Image by Olivander, used under creative commons license.
Secularism and democracy are legacies worth fighting for, because they in union provide the only safe public space whereby people of different outlooks can amicably tackle their differences and pursue shared goals for their common welfare. In what follows, we shall attempt to prove our opening statement by discussing the relationship between secularism, democracy and human progress,
Secularism and Democracy
Secularization is the process by which religious ideas and institutions tend to lose influence in society with the progress of science, technology, economy and modern government. Included here are such phenomena as the decline of formal church membership, reduced role of religion in formal education, institutional separation of church and state, as well as the supremacy of state laws over sectarian religious codes.
Democracy, in its 20th century sense, is a government that possesses the following traits: (a) universal suffrage or equal voting rights to all citizens of legal age regardless of class, creed, race, gender or sexual orientation; (b) a bill of rights; (c) rule of law; (d) periodic elections, whereby voters can freely choose among candidates bearing alternative platforms; and (e) rule of the majority for the election of representatives as well as for parliamentary deliberations.
Though modern democracy and secularism rely on rational and scientific arguments instead of appeals to faith and divine fiats, they are distinct from each other. Democracy is a form of government, dedicated to advancing and defending freedom, equality, social justice, fellowship and common welfare. Secularism is a social orientation that delimits the role of religion and faith in supernatural agencies to the non-governmental sphere of civil society, so as to protect society and state from endless conflict driven by faith-based claims. The institutional separation of church and state in democracies is not, as some religionists, argue, primarily intended for the protection of believers and their faith; it is intended for the protection of both believers and unbelievers, and their right to be held to the same standards of logical and scientific evidentiary tests, whenever and wherever they submit their claims to appropriate public institutions for adjudication or parliamentary deliberation.
Secularism is not anti-religion, but only anti-theocracy. A comparison of Old Testament norms and modern democratic norms should clarify the difference between a secular society and a theocratic society. In a democratic secular society, a person who files a case of marital infidelity against his/her spouse must first present a list of charges indicating probable cause of the said offense and later produce supporting empirical evidence for his/her case to prosper in court. In ancient Jewish society under Mosaic law, jealousy on the part of a husband is sufficient ground for him to compel his wife to submit to the “water of bitterness” ritual, a trial by ordeal wherein the suspected wife drinks a concoction of holy water and temple dirt prepared by a priest The suspected wife’s illness and eventual demise after her ingestion of the “water of bitterness” would prove her guilt, while her survival would clear her of all suspicion. (Numbers 5: 11-31)
Secularism and democracy have progressed at highly uneven rates across societies with varying politico-economic structures, cultures and historical legacies. The continuing hegemony of religion in some modernizing societies such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and the ascent of faith-based political blocs in affluent societies such as the United States defy a simple correlation between modernization and decline of religious practice. Likewise, the supposed synchrony of secularization and democratization cannot be taken for granted in view of the numerous regimes that are both secular and authoritarian. The lack of synchrony between secularization and democratization across affluent societies is underscored by the contrast between democratic welfare states and the USA which is a self-declared “free enterprise society” with minimal social security nets.
In part 2 of this series, we’ll take a look at the relationship between Church and State in secular states
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