Secularism and Islam
by Rebecca Bynum (originally published Feb. 2006)
Since the Renaissance, the western world has been in revolt against ecclesiastical authority, but somewhere along the way, what began as a revolt against human usurpation of divine prerogative, turned into a revolt against the metaphysical itself and against the religious philosophy defining it. As a result, modern man has lost sight of the goal our civilization (rooted in Greek philosophy), as well as the goal of our religion (rooted in Judaism), which is to foster the emergence of the authentic individual. In his confusion, modern man has sought to replace religion with science, but science is not equipped to deal with issues of ultimate causes, much less ultimate reasons for ultimate causes.
So today man wanders among the various isms and latest New Age fads, but these provide thin gruel for spiritual nourishment, throwing man back upon himself by variously promising the liberation of the spirit through some agency whereby each man may essentially become his own god. Thus, the search for universal transcendentals as an objective phenomenon has gradually been abandoned and replaced with the pursuit of ease, comfort and a “get it while you can” mentality, based on the materialistic assumption that there is no afterlife for the striving and thus moral decisions serve no real purpose.
I believe that is why western man looks with awe at the acts of faith performed by Muslims in the form of suicide bombings. When have we have witnessed belief so strong that it compels believers to this ultimate act of murder/suicide on such a massive scale? Many among us have rushed to celebrate it (the movie “Paradise Now” for example), sensing the drama to be found in depth of belief and in spiritual struggle, but few have the tools with which to evaluate it beyond sympathetic sentimentality, and so dazed and confused we remain, lost in multiplicity, fragmentation, egotism and equalitarianism.
Our analysis of Islam so far has concluded that there is no moderate version and thus moderate Muslims cannot hold their own philosophically against the inexorable retrograde direction of Islam. What we must also understand is that rational secular humanism is likewise our soft center and cannot hold out against Islam either, though secularists and religionists should be natural allies in this struggle. Secularism itself, however, is essentially a slippery slope without any anchor in certainty. Relativism may have been developed as a response to religious dogmatism, but by de-linking the process of thought from anything beyond itself, relativism leaves mankind with no compass to show the way toward better or worse, truer or less true.
Islam, like the materialist philosophies of fascism and communism, seeks not to foster emergence of the individual, but seeks rather the erasure of the individual. Islam seems to assume, like communism, that human beings essentially exhibit a uniform response to universal stimuli, an assumption that can only be deduced from materialistic determinism.
Another reason secularism fails as a counterweight to Islam, is that it stems from the absurd idea that it is wrong to impose one’s religious beliefs on others, when in fact, that is exactly what we do every day of our lives. Our metaphysical conceptions are what form the basis for our conception of everything else and these also form the basis for social cohesion as common values give rise to common goals. The fact of the reality of these underlying beliefs becomes obscured as society is insulated from other societies and layers of thought pile upon layers of thought, until the only way modern man can function is to become specialized in knowledge. The specialist needn’t be concerned with larger realities, so he balks at the study of philosophy because he feels he has no “use” for it.
In the past, education consisted largely of learning, and learning by heart, the classics; that is to say, the metaphysical treasures of our collective life, the wisdom of the ages. Words were put to heart, that they might be brought forth during different stages of life and re-examined. Teachers of old knew their pupils’ understanding and appreciation would grow upon each re-examination from youth to middle to old age, the time of life when true values are more likely to have been discovered and these gems of civilization could be appreciated and guarded with the wisdom born of years.
Those of my generation have been especially destructive of the old ways of teaching, and are now producing a generation that not only has been given nothing of value, but has also been taught to deny the very existence of values. Our children are taught to use the phrase “value judgment” as a pejorative. But in denying children the right to the judgment of value, modern teachers are in fact denying them the right to utilize their own spirituality. For spirituality is all about value. The progressive spiritual experience essentially concerns the progressive discovery of higher and higher values in the commonplaces surrounding us. Spiritual development consists largely in the process of extracting universal, eternal truths from particular, relative facts. Poetry is the language of the spirit.
Materialism, however, by denying the reality of anything beyond the material world of the senses (however those senses may be expanded by technology), removes our concept of wonder and reverence toward the beauty and mystery of life. As our culture drifts further and further from its prior grounding in the natural world, it is inescapable that the nobility of toil and thus the nobility of man, as well as his individuality, should slip away as well.
If life means nothing, then life is worth nothing. And if we deny ourselves even the ability to recognize worth, we also deny the deepest and realest part of ourselves, our spiritual natures. The soul cries out in outrage when denied the ability to express what is most essential: better or worse, beautiful or repugnant, right or wrong, true or false. Individual distinction becomes “discrimination” and to the modern secularist, this must be avoided at all costs. Human beings are reduced to simple units of production and consumption, each one indistinguishable from any other, whether male or female, babe or adult, learned or ignorant.
The minds of those adhering to Islam must of necessity be circumscribed in order for individuality to be so lessened that the philosophy can work as a system. Sayyid Qutb, the brilliant twentieth century Islamist philosopher, was adamant about calling Islam a system for good reason. System is the most correct way to name Islam in modern terminology. Islam seeks the ultimate surrender of individuality: the word “islam” means surrender or submission. Worship is reduced to mere obedience and self-realization within Islam is thought to only be truly possible when the individual is entirely subsumed within the oneness of the collective.
Philosophy is thus fully and finally in complete enslavement to utility – the ultimate end of all materialist philosophy – man in complete enslavement to a system.
If God’s will for man is thought to be contained entirely within the system of Islam then, for all intents and purposes, the system is God. The system too, recognizing nothing higher than itself, is entirely consumed with its own preservation and propagation. Life means nothing, but Islam means everything. It is the ultimate end of the materialist road, where the state assumes the mantel of religion and thus becomes a substitute for true religion. The heavenly “rod and staff” is replaced with an earthly one. Islamic morality must perforce deny the existence of an objective, morally structured universe, the existence of objective right or wrong, for Islam provides the only moral judgment allowed. Thus, the concept of free will is rendered moot and the value of individual moral decisions is erased and denied.
All our ancient foundational concepts of what constitutes Justice, Mercy, Wisdom, Honor, Worship, Faith, Tolerance, Duty, Reason, Beauty, Truth and ultimately, even Goodness itself, are being challenged by this relatively recent innovation of Islam in which these deeply moral, transcendental ideals have been replaced by the simple concept of purity vs. corruption, or permitted vs. not-permitted. Furthermore, because these concepts are not anchored in the higher spiritual levels of transcendental absolutes (Goodness, Truth and Beauty), but rather have their roots in human nature instead, it is by and through this religious thought that the concepts of Good and Evil are reversed and thus, psychopathology, revered.
The end result of Islamic thought is that life is denigrated, death is celebrated, up is down, black is white, two plus two does not equal four, and the ultimate act of worship is encompassed in murder and suicide. Therefore, we must begin to view Muslims as victims of Islam, just as we once viewed the people living under communist rule as the victims of communism. We are not at war with a “people” we are at war with a “system.” As this system is held to be a religion, it must be tackled on the metaphysical as well as the material plane.
At stake in this great global conflict is nothing less than the entire universe of ideas out of which our modern conception of political freedom is but a tiny, almost residual, part. So by focusing on freedom alone, especially in America where wars have been fought over the concept of freedom from the very beginning, we are quite obviously missing the point. The entire world of values from which all our basic assumptions derive (about the nature of the God, the nature of man; man’s relationship to the universe and to his fellow man), is entirely at risk. Though this is a largely unconscious world of foundational conceptions and assumptions, these are the concepts that give direction and purpose to our entire civilization. The ultimate basis for western art, science, literature, civil law, and civil society is what is being challenged, and that challenge cannot be answered by force of arms or by the appeal to liberty alone. Neither of these is nearly enough.
Muslims who are reared on the foundational conceptions and assumptions of Islam view reality through an entirely different lens than do westerners. Indeed, it is an opposite world of ideation because it arises out of opposite foundational assumptions. Complex in the extreme, Islam eventually demands and actually receives the abdication of Reason through its own inescapable logic. Though it calls Allah, “merciful” there is precious little teaching of mercy to be found. Though it calls Allah “beneficent” there is nothing beyond crude material expediency for Muslims alone to serve as the expression of this beneficence. Allah is an undependable and changeable God.
In order for us to begin to reclaim the transcendent, we must begin by acknowledging that the material world is transcended and given its meaning by mind as mind discerns the relationships between material facts. Above, or perhaps within, the realm of mind we must also posit a realm of “spirit” by which the varying values of facts and their meanings are measured in relation to some absolute, i.e. Truth, Beauty, Goodness or Love as the embodiment of all three. These values are always comprehended before reasoning begins over why something is true, beautiful, good, or why it should elicit our love. Therefore, we may say that it is probable that the mind exists between these two realms of matter and spirit, and that it is able to draw experience from both. In other words, we are conscious of love as an experience of spirit.
Fundamental to our civilization also, is the affirmation that life is precious, God is Good and ultimately, that His universe is benevolent and entirely dependable. The laws of nature, like the laws of mathematics are unchanging. Out of these primal assumptions grow our concepts as to the nature of God’s character and of His will, or what constitutes righteousness as opposed to sin.
According to modern secularism, however, man himself has become the measure of all things, and his reasoning power alone is thought to be sufficient in determining good and evil. Religion, when it is considered at all, is assumed to consist of interchangeable, comforting fairy tales essentially based on man’s own “inherent” goodness. The transcendental, far from being independent, is thought to be completely dependant upon man’s own sensibilities and judgment. This is a vast gray zone in which western secular minds and moderate Muslim minds converge. The only comfort derived from religion is the thought that no one really believes in it anyway. All believers are the enemy. Morality is thought, at best, to be an expression of some underlying hypocrisy.
By the light of this secularist viewpoint too, we draw comfort by imagining ourselves at the pinnacle of human striving and also by imagining that progress is inevitable. Thus, we feel under no obligation to protect civilization, much less to define it in terms of transcendent value. In the secular world, it has also been thought safe to proclaim, “It doesn’t matter what you believe in.” Yet what a man believes determines his intention and a man’s intention is arguably the most important thing for others to know about him.
Someone once asked Jesus, “What should I do to inherit eternal life?” The Master replied, “What is written in the law and the prophets; how do you read the Scriptures?” To which the man replied, “To love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Then said Jesus, “You have answered right; this, if you really do, will lead to life everlasting.” When the man further queried, “But, Teacher, I should like you to tell me just who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered very differently than I imagine most ministers, priests and pastors of today would answer. They, I imagine, would probably render something like this: “according to the Gospel, all men are the sons of God and are brethren; thus all human beings, by virtue of having been born, are deserving of the fullest measure of our love.” Underlying this, of course, is the modern assumption of man’s inherent goodness.
However, when Jesus finished telling his interlocutor the story that subsequently became known as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” he asked the man who had queried, “Which of these three turned out to be the neighbor of him who fell among the robbers?” To which man could only answer, “He who showed mercy on him.” (Luke: 10)
Jesus thus defined neighborliness (the bedrock of society), through the concept of merciful action in accordance with transcendental values. In other words, men must earn the status of neighbor among their fellows. First the priest and then the Levite, by passing the man beset by robbers without showing him mercy, revealed themselves not to be the man’s neighbors and thus, he did not owe them love “as himself.” The act of mercy is revealed to be a key concept in defining human relations. By showing mercy, man raises himself above his own selfishness and distinguishes himself from the animal kingdom. Mercy, then, defines humanity and mercy is a positive act rather than simply a passive thought.
Indeed, justice without appeal to mercy defines injustice for the western world. Under Islamic justice, by contrast, mercy provides no amelioration. An eye for an eye is literal and uncompromising, and the intercession of mercy only creates a situation that is considered by Muslims to be unjust.
God, as we in the west conceive Him, loves all His children with an infinite, and thus equal, affection. But men are not gods and no individual man should attempt to step into what he may imagine the divine role to be. Jesus instructed his followers to, “Love thy enemies.” He did not say, “Love thy enemies as thyself.” That level of love is to be reserved for our neighbors, and we know our neighbors as they who show themselves to be merciful toward us.
The choice with evil is always whether or not to embrace it and call it good. He comes saying, “Embrace me for I am your brother,” but in truth, he is not. Truth, on the other hand, always brings with it a sword, a sword of definition, separating individuals. I believe the reason so many people today actually do not want to learn the truth about Islam, is that truth brings definition and with definition comes division and with division comes the necessity to choose sides.
Those who do not wish to make this divisive moral decision will first deny truth, but very soon they must move from passive denial to active truth suppression. This is occurring, unfortunately, on both the left and the right in regards to Islam. Opposing what Winston Churchill called, “Christianity’s opposite creed,” is proving altogether too much for many who wish to either hold on to the secularist view that “religion is irrelevant” or to buy into the new prevailing myth that “all religion is good” instead. They are actually attempting to absolve themselves of the necessity of moral choice.
As the light of truth shines upon reality and defines the outlines of evil, it is inevitable that some should mistake the bearers of this truth as the source of their fear, the fear of the necessity of decision, and lash out at those defining the conflict as evil dividers of humanity. For as moderate Muslims and secularists learn the truth about Islam’s bloody doctrine and history, they must each individually make a moral decision concerning their status as Muslims or secularists, and this they wish to avoid at all costs. Secularists mistakenly view division itself as evil and so they work to minimize differences with a smooth coat of “we are the world” sentimentality. In the absence of truth, there is no necessity for division; therefore, truth itself becomes the enemy and secularists unwittingly become the emotional defenders of lies.
Western civilization, if it is to survive, must reach back into that stream of thought that springs still unpolluted by the confusion of modernity for its refreshment. We must reach back to the true source of our metaphysical dream; back to ancient Greek ethics and Judeo-Christian morality, back to those ages when man last thought deeply about the nature of the real and endeavored sincerely to adapt his life to that reality, rather than vainly attempting the opposite.
Said De Tocqueville, “In ages of faith, the final end of life is placed beyond life. The men of those ages, therefore, naturally and almost involuntarily accustom themselves to fix their gaze for many years on some immovable object toward which they are constantly tending; and they learn by insensible degrees to repress a multitude of petty passing desires in order to be the better able to content that great and lasting desire which possesses them…This explains why religious nations have often achieved such lasting results; for whilst they were thinking only of the other world, they had found out the great secret of success in this.”
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Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.
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