This article presses a point that has been lost in the new atheism debate. And many modernizing cultures need to consider the real meaning of secularism as it emerged at the dawn of the modern period. The shift in meaning is constantly abetted by new atheists who want to equate their views of science and religion with modernity itself, and that is tremendously unfair. The dawn of the modern age, with Copernicus and the Reformation, was not about atheism, or anti-religion, but the transformation of medieval Catholicism. The resulting Protestantism claimed the foundational status of secularism in its new views of the relations of religion to the theocratic of medieval period, thence to the relations of Church and State. There is a need to see the multiple tracks of modernity. One track led to the reform of religion, another to the way beyond religion, another to the discourses of figures like Kant and Hegel, who transformed the metaphysical ground of religion. Atheism was never more than one track in the emerging secular society, and in many ways a minority view well in our own times. We cannot therefore challenge religionists or successors to the Reformation with anti-secularism. Such a contraction will, and has backfired, driving many to the kind of postmodern anti-modernism that threatens to sink modernism. Sit down and look at the progression of secular thought: religion was always a consideration there. The views of figures such as Spinoza have confused many into thinking that the ‘real secularism’ was a kind of Spinozist fundamentalism: the works of Jonathan Israel tend to pursue this confusion. The views of Spinoza, to be sure, were an underground force, but Spinozism was itself transformed in the realm of German classical philosophy. The emergence of scientism in the wake of the Hegelian era was a triumph that fell flat, and produced the origins of what we see now in the new atheism: a narrow view of science, of philosophy, of values, of ethics, and of evolution. That’s a fairly drastic set of limitations, and failures. In any case, any serious study of the emergence of modernity shows a large spectrum of perspectives in a unique new universe of discourse. The attempt to constrict this secular diversity to a narrow positivistic scientism based on the limits of darwinism will swiftly usher in the rejection of modernity in a confused theft of the term ‘secular’ by narrow redefinition.
To subject a culture such as that of Pakistan to the idea of secularism as requiring atheism is a distortion of history and a disservice to efforts at modernization. It took almost three centuries of religiously colored emergent modernism before the sideshow of atheism appeared. To clip that history for other modernizing cultures can only create confusion.
The constitution does not allow the national or provincial assemblies to legislate contrary to the injunctions of sharia or courts to decide against it.
There is mass confusion in Pakistani society between the secularism and atheism doctrines. Secularism and atheism are very different doctrines and the emergence of these two happened in the past at different times. Secularism is the most misunderstood and mangled ‘ism’ in Pakistan’s political lexicon. Commentators on the right and the left routinely equate it with Nazism and Socialism, among other ‘isms’. Most people in Pakistan associate it with being anti-Islam, which clearly shows a lack of knowledge and understanding on the topic of secularism. The intention behind writing this article is to convey to the people of Pakistan that the secularism doctrine is not anti-Islam at all. It actually demands tolerance, freedom of religion and separation of state from religion.
Let us now start with brief definitions. Secularism is the principle of separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries. One manifestation of secularism is asserting the right to be free from religious rule and teachings or, in a state declared to be neutral on matters of belief, from the imposition by government of religion or religious practices upon its people. India, France and the UK are excellent examples of secular states in the modern age. On the other hand, atheism is disbelief in the existence of the deity – the doctrine that there is no deity.