Secularism cannot be blamed for all the ills of the world

Many millions who are not religious have admirable human and moral values

Dr Fergus O'Ferrall, my old friend and valued colleague, passionately believes that the great religions of the world have much to offer as we wrestle with the challenges of the modern world (Rite and Reason, July 20th, 2021) and, with many qualifications, I agree.

He writes that “The common spiritual wisdom shared by our religions concerns values and meaning, human dignity, relationships, solidarity, reconciliation, hope, peace, justice, equality, the common good. These ingredients of human flourishing are needed more than ever at this critical and dark time and ought to be brought into regular, open, transparent and respectful dialogue with those who espouse secular viewpoints as we all seek to rectify our current distresses.”

All right-thinking people will share these objectives, if not the ultimate motive.

I was, however, saddened to find that a large part of his article focused on blaming the so-called public creed of secularism for the ills of this world including “the rising levels of mental distress, loneliness, social exclusion, racism, the assault on truth, the decline of trust in democracy, an erosion of decency – the widespread malaise and fear of the future stemming from existential threats such as the climate crisis”.

Apparently “xenophobia, racism and gross inequalities combined with a disregard for dignity and human rights” have thrived in the “vacuum left by secularism”. On reflection, I was surprised that we secularists are not being blamed for the disappearance of the corncrake.

Many millions of people who are not religious have admirable human values

We are told that “secularism has no anchor for ethics, because you cannot develop a meaningful morality out of a meaningless universe”. This implies that his secular friends have no meaningful morality.

Desire for aggrandisement

Our morality, which is not much different in practice from his, is not in the slightest impaired by the fact that most secularists believe there is no meaning in the material objective universe.

Secularism “fails on the score of expectation: it offers no guidance on human values save personal aggrandisement”. Yet many millions of people who are not religious have admirable human values and are not overwhelmed by desires for aggrandisement.

Could it be that these people learned how to lead good and fulfilling lives from their families and friends, their schools, choirs, dramatic societies and sports clubs, from all the social gatherings that they were drawn into while still young?

Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction

Could it be that as they grew older, they saw their values, acquired in a loving healthy childhood, reflected in the secular laws of their country and in the many national and international secular declarations of human rights?

They became moral without religion, increasingly the norm for contemporaries in societies renowned for their high human values, and often lacking in societies still dominated by religions.

He worries that secularism “fails to answer one question: what are we to live for?” and that it “fails to provide . . . a ‘big story’ that gives meaning to existence”.

As a secular humanist, my big story is humanity. My ethics are summarised in the Amsterdam Declaration (2002) of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (Humanists International) which in part affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others.

Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention.

Afterlife and fear

O’Ferrall tells us that “globally we live increasingly in a truthless . . . age”. I agree and I know there is a lot of wisdom and truth among religious people, but we are told they come ultimately from a belief in the supernatural.

This is literally an incredible idea. I am sorry that it is maybe hurtful for people to hear that this belief in the supernatural is one of the most misleading untruths in western society, nurtured without question in almost all Irish schools by servants of the State.

It seems the decline in religion is partly due to increasing recognition that we do not need religion to be moral or content

The alternative to secularism/humanism is theocracy, in which the church and State are more or less united, with morality instilled by hope in an afterlife and not a little fear.

Since the modern Irish State is a product of religion, it is plain that our many problems cannot be ascribed to secularism or humanism that are only now beginning to have roles in influencing our society.

It seems the decline in religion is partly due to increasing recognition that we do not need religion to be moral or content, but our society has some way to go – we still have to pass the litmus test of removing religious formation from our nationally funded schools.

It is time for us to encourage everyone from childhood to think out their morality for themselves as members of a caring society, without any obligation for supernatural guidance which can remain an option for many people.

The way to dialogue is through mutual respect and understanding. A religion will not retain or regain respect in society by blaming all the ills of the world on secularism and humanism (or on other religions) or by claiming that religions have a special right to be heard.

The problems of society are much more complex than these attitudes suggest.