27 April 2006


Positive Secularism: Negating the Negative

Secularists and Atheists are often accused of being 'merely' negative, as if the reduction of church power, or the removal of religious superstition would not in themselves be positive advances. Secularism is about the negation of negatives. Secularism is about the sweeping away of the cobwebs of medieval mysticism to allow the light of reason to glow with its full radiance of enlightenment.

A common argument is that atheism, the removal of belief in supernatural guidance, must mean the loss of any sense of moral judgement. But this overlooks the fact that ethics, the science that asks: What is it best for us to do? -- to solve any one of a series of problems -- is not dependent on any supernatural belief. In fact it requires us to have detailed knowledge of the way the world works, including ourselves. It is a difficult science, probably the most difficult, because it asks us to take account of everything, a super-ecology.

People of all sorts have had ethical beliefs and have behaved in a moral way without having religious beliefs. The 'golden rule' do-as-you-would-be-done-by is a humanist principle that existed long before it was claimed to be a 'christian' idea. The religious, and their church organisations, have been allowed for too long to get away with the idea that they are the sole source of ethical guidance. Too often they are merely the guardians of outmoded customs and attitudes, Often these attitudes can now be seen, in the light of improved human knowledge, to be unethical.

One has only to look back over history of the last 200 years to find reforms, like abolition of slavery, votes and education for all, equal treatment of women, freedom of the press, legalisation of homosexuality, and so on that were opposed by the church, and still are by many, although now accepted by the more enlightened church leaders, who often rewrite their history to claim reformers as their own.

In Melvin Bragg's programme 'In Our Time' this week he held a discussion about the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Crystal Palace was regarded as a sort of secular cathedral to exhibit the scientific and technical advances of the age, and to celebrate 'Progress'. Today 'progress' seems to be a somewhat tarnished word, probably because various ideas that were touted as progressive have proved to be the opposite.

Looking back to that more innocent time however, one cannot but admire the confidence with which the Victorian engineers and industrialists acted and achieved notable results. Of course the modern dominant industries are different, we are into an age of information and biology rather than energy and mechanics, but isn't it time to begin once again to adopt more positive attitudes towards progress, and to take firmer, more confident action in its pursuit?


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