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Secularism is not the path to democracy

Tue, August 22, 2006   |   Author: Ron Gray   |   Volume 13    Issue 35 | Share: Gab | Facebook | Twitter   

In our time, Secularism poses as one of the answers to religious extremism; but that is a philosophical error of categories. Secularism is not non-religious: it is, in fact, one of the religious extremisms that endanger peace and justice in the world. It has been the primary tool that religious extremism has used over the past half-century and more to erode the moral fibre of the democratic West-the very core of what President Bush hopes to export to the Middle East.

The differences between religions on the international scene was highlighted recently in an address by a man many academics regard as the greatest moral philosopher of our time: Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy in Harvard’s Department of Economics.

Christian schools are perfectly acceptable, he said, but other faith schools, especially Muslim ‘madrassas’, should be scrapped if the U.K. Government wants to encourage a unifying British identity.

Commenting on the damage that he believes is being done by Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools-set up because the Blair government wanted to give them parity with Christian institutions-Professor Sen said: “I am actually absolutely appalled.”

Born in India into an academic Hindu Bengali family with links to Rabindranath Tagore (the polymath winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature), Prof. Sen was Master from 1998 to 2003 of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he did his undergraduate degree and PhD. Widely respected as one of the world's top economists, he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998.

Prof. Sen praised Britain's multicultural society, from which he believes all of Europe-notably France and Germany-have much to learn. However, he felt Tony Blair's government (for which he says he voted), made two serious policy blunders: encouraging a society in which ethnic minorities -especially Muslims-are defined almost exclusively by their religion; and endorsing the establishment of non-Christian faith schools.

Prof. Sen, who was addressing the Institute of Public Policy Research, the Asia Society, the Nehru Centre and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, explained to The Daily Telegraph: “It overlooks the way Christian schools have evolved and often provide a much more tolerant atmosphere than a purely religious school would. A lot of people in the Middle East or India or elsewhere have been educated in Christian schools.”

Prof. Sen enlarges on these ideas in his book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. But the core idea, almost forgotten in today's clamour for multiculturalism, is that all religions are not alike. One religious stream-Judaism and its offspring, Christianity-has been able to elevate moral principles while still recognizing the human worth of those who adhere to other faiths. That's why that stream of faith-and not Secularism-stands at the core of democratic governance.

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