Is contemporary industrial society a ‘secular’ society?

Introduction

“Secularism implies plurality of cultural choices. Secularism is not about the absence of   faith: indeed it is about assertion of faith – faith in freedom and people, not dogmas. A space where one can pause and acknowledge the other, the one who is different, the alien, the non-believer; where one can negotiate the public sphere without the need to foreground or privilege one’s own mode of worship” (Menon 2004).

This is how secularism is defined, but how does it manifest in the contemporary industrial society?

The Socio-Political Framework

It is the governments of nations that wield the greatest influence on how secularism, as accommodated in the constitution, is supported, suppressed or misinterpreted. Let’s analyze the situation in United States of America first, the vanguard of the modern industrial age.

United States of America

The American Constitution omits any mention of God and instead assigns supreme power to “We the People”. However, there had always been controversies, violations, lawsuits and ambiguity related to the constitutional principle “Separation of State and Church” (Jacoby 2004). “Right-wing religion, money and political clout have driven the rise of religious correctness during the past thirty years” (Jacoby 2004). The upholders of religious fundamentalism have never concealed their contempt for secular laws and practices, even if that would mean influencing the federal government to disallow same-sex marriages, or to run propaganda machinery in the guise of books that claim that the “Grand Canyon was created in six days” (Jacoby 2004). But what does the American public think of it all?

A poll conducted by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, reveals an “astonishing disconnect between Americans’ general approval of faith-based funding and their deep reservations about what specific churches might actually do with government money” (Jacoby 2004). 71 percent of those polled supported tax benefits for social services that are faith-based. However, 78 percent also said they would “exclude religious organizations that hire only members of their own faith”. But this public opinion is not reflected in the Bush Administration policies. For example, certain church groups were allowed to qualify as public contractors, though they do not recruit workers from other religious backgrounds. Also remarkable is the fact that 60 percent of Americans are against tax funding for religious groups involved in proselytizing. But evangelical Christians are the most ardent supporters of religious funding. Recently, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against a foundation operating federally funded “Christ-centered” program for prison inmates, which offers them “privileges that include access to big-screen televisions and computers in return for a hefty dose of Bible study and Christian counseling” (Jacoby 2004). The general public’s fears regarding proselytizing are only accentuated as a result.

As Jacoby points out, the anti-evolution campaigns that had gained momentum in the last quarter century goes against the spirit of Enlightenment and Science and of course against the Constitutional Secularism. The word “evolution” was removed from most high school textbooks after the Scopes trial in the mid-1920s and many biology teachers started using the less inflammatory (to fundamentalists) word “development” (2004).

Though a convincing majority of Americans believe in God and a lesser number attend church. It does not mean that they are anti-secular and take fundamentalist stand on issues such as biomedical research and the right to die. On the whole, what is evident is a big mismatch between public and government attitudes towards issues related to religion, which one would not expect in a democracy (Jacoby 2004).

The rest of the World

Let’s see what the condition is in industrial society of Europe. France has a substantial religious minority, and takes pride in its secular values (Freedman 2004). The recent “headscarf affair” in France presents the view that secularism could be interpreted differently in different nations. The controversy started when a Muslim girl was not permitted to wear her headscarf in school, which outraged the community. Analysts point to government policies to “assimilate” minority communities toward a common French identity. It seems “assimilation” has the upper hand over “right to differ” as of now. In this case, the debate is not “secular v anti-secular”, but between different interpretations of secularism. It is quite relevant here to get the pulse of developing countries, which are semi-industrialized and on the path to becoming completely so. Menon makes the following observation about India:

“Hindu activists have successfully usurped institution after secular institution. Education, textbooks, history, archaeology, museums, social sciences, nuclear technology, healthcare, popular festivals, cultural organizations have all caved in to the mixed tactic of steady nibbling from one flank and serial assaults from the other” (2004).

Religion within Corporations

Capitalism and Corporations are the backbone of the industrial age. It is appropriate that we also study secularism within this framework. The company-sponsored religious employee group, Ford Interfaith Network, took the initiative to designate some restroom sinks for ablution, a ceremonial washing performed by Muslim employees prior to prayer (Henneman 2004). This employee resource group also publishes a monthly electronic newsletter, circulated to 6,700 Ford employees, in addition to observing a National Day of Prayer which includes recitals from 8 religions. American Airlines, Texas Instruments and Inter Corp. are the other major corporations that support religious employee networks to go with other traditional networks based on ethnicity, race or gender. As you would expect from Corporations, this apparent benevolence is not completely altruistic, as Henneman points out:

“Although companies could completely divorce themselves from anything to do with religion, many say that the faith-based employee resource groups complement their workforce-diversity goals and contribute to the bottom line through employee recruitment, development and retention. In addition, at least one company believes that its willingness to confront thorny issues impresses its customers, enhancing the company’s position in the marketplace (2004).  It is also true that people who bring their religious values to work are more happy, more productive and put-in longer hours than the rest” (Henneman 2004).

On the flip side, Henneman notes, a HP employee was fired for posting Biblical verses on his cubicle, condemning homosexuality, for this violated the company’s anti-harassment policy. An employee of Cox Communications, who is an evangelical Christian, was fired following her criticism of her subordinate’s sexual orientation during the subordinate’s performance review (2004). As it is the line separating free speech from religious harassment in the workplace seems quite thin. The consensus then is to allow employees to engage in faith-based expression only to the limit that would improve their performance while still respecting others.

The chief threat

If Secularism is at the one end of the socio-political spectrum, religious Fundamentalism is at the other. In the middle of the last century Secularism established itself as the prevalent ideology and appeared set to thrive. However, that is not to be as today religion dominates the headlines propelled by “militant piety that has developed in every single major world faith over the past century” (Armstrong 2005).

Armstrong brings out the following insight:

“Fundamentalist groups have staged revolutions, assassinated presidents, carried out terrorist atrocities and become an influential political force in strongly secularist nations. It is no longer possible to dismiss fundamentalism as a passing phase. Here fundamentalists build a counterculture, in conscious defiance of the godless world that surrounds them, and from these communities some undertake a counteroffensive designed to drag God or religion back to centre stage from the wings to which they have been relegated in modern secular culture” (2005).

Contrary to popular belief, fundamentalism is not a uniquely Islamic phenomenon. There are fundamentalists belonging to all major religions of the world including Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Confucianism, etc. Typical examples include the fundamentalist Christianity of Bob Jones University in South Carolina and the Ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York (Armstrong 2005). Attempting to reform textbooks or to get candidates of a particular community elected to high office are some of their activities.

The case of Islam

The revival of fundamentalism in the contemporary society is startlingly revealed by the recent developments in Iran. After the Revolution and its subsequent reversal, the Iranian society has been moving steadily towards theocratic rule. For various reasons, Secularism is seen as evil and a threat by most of nations that have majority Muslim population. And justifiably so in most cases, where atrocities were committed in the name of progress (Armstrong 2005).

The increase in membership of Al-Qaeda since the recent Gulf War is clear indication. The offensive has convinced many Muslims that the west has really inaugurated a new crusade against the Islamic world (Armstrong 2005).

In an interesting article ‘The law of man or the law of God? ‘, democracy in Islamic nations is analyzed thus:

“Democracy is founded on the concept that men make laws. Islam, on the other hand, follows a set of God-given laws, dictated directly to Muhammad and therefore not open to revision. Contemporary nation-states require many more laws than are provided in the unalterable Koran. Its applicability in the modern world is also questionable” (2003).

So, in essence alongside the battle between Secularism and Fundamentalism, there is an ongoing parallel tussle between Democracy and Theocracy as well.

Conclusion

The rapid advancement in Information Technology has added new challenges and opportunities to Secularism. As we move on from the industrial to the “information age” the concept of “society” is being redefined, which has implications to religion and the methods of mass participation. The worrying aspect though is the decentralized nature of such a system, which could be misused by someone lacking essential credentials.

The Secularist movement had steadily gained ground since the time of Enlightenment, but last three decades had seen a resurgence of Fundamentalism. It is likely that society will continue to move in this direction in the foreseeable future. As Menon succinctly states, “A secular society demands a near impossible fairness on the part of the state and its citizens.” (2004).

References

Armstrong, K. (Jan 2005) ‘Fundamentalism is here to stay’, Global Agenda. (Issue 3): p234-236.

Freedman, J. (2004) ‘Secularism as a Barrier to Integration? The French Dilemma’, International Migration. Vol.42 (Issue 3): p5-27.

Henneman, T. (Oct 2004) ‘Religious groups and employers try a new approach to faith at work’, Workforce Management. Vol.83(Issue 10): p76-77.

Jacoby, S. (2004) ‘In Praise of Secularism’, Nation. Vol.278 (Issue 15): p14-15.

Mellor, P. (2004) ‘Religion, Culture and Society in the ‘Information Age’’, Sociology of Religion. Vol.65 (Issue 4): p357-371.

Menon, S. (Aug 2004) ‘Saving the Secular’, New Internationalist. (Issue 370): p23-24.

‘The law of man or the law of God?’ [Editorial] (2003) Economist. Vol.368(Issue 8341): special section p10-11.

‘Unsecular America’ [Editorial] (2004) Christian Century. Vol.121(Issue 4): p5-5.