Malise Ruthven gives below, I believe, a brilliant explanation of the contradictions that face us as a pluralistic society. Though a skeptic regarding religion, he nevertheless thinks that there is a psychic need within humankind, himself included, for the things that traditional religions can provide even non-believers with. Listening to a podcast of Part Four of the truly enlightening seven-part CBC Ideas series, The Myth of the Secular, Ruthven, in his interview with the series’ producer David Cayley, gave timely and embarrassingly sensitive insight into the contradictions we all must live with now. This, and Part Three, an interview with Saba Mahmood, a secular Muslim woman who has studied the Women’s Mosque Movement in Egypt and written a provocative book called The Politics of Piety – The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, have really made me reconsider my opinion that France’s courageous banning of religious symbols in its schools is a wise strategy, given the psychic needs that seem to be hard-wired into our genes. Below is my attempt at an accurate quotation from one of Malise Ruthen’s final statements, taken from the Part Four podcast:
…secularity is really the recognition of pluralism, that very pluralism which we’ve only now started coming to terms with in Northeastern Ireland where I grew up, is a fact of the modern world so… that kind of secularity is universal; there’s nothing anyone’s going to be able to do about it. The secularism that says, “well we ought to get rid of all this stuff (religious practice) and just live as modern, rational human beings” – that’s never going to get any traction because I think people talk of spiritual needs but I think our psychic needs perhaps more broadly requires that we root our identities in certain commonal rituals, ideas and so forth, and, generally speaking, religious organizations , religious traditions that have a long history of practice in this area do a better job of that than so-called secular ones. I’m not myself a personal believer, but I would hesitate to have the British Humanist Society preside over my funerals simply because the way they do that is so bland and boring, whereas at least the rich language of the Anglican Prayer Book gives you something to hold on to, even if you don’t believe a word of what it is saying.
I listened distractedly to parts one and two of the series, but Part Three woke me up and Part Four is just as good. This last, somewhat ironic, statement actually made me smile. I look forward to hearing parts five, six and seven… These are ideas that I, a confirmed non-believer, am personally wrestling with now. Our human progress depends on pointed self-reflection and courageous discourse combined with the recognition of, and a humble respect for, differences that will not soon be transcended.