As one comes out of a self-imposed semi-exile from the digital world, there emerges a different sense of what this digitalness represents and an idea of what one can and should do in the bewildering world that exists alongside what we take to be the absolutely real. But I digress from the topic at hand…for the exams are over and the papers submitted and now all that’s left to do is to pack up the vestiges of learning for the semester into little boxes and folders that will hopefully be reopened sometime in the future.
The title of the post has to do with a little project that was submitted yesterday for a class on the Philosophy of Religion and interreligious dialogue. One component of the course required us to work in groups to produce a creative work that demonstrated what we learned from the classes. So a creating we went and produced a short animated clip portraying the relationship between secularism, atheism and religion as a conversation among mildly nerdy interlocutors. I’ll admit some projection there but will leave it at that so as not to implicate the other members of the group too much with the nerdiness.
Watching the clip will allow you to understand what’s discussed here a little better but I’ll try to be as clear as I can. One of the arguments presented in the clip demonstrates what was referred to as the ‘tyranny of neutrality’ – a critique of the way secularism is presented in many states and policies now. Neutrality is often viewed to be a good thing and the brand of neutrality that secularism presents purports to allow all religions to coexist peaceably so that dialogue can occur on an even playing field. That sounds nice until we realise what actually happens when this neutrality kicks in.
For neutrality to happen, then everyone has to agree to tolerate each other. Toleration sounds nice but it does not require much understanding as all one has to do is to accommodate the practices and beliefs of the other while not allowing one’s own to impinge on others. It’s living a life where I agree not to step on the toes on others because others have agreed to do the same. And what that leads to is everyone walking around on tip-toes because they’re afraid of stepping on others. Deeply held beliefs have to be kept strictly private so that others do not take offence at anything one could say or do. Neutrality exerts such a hold on everyone to the extent that the only people who are truly ‘free’ are those who don’t espouse any beliefs at all.
Which leads to a paradox – aren’t those who don’t espouse any beliefs espousing a belief as well? Doesn’t the lack of belief (in God for example) a belief in itself? Don’t atheists have to believe in the non-existence of something or at least in the possibility of human flourishing without the ‘interference’ of God? If that’s the case, then wouldn’t the seemingly neutral-supporters be really imposing this sense of neutrality on those who hold on to their beliefs?
Personally, I’m all for secularity as a public policy but in a minimal sense. It should be used as a guiding principle for governments in their dealings with the citizen as well as the people of faith but should not be imposed as a means of control that would lead to the aforementioned tyranny. True, this is a utopian ideal of secularism but then again, as a student of philosophy, politics and education, what are we unless we are utopian in our ideals?