What is a secular society like?
Being secular means living in an actively tolerant culture.
Being secular means respecting society’s pluralism.
and acknowledging the pluralist tendencies in all religions.
Secularism is a liberation movement, a sense of our limits
and of our capacity to learn from others.
Rafael Díaz Salazar
Secularism is a liberation movement, one of those that have contributed most to fighting domination and struggling against the persecution of pluralism. Thanks to secularism we have more pluralist societies, emancipated from religious domination. At its roots it is a religious movement of Christian inspiration, promoted by Protestant minorities that were persecuted and forced to migrate to North America and who, with the birth of the United States, carefully ensured that what was being created would be a secular republic.
Secularism is an attempt to bring together diversity and pluralism in all their personal and collective forms. It’s a critique of political religiousness, of the endeavor of all religions’ priestly castes to supervise the State’s actions by remote control. It’s even a defense of pluralism, of the autonomy of political and judicial orders, of the dignity and legitimacy of moral autonomy and freedom of conscience. Furthermore it’s the vindication of a culture of active tolerance. Secularism doesn’t just oppose domination, it’s a humanism that also proposes virtues, it‘s part and parcel of creating civic beings and because of this it sees education as extremely important.
A culture of active tolerance We are very much in need of a culture of active tolerance, in which every person and group knows about self-control and how to listen to others. We need to practice civic friendship among people and groups with different identities, ideas and cultural backgrounds.
We need to accept that we are diverse. We have different linguistic, sexual, political, ideological and religious identities and we need to learn to live together by cultivating civic friendship among those who are different. It’s necessary to prevail over the intention of some priests to make the Catholic religion the core of national identity, as that produces enormous obstacles to dialogue between religions and to recognizing contributions from atheist and agnostic cultures.
Laws should be based on a common shared civic ethic and the confessional sectors must recognize society’s moral pluralism. Before enacting legislation on delicate matters we need to engage in careful ethical deliberation. We need to establish the role of religion and churches in public life. We need to take into account the implications of immigration in activating an intercultural and inter-religious dialogue.
A threat to democracy Secularism protects religious freedom, opposing institutions that make pluralism difficult for a diverse citizenry. Radical religious fundamentalism—or the earlier term integrism, which originated with 19th-century Catholics who wanted to reintegrate religion into politics—threatens democracy. Whether political Muslims, identity Hindus, ultra-Orthodox Jews or neo-integrist Catholics or Protestants, they should be confronted so they don’t impede pluralism. Of course, it’s imperative to reject their attempts to legislate based on the truth they claim to possess.
But we mustn’t forget that religion is a public affair, as all the great sociology classics agree. Religions should not be privatized; they must have a presence in public life and contribute to it, but in a democracy they have to exercise self-control over their hegemonic projects. They weren’t born into a secular environment so they have to learn to live in a secular context, knowing that something inviolable exists: freedom of conscience.
The globalization process has shown us the great social, cultural and political force of religions. They exercise an important public role in highly developed democracies.
There are two different forms of public presence for religion and religious institutions. The first, which is especially strong in Italy, Spain and parts of the United States, is an ethical-religious fundamentalism with political implications, inherited from traditional fundamentalisms. The second connects the religious inspiration present in social transformation with the production of a politically active citizenry and profound democracy. It’s a new form of religious social radicalism connected to secular and republican Christianity and the movements for an alternative globalization that have come together in the World Social Forum.
There are pluralist tendencies within all religions. Many religious movements contribute to social emancipation. Let’s think about their educational and health care activities, their care of the weakest or their community promotion throughout the world. These days, foremost French secular thinkers such as Regis Debray, Edgar Morin or Frederic Lenoir are asking for greater knowledge and understanding of the religious phenomenon.
Very little is known about such emancipating religious phenomena as eco-Buddhism, which works with the poorest; of Gandhian Hinduism, which encourages the Vía Campesina movement; or pacifist Judaism, feminist Islam or republican Christianity, with their Evangelical, Protestant and Anglican branches. Nor is much known about the liberating role of religions, since religious information is very poor in the mass media; it is highly clerical, overly focused on issues relating to the bishops.
Without secularism there is no alternative future for the Arab world. Before elections are held in any of these countries, Constitutions should be drawn up that prevent the imposition of Islamic fundamentalism. The Arab world is pluralist; other religions exist in Arab countries; Islam itself is pluralist;. A secular State is the only one that will make it impossible for this pluralism to be repressed and unable to develop.
We all need to learn from the culture of active tolerance that is the cornerstone of secularism. We shouldn’t use our identifying symbols like weapons thrown around in negation of other identities. Countries, including the micro-mini-ones, are pluralist and as such are rainbow countries. We need to avoid flag-waving wars. Let’s express our symbols and see them as complementary. Let’s learn to live together in civil society. Nobody should aim at having an exclusive motherland or monopolizing a country’s culture. Secularism is a sense of our limits and of our capacity to learn from others.
Rafael Díaz Salazar is a lecturer at Madrid’s Complutense University.