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Secularism is important

Book Review: The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism by Paul Cliteur

Price: US$26.95; NZ$53.97
Paperback: 328 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (September 7, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

It’s funny how some people allow their emotional reactions to interfere with their understanding of, and reaction to, words and their meaning. Almost 40 years ago I had a problem posting a letter to an address in the former East Germany. The women behind the counter in the post office refused to accept it because its address included the words “German Democratic Republic.” While she muttered things like “Soviet Zone,” and I was expecting her to starting foaming at the mouth, her colleague had to take over and provide me with the correct stamp.

Some people react the same way to words like secular and secularism. They equate these with atheism, or “worse.” So they animate their definitions of such words by their personal aversion to denial of their gods.

Pope Benedict XVI often warns of the “moral dangers” of secularism and many theologians and apologists wilfully equate secularism with attempts to destroy or eliminate religion.

Definitions and common understandings of words are important- especially where there is emotional baggage. So the first chapter of Paul Cliteur’s book is welcome – and probably necessary. “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism” reviews the possible definitions of these words and argues the case for a consistent and accurate meaning – taking 50 pages to do so.

And far from secularism being hostile to religion Cliteur sees it as “an essential precondition for the free development of religion. . . . It would be a serious mistake to consider the values espoused in the secular outlook as in any way inimical to religion or the rights of religious believers. On the contrary, secularism is the only perspective under which people of different religious persuasions can live together.”

The book devotes much of its content to justification of free thought. Chapter 2 argues that criticism of religion as central to free thought.

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Destroying mystery?

Sometimes I hear the opinion that science is a kill joy. That by discovering how reality work it destroys the “mystery” of things. I have always thought that shallow. After all, improving our understanding of the world produces a great and awe-inspiring narrative. On the other hand – if you love mystery and the unknown – well science should be very satisfying to you. Every time science discovers an answer it inevitably produces new questions.

I think Christopher Thomas Scott expressed this well in his book Stem Cell Now. He said:

“Some say that biomedical science moves too quickly; it intrudes too deeply into the natural world, and sooner or alter, there will be no mysteries to solve. On that day, we will lose our innocence, and perhaps our humanity. However, there has never been a shortage of awe-inspiring challenges. Every time we uncover a mystery, another awaits us. We pursue knowledge about biology and our relations to nature as naturally as we breath. We do so because our acts and efforts generate hope – hope for legions of parents, children, husbands, wives, and friends who need those cures. The optimism that we can improve life and relieve suffering is our humanity.”

A great sentiment. And a great book. It describes the current status of stem cell research and the problems faced by US scientists in this area. It also gives an outline of the politics involved and summarises the ethical and moral arguments used by both the proponents and opponents of this research.

Open mindedness

Meanwhile – here’s a great video about open mindedness.It looks at some of the flawed thinking that prompts people who believe in certain non-scientific concepts to advise others who don’t to be more open-minded. As such it really exposes the faulty logic of opponents of scientific knowledge like creationists.


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