Britain’s secular liberal establishment appears horrified by the Pope’s comments, and those of his advisor Cardinal Walter Kasper, about Britain’s secular society. The Pope said in his opening speech in the UK “Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society…In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.”
Cardinal Kasper wrote on the eve of the Pope’s visit that “an aggressive new atheism has spread through Britain. If, for example, you wear a cross on British Airways, you are discriminated against.”
This trend has emerged strongly since 9/11 and led to a magnificent double standard. A letter in the Guardian on 15th September 2010 signed by secular evangelists such as Stephen Fry, Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor AC Grayling, Lord Avebury, and Peter Tatchell amongst others denounced the invitation of a state visit for the Pope and included in their reasoning the Pope’s illiberal views. It would be hard to find a letter with the same spectrum of signatories opposing the visits and hospitality shared between British governments and dictators across the world who actively torture and repress their own people.
In Britain, Europe and the United States secular liberal states are proving ever more their intolerance of people of all faiths – frequently ridiculing and demeaning adherents of religions – but most especially Islam.
Anyone who has witnessed calls for bans on hijabs and niqabs across Europe, as well as minarets; protests against mosques by right wing groups in Britain and even a call to ban the Quran in Holland will recognise an aggressive, unpleasant, even supremacist secular liberalism.
A new role for religion
Aggressive secularism stems from ignorance, fear and dogmatism. Over two centuries after the enlightenment, secular free market liberalism dominates in just about every important nation, yet the secular agenda seems to have stalled. Cynicism has surged. The sense of a strong society is diminishing. And when people are asked about how happy they are, the negativity is electric.
Yet, despite unprecedented prosperity and mass education, it is religion that is today providing a more confident, global and ethical vision, finding traction among all peoples, irrespective of race, colour, sex, age or geography. For supporters of a movement that is supposed to have lost the battle of ideas, religionists have been proving the soothsayers wrong. Why is this?
Firstly, more religious people are now questioning why their values should be suppressed within the public arena. History has taught us that some of the greatest social advancements were made by people motivated by their religious beliefs. The provision of economic and political rights for women in Islamic countries in the seventh century, the abolition of slavery in the UK, civil rights in America: all were done by people with impeccable religious credentials.
If some secularists had had their way, the activism of our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the campaigning of William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King would be whitewashed from history.
Secondly, despite historical attempts to generalise, many are now rejecting the absurd claim that religion stifles intellectual inquiry. We often hear dire warnings from western capitals about the dangers of the re-emergence of an Islamic caliphate. Yet it is almost undisputed that in its heyday, the caliphate was at the forefront of scientific advancement and community cohesion (contradicting the myth that religious-based systems oppress other faiths).
Thirdly, many are attracted to religion in the West because of what they see as an emerging social malaise and spiritual void. For them, modern society should aspire to be about more than GDP and rabid individualism. This has motivated many to articulate fresh ideas about work-life balance, racism, poverty alleviation and a more just foreign policy.
Lastly, people are rejecting the stale choice of religious fundamentalism versus intolerance. The debate is now centred on competing visions as to how best to achieve the universal ends of prosperity, security and education. But some liberal fundamentalists prefer to use secular society as an overarching ideology to marginalise any kind of religious influence.
Perhaps now is the time for everyone to formulate new paradigms, rather than to fight old culture wars.
For real answers and a real alternative, people need to look at what Islam offers.