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What is Secularism? Reflections of a Secular Humanist

(Editor’s Note: This talk was presented in a seminar on February 26, 2017 in Toronto, Canada.)

What is secularism? How is a secular state different than a theocratic state?

These questions become relevant when we want to have an open and honest dialogue about freedom of expression, democracy, and especially human rights of religious minorities. In this seminar, I would like to share my reflections as a secular humanist.

Let me start with the definition. When I consulted Dictionary.com, I found the following definition and usage of the term:

Secularism is a system of social organization and education where religion is not allowed to play a part in civil affairs.

1. Secular Parliament

One of the fundamental principles of secularism is the separation of church and state. Secularists believe that human beings sometimes have a religion; states do not. A secular state has a secular parliament. In a secular state, every citizen is free to have a personal religion, but the state remains secular. Citizens practice their religion in their private lives, but leave their religion at home when they participate in civil activities.

In a secular state, all laws are made for all citizens. Whether the citizens are Christians or Muslims, Jews or Hindus, they have to follow the law of the land, and they are all equal in the eyes of the law. Secular laws are made to provide safety and security to all citizens.

2. Secular Court

A secular state has a secular court. All citizens can access the court freely and ask for justice and protection against violence and prejudice.

In a secular state, all minorities are equally respected, and their human rights are protected. As long as they are law-abiding citizens, there is no discrimination against any individual or group because of their religious identity or philosophy.

Let me share a personal example. Once when I went to an Oshawa court to help my patient get her daughter back from Children’s Aid Society, the following dialogue took place between the judge and myself:

Dr. Sohail, would you like to take an oath on the Bible,
No, I do not believe in Bible.
Would you like to take an oath on the Quran.
No, as a Secular Humanist I do not believe in any religious scriptures.
Then, what is sacred for you?
My conscience.
Would you take an oath on your conscience?
Yes, I would.

3. Secular State Organizations

In a secular state, all state organizations are secular. When I started working in the Whitby Psychiatric Hospital, I was asked to take an oath to respect the confidentiality of my patients as a psychiatrist. I took the oath, but I did not say the last few words. They were “So help me God.” The manager of human resources accepted my position.

In a secular state, there is not only freedom of religion, there is also freedom from religion. All those citizens who do not follow any religion are also respected and protected. In a secular state, all atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and humanists have equal rights and privileges. There is no blasphemy law to hurt or execute the nonbelievers. People are free to challenge and criticize unjust religious traditions and practices without any fear of punishment and persecution.

4. Secular Schools

In a secular state, public schools provide secular education based on modern science, psychology, and philosophy. Children can study world religions as part of world traditions, mythology, and history. Religion is not taught as faith, and there is no indoctrination. In Alberta, a Grade 11 student refused to stand in religious studies class. When his teacher insisted, he stated that he was studying Christianity as part of world history, not as religion. He was expelled from the class by the religion teacher. He went to the Human Rights Commission and contacted the media. I saw his interview on national television. His parents supported him. In the end the school principal apologized and welcomed him back. That is an example of secular education and secular schools.

It is unfortunate that some religious fundamentalists see secularism as a threat to their religious tradition. They see secularism as antireligious rather than nonreligious. It is also sad that some religious fundamentalists see secularists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists as people with no morals. They do not realize that secularists have their own ethics guided by their intelligence, social conscience, and the writings of secular philosophers, rather than morality based on the scriptures and divine revelation. They follow the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated by them. This Golden Rule was introduced to humanity by Confucius, a Chinese secular humanist philosopher in 500 BCE, far before most of today’s organized religions were created.

When we study the history of secularism, we become aware that the term secularism was coined in 1851 by George Holyoake, a British philosopher and writer who lived from 1817 to 1906. He edited a magazine titled Oracle of Reason. Because he promoted secular and humanist philosophy, he was charged with blasphemy and was imprisoned for 6 months. That was the time teachers in academic institutions were asked to take a religious oath. Holyoake criticized such tradition, but had to pay a heavy price for his views. In his later years, Holyoake dedicated his life to the struggles of the working class people. In 1891 he published his book The Cooperative Movement of Today, and in 1892 published his autobiography titled Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life.

Holyoake’s ideas about secularism provided the foundation for other philosophers, politicians, and political activists to build the tall buildings of secularism, humanism, and socialism.

Over the decades, a number of communities, countries, and cultures have adopted secular ideas and ideals. Some examples are Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. It is interesting to see how secularism has joined hands with humanism and socialism.

In the 21st century, when winds of religious fundamentalism and Western imperialism are getting stronger all over the world, a dialogue, discussion, and debate about secularism is becoming more important.

As a secular humanist, I strongly feel that secularism and humanism are important philosophies to create a just and peaceful world.