The best or most influential minds happen to transcend simplistic construction and politicized framing of the tussle between the two. Key mutual misgivings need to be addressed.
If religions seem to divide mankind, mythologies, artistic/mystical/wisdom traditions and metaphysics underlying them that secular thinking better engage unite. Famous new atheists like Dawkins and Harris don’t fail to register their love for certain images of the Sacred. In fact Harris proposed something like Unitarian advaitic spirituality for secular worshippers. Worship we must anyway. Russell’s “Free Man’s Worship” or Spinoza’s intellectual love of God or Heidegger’s paean to Being or Derrida’s commitment to Justice and Levinas’s to the Other all succeed to preserve an essential aspect of spiritual life. It was Whitehead who noted that “the essence of education is it be religious.” Buddha didn’t propose anything that fights shy of any rational or empirical inquiry. Islam proposes only surrender to what is the case (Al-Haqq/The Truth-the Real). One might have problems with loaded terms such as God but very few will have problems with alternative or approximating notions like Truth-Reality/transtheistic Absolute/That Which Is/Suchness/Silence/Emptiness/Sacred. Sages/sage-poets are a common inheritance and we do have a language that both secular and religious would share. World religions and secular constitutions have agreement in essentials – man is not a means but an end and every individual/local identity deserves consideration and we work for beauty, uprooting causes of injustice and seeking welfare of all and the sundry. They would agree in banning what harms intelligence, trivializes relationships or harms environment. They would work towards minimizing suffering and inequalities of all kinds. When it comes to concrete issues of governance, one sees that a point or two in gender relations and here or there certain gulf in symbols/practices is all that practically divide believers and their secular critics.
Transcendence that constitutes the promise and heart of religions is available, to a significant extent, through variety of windows including those of aesthetics and ethics to all of us. Special moments of illumination when the higher world unveils without our seeking are bestowed on all. God can’t fail to catch prey – the net of beauty captures all – that we happen to be. Poetry and music can lift anyone to the higher world. Being seizes us all with its sinews and curls. Revelation understood as that which remains after conceptual linguistic cobwebs are bracketed addresses all in nature, in silence and other special modes and we can participate in its graces. The feast/theophany that is nature is free for everyone. Angels greet all of us though we are often absent to return the same. One who knows something of love and is attracted to the moral beauty or ideal knows God to an extent. We know the world is divided into believers and non-believers, theists and atheists but few care to note that this is largely a linguistic issue and that there is little disagreement regarding our love for Truth (which is the denotative name of God), our primordial and ineradicable conviction that there is an “I” or witnessing self/spirit within us and need to honour theomorphic intelligence grounding dignity, our acknowledgment of attraction for the Goodness, Beauty and Justice, our adoring of Compassion, Love and Mercy and our participation, by virtue of our very being, in the holiness/mystery/joy of Being. All keep seeking or desiring the serenity of witnessing self.
The secular as such means the worldly and thus may well preserve, if not extolled as an exclusive ideology of secularism that dismisses religion, affirmative transcendence characterizing many world religions. Secular thought currents have helped fulfill, partly, long standing commitments of religions to brotherhood of man and transcendence of creedal differences when it comes to respecting human dignity and freedom. Secular constitutions are fundamentally committed to values originally representing aspirations of religions for justice and care of the marginalized and better access to welfare for all. Secular countries of Europe are for many religious people, including good number of Muslims, first choice to live. In many respects we are heading towards a world that respects religion and suspects politicized religion or use of religion as ideology but appropriates religion’s concern for religious freedom of minorities and struggle against injustice/exploitation and for freedom of religion (objectives of holy war/jihad) or more general welfare work.
So far and yet so near
Although usually construed as opposites religious and secular attitudes often, in practice, interpenetrate. There is no such thing as purely religious/sacral or purely secular/profane – Islam, for instance in particular and Semitic religions in general emphasize this point – and to be human and religious is to participate in the secular in a certain way that is to a significant extent shared/appreciated by secular people as well. Religion is consecrating life and action or we can say attention to the wonder and joy and sublimity and beauty of all that is or one does, an ideal that secular outlook would, in its own way, try to appropriate. Let us not erase – but not overemphasize – the differences between religious and secular attitudes to life. “A religious outlook—with its emotions of faith, trust, devotion, reverence for the other, and self-transcendence—orients one toward love as unbelief does not.” However, “let us not equate secular with unbelief either.” Secular means this-worldly and that needn’t be at the cost of otherworldly necessarily. There is no such thing as unbelief understood as utter or bland negation of what belief stands for as understood by sages and lived by masses.
The following explication of certain key belief statements by a traditionally revered religious figure C. S. Lewis may be considered the measure against which contrary assertions of unbelief/secular reason or attitude are to be seen for cognizing differences. Lewis noted that “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.” “When you are arguing against God you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all.” “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” “Nothing you have not given away will ever really be yours.” “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” “No good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights.” “Of all the bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” “If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now?” “The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal.” One may also recall another influential figure Karl Rahner here: “A good laugh is a sign of love; it may be said to give us a glimpse of, or a first lesson in, the love that God bears for every one of us.” Rumi revered in Islamic tradition and beyond had gone further when he said that laughter reaches the heart of divinity/Essence/Zat.
All these points imply that secular institutions and pursuits, love, joys, creativity, shared spaces, laughter, tears, NGOs working for welfare all are fuelled by our pursuit of God even if they may presume to exclude/bypass/deny Him. It is the shining face of God that lights up the world for all and sustains us in the difficult odyssey of life.
Polarized opinions between religious and secular camps on gender relations and dress code that often surface up in courts or media shouldn’t mislead us to conclude that there is indeed sharp polarization. Generally speaking, secular and religious people both treasure modesty though may perceive or interpret what constitutes modesty differently in a given setting. Both revere the head (intelligence) – symbolized by turban – over the feet. Both value pursuing things in a style or with an eye on beauty. Both are propelled by hope that overcomes impulse to despair or suicide or violence. Both value the element of worship/sanctifying potential in art while differ in interpreting what constitutes trivial amusement or distraction. Both believe in wiping tears and healing the sick. But, in their own ways, swear by a sort of idealism and talk about transforming the world that puts God or theomorphic man and intelligence/Other/Equilibrium/Peace/Love first.
Although moral judgments concerning different concrete issues differ across cultures/ages, the commitment to the Absolute embodied in seeking Justice/orientation towards the Good remains underlying unifying and redeeming element in all genuine ethical action. It is hard to spot a person who never thinks of death or accountability of some sort here or elsewhere or who pursues only personal gain at the cost of family/neighbor/friend or who is impenetrable to love. Seeking moral perfection or becoming saint with or without popular belief in personal God remains the quest for all. Who wouldn’t grant that “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason”? It is hard to find pagan philosophers not in support of moral and spiritual heritage of mankind in ancient or modern times. The mystical is seen somehow lurking behind and informing work if not life of almost every great secular writer. All yearn for great art which is believed to be something “which adds to the permanent richness of the soul’s self-attainment.” Indeed “Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors. But today we kneel only to truth, follow only beauty, and obey only love.”
To conclude, we see both secular and religious modes of being take heed of revelation in nature and relationships, in mystery and beauty, in joy and fulfilling work and in that which we seek in the stars and beyond. It is in these fruits of spirit that mankind is united. The so-called secular and the so-called religious have come a long way to appreciate unsuspected mutual harmony in higher aspirations and deeper motivations.