Atheism, Islam and Secularism

A presentation to the Melbourne Atheist Society, May 09, 2017, 8 pm. Unitarian Church Hall, 110 Grey Street, East Melbourne.

A Continuum of Definitions

The relationship between atheism, Islam, and secularism is more complex than many would believe and whilst there seems to be an enormous gulf between the three initially, it is indeed quite possible to find unexpected points of unity. This is not, of course, to underestimate the serious hurdles that exist, as one would expect for some apparently foundational differences in theological opinion and more earthly practise. Indeed, coming here as a representative of the Victorian Secular Lobby, it is the latter that is of primary concern. In a secular environment - indeed only in a secular environment - can the Muslim, the atheist, and indeed anyone else, respectfully debate the finer points of their metaphysics. Naturally enough, the 2014 decree from Saudi Arabia [1] which defined atheist thought as terrorism is the antithesis of such an objective.

One initial hurdle is the continuum of differences that come with the three words. Consider atheism; in it's most broad sense it means an absence of belief in any deities, whereas in a narrow sense it is the position that there are certainly no deities. The useful distinction by Anthony Flew has been made between strong explicit atheism (there is no gods), weak explicit atheism (I don't believe in any gods), and weak implicit atheism (no gods by default) [2], although I would like to add a "strong implicit atheism" in the form of a militant metaphysical agnosticism: "I don't know, and I'm certain nobody does". In reference to particular deities there is added complexity. Whilst I can appreciate metaphor and message, reified and personified, the literal idea of the Hindu god-aspect Ganesha is something that I am quite atheistic about, even if I am charmed by his grumpy rat vehicle, Musakavahana, although I have wondered whether this rodent is incredible strong, or just particularly strong for the purpose of carrying elephant-headed deities. In contrast, I am much less atheistic about naturalistic pantheism [3], which posits that reality is equivalent to a non-personal divinity, and expresses a reverence to a universe that is mysterious with its immanence.

Trying to nail down a definition of Islam is no less difficult. Certainly some basic components are well known; a monotheistic religion, initiated by Muhuammed, that views the Quran as the primary scripture. Beyond that however there is an extraordinary institutional diversity. Whilst many will know of the two largest sects, Sunni and Shi'a, and arguably Druze, whereas others will know of the largely historic Khawarij, and fewer still will know of the numerous orders, sub-sects, and distinct schools of jurisprudence. Because of this ideological diversity which is also reflected in widespread institutional independence there is also behavioural variation. In the tradition of Kebatinan - the Javanese Islam with syncretic influences from Hinduism, Buddhism and animism - the Sultan of Yogyakarta is also the consort to Nyai Roro Kidul, the Goddess of the South Sea [4] with splendid rituals celebrating the union; so much for monotheism. The diversity was significant enough for a various calls of unity within that diversity, such as the 2005 Amman Message issued by two hundred Islamic scholars which recognitised of eight schools of theology and jurisprudence, and limit claims of excommunication and religious edicts [5]. On the other end of the scale, the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria earned its place as a footnote in religious history by engaging in widespread massacres in 1997 with their leader, Antar Zouabri, declaring everyone who not a member of the group to be takfir, an declaration of excommunication, defining a non-believer, deserving of death [6].

Secularism and Anti-Secularism in Atheism and Islam

The way that secular authorities have responded to religious bodies is also one of great variation. Secularism, at least in the sense of George Holyoake who coined the term, is not an argument against religion, but an argument independent of it, of knowledge and experiences which are grounded in this reality [7]. Holyoake goes on to suggest that subjects such as botany, algebra, geometry, chemistry, navigation, political economy, and ethics, are all examples of secular subjects, that is, their truths should remain the same regardless of one's religious orientation. Now of course Holyoake is writing from a perspective informed by 19th century British liberalism and social democracy. His perspective is strongly orientated towards individual liberties and freedom of conscience along with social utilitarianism. This is not the sort of political system that is universally shared, and certainly in countries that have described themselves as Islamic, atheism, and even secular, there has been significant variation in the treatment of people depending on their religious orientation. There is, of course, a matter of degrees in secularism as a governmental feature as well. Australia is an example where in practise there is large degree of daily secularism, but also some very significant and specific legal advantages for religious institutions, leading to the particular religious requirements of our Head of State.

Certainly state atheism does not have a political history which would bring much comfort to those who care about the most visceral of individual rights. The policy of gosateizm, an abbreviation of "state" (gosudarstvo) and "atheism" (ateizm), applied in the Soviet Union and many its satellites, which typically meant at various times expropriation of religious property, bans on publications, harassment, jailings, psychiatric incarceration, and executions [8], and at other times rehabilitation with the regime, depending on the political circumstances at the time. Likewise the People's Republic of China also has a policy of state atheism, which has followed a similar approach; freedom of religious expression has more to do with whether the religion in question has seditious potential; article 36 of the Chinese constitution now guarantees freedom of religion, but the Taoist spiritual group Falun Gong is subject to extraordinary persecution primarily because of its popularity and organisational independence, rather than practise or belief [9]. For those who wish to lay blame of such policies on the particularly Stalinistic implementations of Marxism-Lenninism - or even perhaps the semi-secularism of the Arabic Baathist dictatorships - the onus is on them to explain how an explicitly anti-religious government policy could not result in a suppression of individual rights and freedom of conscience, as such an explicit strong atheism is itself a fundamentalist metaphysical claim.

Likewise Islamicist theocratic states or disruptive and terrorist oppositions are also an affront to such values. The imposition of differing levels of sharia law, especially in matters of hudud are notable in some major Islamic-majority countries, most notably Sunni Saudi and Iranian Shi'a (there's no escape by denomination). Thus there are criminal offenses for apostasy in some twenty Muslim countries, including some cases of the death penalty being applied. The application of zina, unlawful sex, have proven to be especially onerous against women of Afghanistan and Pakistan (from the 1977 Hudood Ordinances) in particular, where there are hundreds of incidents of women being raped and then incarcerated for adultery or other sexual offenses. In 2005, Human Rights Watch estimated that some 200,000 zina cases against women under the Hudood laws were under way in Pakistan's legal system [10]. Even in those countries which are regarded as secular, there is a range of sharia laws imposed in family and inheritance issues, and certainly there can be no doubt that there is a global rise of Islamicism where even in more historically syncretic and secular Muslim countries such as Indonesia, neofascist groups seek a return to imaginary past [11].

Looking Forward

From a sociological perspective the behaviour of people cannot be narrowed down just to their material conditions or, or the political and legal infrastructure, or the dominant systemic ideologies in themselves. Rather it is through the combination of these components along with the motivations that come from future expectations that provides the context of behaviour. Extremist Islamicism is a reality of our age, becoming prominent with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 (the takeover by Khomeini was certainly a mortal shock to the leftists who supported the overthrow of Shah), the fall of the Soviet-backed government to the mujahideen in Afghanistan 1992, and the Algerian Civil War from 1991-2002. This is explicable from the perceived hopelessness and corruption endemic of many of the more secular Arabic dictatorships, the humiliating effects of Israeli apartheid in Palestine and other foreign occupations, and the capacity to disseminate their ideology through contemporary communications technology.

Addressing these issues is certainly more helpful than the idealistic condemnations of many associated with the New Atheist movement. Spurred by the events of 9/11 (but apparently not the hundreds of thousands of excess deaths during the sanctions against Iraq from 1990 to 2003 [12]) and have concentrated on the letter of the law found in the Quran and have eschewed analogy and context [13] and thus have ended up agreeing with Islamic extremists on matters of interpretation. In doing so they actually are helping the extremists against liberal and modern Muslims (such as Jaringan Islam Liberal in Indonesia, Tolu-e-Islam in Pakistan and India), let alone those, such as Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, professor of law at Emory University, who point out that the virtue of secularism rather than state-enforced sharia means that religious devotion is voluntary [14]. How do they react to people like Ali A. Rizvi, who describes himself as an atheist Muslim [15], in exactly the same way that Richard Dawkins describes himself as a cultural Christian, or for that matter, Christian atheism, which primarily uses the ethical system of Christianity rather than the theology. Ultimately, New Atheism is simply a neoliberal brand of Marxist state atheism, but even less effective.

It is psychologically easy to engage in a synecdoche fallacy especially with the pretense of intellectual and moral superiority. It's easy to lump Muslims into a basket that says these people are more likely to engage in an violent jihad against the unbeliever because of their religion, rather than acknowledge the material conditions of their being, by which a particular backward interpretation of their religion serves as a conduit. It is about as legitimate of course, as claiming that atheists are monsters because their lack of religion means that they have no moral foundation to guide their behaviour. Atheists know that the latter is certainly not true as they have grappled with various moral and ethical theories in secular manner. A similar level of sophistication is required when discussing any religion and their adherents. As Reza Aslan remarks (I do think we is overstating the case):

"... the principle fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.

People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations." [16]

Ultimately it seems that the sort of secularism that Holyoake advocated will be a more effective path. Concentrating on those existential and visceral matters which are common to all in this secular world is more effective, than aggressive and simplistic condemnation of metaphysical beliefs. Practical assistance to those suffering for having liberal and modern interpretations of a religious doctrine is certainly more effective than agreeing the extremists have the "true" interpretation. Civil freedoms, a share of a nation's wealth and economic security, critical education, deliberative democracy and public discourse, - how much more evidence is required to illustrate that these are the most effective means against extremism? But that of course really is the question. Is is the varieties of political extremism that one wishes to defeat, or is it religion - no matter how abstract, liberal, modern, secular - in general?

Additional Remarks from Q&A

Traditional religions have discriminated and subjugated women and the rise of extremist Islamicism is no exception. Indeed, the rights of women has gone backwards in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran compared to the 1970s. Such an ideology is reflected even in Australia; when women of Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia, claim the Koran permits men to hit disobedient women [17], this must be condemned in the strongest possible terms and the advocates subject to legal sanction, as have those who have engaged in child marriages using religious excuses [18]. Part of this is the emphasis that secularism is part of universal human rights - not "western culture" - so cultural excuses, something used by sections of the political left who engage in 'campism' (e.g., if it's nominally anti-capitalist or even anti-US, it ought to be supported), must be opposed. The benefits of multiculturalism are something that can only be enjoyed within an environment of a universalistic legal system.

Historic religious scripture is, of course, no excuse, just as it would be no excuse to reintroduce some of the punishments from the Judeo-Christian bible; putting people to death for working on the Sabbath for example - and it wouldn't surprise me if there are a few in the Christian community to would like to see it reintroduced. After all, it wasn't until 2003 that witchcraft laws were repealed [19], and blasphemy is still technically an offense. More seriously, the special tax deductible status for organisations whose purpose is the promotion of religion [20] - such as the Australian Christian Lobby - is a gross distortion of our public sphere and must be abolished.

On that topic - and responding to the question on how does one successfully present the rise of the populist extreme right, whether religious or political - an example was provided by the proposed marriage equality plebiscite - was that political debates, political campaigns etc, are not subject to the advertising standards laws [21]. There is no requirement to be truthful in such discussion. This is a terrible act of violence against the idea of a deliberative democracy. For a democracy to function the participants need to just to be able to indicate what opinions they agree with, but they need to be able to come to that decision on the basis of facts.


1] Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents, The Independent, April 1, 2014

2] Anthony Flew, "The Presumption of Atheism". The Presumption of Atheism, and other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom, and Immortality., Barnes and Noble, 1976

3] Lev Lafayette, Is Pantheism an Atheism?, Presentation to the Melbourne Atheist Society, 9th of August, 2016

4] Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen in Extraordinary Asian People and Places, and Things that Go Bump in the Night., 2008. See also, The Sultan and the Mermaid: A Love Story for the Ages, International Herald Tribune, June 14, 1994

5] "Jordan issues the 'Amman Message' on Islam". Embassy of Jordan - Washington, 16 August 2007

6] Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Harvard University Press, 2002: p.272-3

7] George Holyoake (ed), A Statement of Secular Principles, The Reasoner, Volume 30, 1872, page 99-100

8] Sabrina Petra Ramet (ed), Religious Policy in the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

9] Zhao Yuezhi, Falun Gong, Identity, and the Struggle over Meaning Inside and Outside China, in "Contesting Media Power: Alternative Media in a Networked World," Nick Couldry and James Curran (ed.), Rowman & Littlefield, 2003

10] Pakistan, Human Rights Watch, 2005

11] Nithin Coca, Is Indonesia’s Vaunted Secularism Under Threat?, The Diplomat, December 21, 2016
See also, Sreeram Chaulia, True secularism, Indonesian style, Deccan Chronicle, June 30, 2015

12] UNICEF and the Federation of American Scientists estimated child deaths at 500,000 "UNICEF -- Results of the 1999 Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Surveys". Federation of American Scientists.

13] Sam Harris, End of Faith, W. W. Norton, 2004 and Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, Twelve Books, 2007 are two prominent examples. Notably they have glossed over glaring statements such as Quran 3:7 which explicitly state that nobody (but Allah of course) know which parts of the Quran are literal and which parts are allegorical.

14] ?Abd All?h A?mad Na??m, Islam and the secular state : negotiating the future of Shari?a. Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 2008.

15] Ali A. Rizvi,
An Atheist Muslim’s Perspective on the ‘Root Causes’ of Islamist Jihadism and the Politics of Islamophobia, Huffington Post, May 2013
Why I Call Myself an ‘Atheist Muslim’, Huffington Post, May 13, 2013

16] Jesse Singal, Reza Aslan on What the New Atheists Get Wrong About Islam, New York Magazine, October 2014

17] Hayley Gleeson with Julia Baird, Exposing the darkness within: Domestic violence and Islam, April 24, 2017

18] Number of Australian 'child bride' cases doubles in a year, 20 Sept, 2016

19] Witchcraft and sorcery laws to be repealed in Victoria, April 11, 2003

20] Meredith Doig, Religion's tax break is a cross we shouldn't have to bear, March 25 2016

21] Advertising loophole means plebiscite campaign ads won’t need to be factually correct, Sept 13, 2016