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The Secular OutlookReview - The Secular Outlook
In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
by Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Review by Vineeth Mathoor
Mar 22nd 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 12)

What is to be done against the colossal development of fundamental religious senility across communities? Instead of the proclaimed and celebrated success of rational-secularism, the world witnesses the rise of militant groups, and governments and civil society are at stake. This means that somewhere our modern rational world lost its control over the radical elements within the religious communities. Therefore, this book is an attractive and constructive guide to the idea and importance of secularism. Paul Cliteur's new book contributes to the debates examining the historical space to locate the origins of secular/atheist ideologies. As Russel Blackford wrote on the back-cover, this is a brave and timely book intended to rationalize the irrational authoritarians. The overall project of the book is to defend secularism to liberate the modern world from the restrains of religious fundamentalism. As Cliteur demonstrates, the development of atheist ideologies helped the movement for secularism, but it also amounted to suppression. Often, we see that secular/religious divide have been so shanty that political choices governed religious agenda. It means, the state intervention often reframed and structured, some times even violently, the enforcement of law. There are exceptions, like that of India where, since ancient times, aspects of internal self-control mechanism limited state interventions. Therefore, it is no wonder that the western positivist, one-track attempt to define secular/communal/theological aspects of everyday life and social norms receive constant backfire in south Asian societies. However, Cliteur has a valid point here, that atheism is closely linked to religion, and they contribute to the development of each other, making it impossible to set them apart. As any ordinary believer could put it, it is religious teachings that give him/her the tolerance to accept other faiths, closing the option for negating religion. Therefore, it can be suspected that simplistic rejection of religious values as customary aspect of modernity would do more harm than benefits.   

Cliteur starts with an examination of the historical development of atheism. He is right to assert that atheism can not be simply defined as the rejection of god or the existence of spirit. Instead, atheism has always been a particular mode of enquiry set out by suspicious minds to think about what really constitutes the life. In this sense, we are reminded, atheism can also be considered as part of an enquiry leading finally to the scientific advancements. The book defines, atheism is closely knitted with the denial of god and the advance of science, especially in western societies. This often led to, he admits, the attempt to question the existence of life without the super-play of an almighty-god. The result always tempted various sorts of atheists to confront religions and they unsurprisingly became enemies of established religious authorities. Naturally, the rational thrust for finding out the mysteries of life was not always easy, especially in the theology dominated medieval periods. The result was that many brilliant minds had been persecuted, harming the growth of freethought. This is a clear position, provided the historical development of western secularism is altogether taken into account. But still, one can doubt whether it is compulsory, as the hidden arrow of Cliteur's argument shows, to deny religion to become secular or even atheist? And that question forms the core of further arguments.  

Having attempted to comprehend atheism, Cliteur looks at the criticism of religion as an important aspect of freethought. Freethought is only possible, he argues, when the dominance of religion is controlled. This argument, we have to admit, is valid only in the context of certain societies. One wonders, how such an argument could make sense in the case of Eastern societies where the nature of religious influence was totally different. For instance, scholars started now realizing that the conflict between state and religion had been simply absent in Eastern societies, comparable to the West. Moreover, in these societies religions worked as substantive system to provide a mechanism for self-control. This means that, Cliteur overlooks to notice how different forms religious debates took place in history and he simply denies even the values of many histories. It can be pointed as a serious setback of the book, and it happened, maybe, because of the over-enthusiasm to set apart religion from society.

Apart from this, the author believes that religion is an evil aspect of human civilization, and we need to keep it under the control of rational minds. This is again a superfluous position as it simply denies the role that religions play in the development of human civilizations. We admit that Cliteur is right to claim that religious dominance always put obstacle in the development of rational and secular ideas, at least in the case of some societies. However, this has not been a monolithic case for non-western societies. We may even accept that religious criticism contributes to the development of rational and scientific consciousness in societies. But, we have to notice that the narrow definition of religion is based on positivism and practically it is impossible to vivisect religion from society.    

To conclude, Cliteur's book is an attempt to present the development of the philosophy of religion. One of the most striking aspects of this book is that it mainly tries to define the religious-world while being influenced by the history of religion in western societies. As we have already noted, this was not the case with non-western societies and as Aidan Rankin argued in his recent book, there are religious concepts that can direct people towards secularism. This secularism does not try to replace religion, instead provides many-sided views to look at the society. This means that anyone can be religious while being secular and it is their firm belief in secularism that makes them more secular. Provided these limitations of arguments are taken into consideration, the book would be of very interests to historians, and those have passion for religious studies.      



Aidan Rankin, Many-Sided Wisdom: A New Politics of the Spirit, (Winchester Books, 2010


© 2011 Vineeth Mathoor


Vineeth Mathoor, Research Scholar, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India


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