et cetera? Are those concepts “western” too? A closer look will reveal that the relationship between geographical west and secularism is largely historical, and nothing more (just like modern science and the west).
Isn’t this viewpoint reinforced by observing Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan et cetera utilizing both secular ideology and modern science to come out as developed nations those can rival (and even surpass) the west?
Let us now turn into the other popular trump card used by opponents of secularization, namely the suggestion that “west who preaches us secularism is not indeed secular”. Like we said before, it is impossible to brand a given nation as “secular” or “non-secular”. 100% secular nations almost certainly do not exist, and among the rest, some nations can be safely assumed to be “more secular” than others, and one nation may be more secular than another nation in once aspect (say constitution), but less secular in another (say public attitude). Therefore, their argument that “west is not secular” becomes null and void even before it is made.
Well then, is the west “more secular” than, say Sri Lanka? Since “the west” is not a unified entity, a clear cut answer cannot be given. (And I do agree that some western nations like Irish republic are less secular than Sri Lanka). The opponents however get hold of a few apparently valid arguments to portray key nations of the west (such as United Kingdom, United States et cetera) as non-secular. Their arguments include the British queen being defender of Church of England, British Anthem being “God save the Queen” (along with American and Canadian Anthems that explicitly refer to Christian God), and religious phrases traditionally uttered by leaders and written on money notes (and occasional uttering of some conservative leaders that such and such is a Christian country). I by no means say these symbols do not count. Secularists in those nations are constantly working to amend those oddities, and I’m comfortable with some of their proposals while not with some others. However, the key point those opponents of secularism are missing is inexcusable. They conveniently forget that they are referring to symbols. Some of those nations are monarchies that were formed far before secularization at large was in horizon, and they continue to retain certain traditions and symbols of nominal value despite the society being way more secular than it was before.
To elaborate the point, let us turn to Scandinavia. Norway is nominally a religious theocracy, with a Christian monarch, and with Lutheran Church of Norway as state church. It is not even listed as a “secular country” in the Wikipedia map. However, what would be actual religiosity of society and to what extent is religion used as a tool for governance? The extent is anything but abysmal compared to Sri Lanka (which can often be classified “more secular” than Norway, since Sri Lanka lacks a “state religion” and has only a “foremost place” for Buddhism). Wordings of constitutions and age old traditions aside, a practical look at societies reveal actual secularity of respective nations.
Also what is often forgotten to mention is the direction each country and society is headed to, with respect to secularization. Most modern democracies (being secular up to varying extents currently) are in fact proceeding towards higher secularity. Age old blasphemy laws and other traditional barriers to free expression regarding religion are being lifted, apartheid laws are being lifted and even being prohibited at private level, people with different orientations with regards to race, color, gender, sexuality are being incorporated, and religious practices and influence in public places are being constantly challenged and removed. It is disturbing to note that Sri Lanka, having a pluralistic society long used to mutual tolerance, not only fails to make adequate advances in those aspects, but also tends to degenerate into a theocracy despite the repeated assurances of Buddhist scholars that a Buddhist theocracy is implausible. A long and painful attitudinal change among public towards greater inter-sectarian understanding and secularism seems to be the only way out.