View Full Version : The evolution of secular thought By Dr Asad Zaman - 23rd March 2016

23rd March 2016, 01:50 PM
The institutions of a society reflect the social norms which prevail in that society. In Islamic societies, emphasis on norms of generosity led to the creation of Awqaf on a wide scale in the middle ages. Scholars report that one-third of the recorded land in the Ottoman Empire was devoted to Awqaf, which provided a wide range of social services. Similarly, in pre-modern Europe, the Catholic Church was involved in provision of social services on a huge scale. In European societies, bloody battles among different religious factions led to the emergence of secular thinking. Everyone, including religious leaders, agreed that it was best to construct social and political theory on neutral grounds upon which all different religious factions could agree. As a result, the Church was marginalised, and the space was created for the emergence of philosophies which were diametrically opposed to religious teachings. Contrast the Biblical teaching “Love of money is the root of all evil,” with George Bernard Shaw’s dictum that “Lack of money is the root of all evil.”

An important consequence of the transition to secular thought was the loss of vision of the society as a homogenous body which works together for common goals. Instead, society was conceived of as a collection of disparate groups with different religions without any common purpose. Since the basis for collective social action on common grounds was lost, governments took over the provision of social services. These models worked well for a while because European societies continued to honour religious principles of charity, compassion and social responsibility, on an individual and personal basis, even though religion was taken out of the public domain and made into a personal affair.

The foundation of secular thought rests on tolerance — it emerged in order to allow different religious groups to live together in peace. However, over the course of the twentieth century, it has evolved to be increasingly insistent on compulsory adherence to secular principles, and increasingly intolerant of religion. Trump is only one exemplar of this trend towards an intolerant secularism in the West, which casts heavy shadows on the East.

Another transition of central importance is the changing attitude towards greed and the accumulation of wealth. A good illustration is the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol”. The miser Scrooge must repent, learn compassion, and give from his wealth to the poor, in order to save himself from a miserable death. In contrast, Disney’s Scrooge McDuck is a clever hero, whose love of money is a charming quirk.

In 2010, only 388 people held half of the wealth of the planet. After five years, this number has shrunk to 62 in 2015. The rapidity with which wealth is accumulating in the hands of an extremely small number of people has been the subject of much recent research. The root cause of this concentration of wealth lies in the transformation of social attitudes towards wealth. Libertarians confidently assert that the wealthy have no obligation to help others. A wealthy man has the moral right to feast on luxuries, and throw scraps to his dogs, but refuse to feed a starving child dying at his doorsteps. It is this new secular morality which is responsible for the current state of affairs, where billions live in misery, while the rich have more money than King Midas. False ideologies, manufactured to support status quo, deceive the poor into supporting the system. Fighting the spread of these false ideologies is an essential part of the struggle to create a better world for all of us.