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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.

Criticism of Religion

There is a historical perspective of the problems of criticising religion and its importance today. This is important to free thought because religion is classically, and still, identified with imposing authority — the opposite of free thought.  The book spends some time on the relevance for moral areas.

The lesson from the history of religious criticism is that scriptural authority, the ideas of ’divine’ or ’holy’ texts and books is a problem with theism. Revelation and ’divine’ commands produce an attitude that religious commands must be followed, whatever the results. And that God’s commands override any civil rules or laws. Even if a ’holy’ scripture has only a few passages inciting violence, or even if there are only a few literalists,  the fact it is considered ’divine’ or ’holy’ can still cause much harm.

This is relevant today as religion still has a protected status which tries to make it immune from criticism. Critics are labelled ’strident,’ ’fundamentalist,’ ’militant’, ’angry,’ etc. And criticism is interpreted as a wish to ’destroy’ religion. Even many atheists adhere to this protected status and react irrationally to criticism of religion

However, criticism of religion is essential not only to free thought but to overcoming today’s problems of religious violence and terrorism or their threat.

Freedom of expression

The third chapter discusses freedom of expression as another fundamental part of secularism. Cliteur argues that freedom of expression is fundamental to both free thought and the secular outlook. It is also strongly connected with the need to criticise religion, authority and its imposition.

Today there is a revival of religious ’self-confidence.’  This produces religious revolts against the secular state and secular morals, and attempts to impose minority interpretations of law and human rights. There are attempts to reintroduce blasphemy laws nationally and to produce international documents including the idea of ’defamation of religion.’  Religious groups argue for their exclusion from human rights legislation barring discrimination in employment and services.

All this threatens freedom of expression as this new religious confidence is often asserted politically, sometimes with violence or even terrorism.

Cliteur describes problems created by militant Islamic threats to newspapers, cartoonists and authors. The accompanying problem is the way the western governments, publishers and politicians have crumbled. In effect they argue for self-censorship and have created the dangerous practice of blaming the victim for the anger of the offender.

This means that today there is a de facto submission to terrorism which far from solving the problem only encourages more violence.

The book has an interesting discussion of the philosophical justifications of free expression. Free thought, combining religious criticism and freedom of speech, is necessary for emancipating humankind.

We can see this in personal development. We need freedom of expression to allow our minds to develop and our personalities to flourish. Suppression of free expression is a form of abuse in children and retards development. There are also cultural aspects. Free expression encourages flourishing of science, art and culture. Ironically it also encourages development of religion as part of that culture. There is the duty we have to others and to society in general. We should develop ideas and convictions collectively. The book presents some interesting arguments on this from W. K. Clifford who is famous for: ’It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’

And there is the question of self-control and autonomy. Every time we accept something without evidence we undermine our self-control — we hand over to others. Freedom of expression helps prevent that.

While arguing strongly for freedom of expression Cliteur does not deny that sometimes there needs to be limits. We should not support the right to shout ’fire’ in a crowded hall when there is no fire. However, he argues against using these limits inappropriately — as they often are when religion is criticised.

Finally, the book deals with moral and political secularism. We need a secular outlook because one evil of religion today is its lack of support for important civil rights and freedoms. Freedom of expression enables criticism of this. However, religious terrorism and religious sensitivity inhibits or even assaults freedom of expression.

‘Divine’ command ethics and abhorrence of atheism

Cliteur argues for moral autonomy, justifying moral ideas without resort to religion. We need autonomy to break away from religious tutelage.

Theists hotly debate this, claiming morality can’t stand on its own feet. That morality without a god is impossible. Secularists must reject this for moral and political autonomy.

The author spends some time discussing ’divine command’ ethics.  This ’assumes that what is morally right is synonymous with what has been commanded, prescribed, or ordered by God.’ He believes that this attitude helps explain a common Christian abhorrence of atheism:

’Atheists are so much hated because they are supposed to be immoral. Psalm 14:1 formulates this clearly:

The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do
Abominable deeds,
There is none who does good.’

With this attitude ’divine command morals sees morality as ‘revealed.’ According to divine command ethics there is an intimate relationship between theology and ethics.’ ‘Divine’ command ethics leads to ’the idea that having different opinion on religious matters has to be punished by God.’ ’Here we encounter one of the most obnoxious elements of the theistic creeds: their tendency to intimidate people into the right sort of faith by threatening punishments for those who think otherwise.’

A danger of divine command ethics is that its assumptions and its grounding in ’divine’ will, rather than independently existing reasons for action, means that no other reasons for action are necessary.  So it can be used to justify the most inhumane actions.

Of course theologians claim this description is too simple. This reveals that ’divine’ command ethics exists in different forms with different justifications. Cliteur identifies three general varieties:

  • Mystical — where the individual directly apprehends the divine;
  • Received via mediation — through god’s representative. Commonly Catholic, and
  • Through scripture — usually protestant.

In reality these draw inspiration from claimed revelation of one form or another. God commands through the voices in your head. Through the pope, Imam or other relgious leader, or through the ’holy’ book suitably interpreted.

While all sorts of mental gymnastics are used to correlate ’divine’ command ethics with human standards of morality some adherents take the whole idea literally, rather than metaphorically or poetically. Religious extremists are firm believers in divine command ethics — they firmly reject moral autonomy.

Dangers of the ‘divine’ and ‘holy’

The ideas of ’divine’ and ’holy’ present a real problem for national and international politics. Such ideas provide sanction to actions which may well be inhumane. They can lead to sacrifice and martyrdom — and the sacrifice of innocents. They provide motives for international religious terrorism, and for threatening order and freedom for others. The book illustrates this with a quote from the farewell letter of a Dutch jihadist:

’In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,
I write this letter to inform you that I departed for the land of the jihad.
To dispel the unbelievers, and to help establish the Islamic state.
I do not do this because I like fighting, but because the Almighty has commanded this’ ‘Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you may not’

Cliteaur therefore argues that a central requirement of a secular outlook must be rejection of scriptural authority and religious justification and adoption of moral autonomy.

Religious apologists often argue that their ethics are objective. That there is such a thing as god-given objective morality.  Cliteur describes this as a pretence.  ’Is divine command ethics really the only way to save us from relativism? Or is it rather the other way round, and should we confess that adopting divine command ethics brings us into the quagmire of relativism?’

In fact religious morality is arbitrary precisely because it is ’revealed’ or ’divine.’

The book provides final comment on ’divine” command ethics.  Cliteur asks:

’why God proclaimed certain values superior to others. Wouldn’t that be because those values are superior? In other words does not God choose for us on the basis of some intrinsic property?’

“Once we have accepted that intrinsic property we have rejected divine command ethics. And we can reject divine command ethics in the ground that this would make morality a matter of arbitrariness — dviine arbitrariness, yet arbitrariness nevertheless.’

From ‘interfaith’ cooperation to secular untiy

We need to reject ’divine’ command ethics and the ’divine’ authority of scripture and ’holy’ books if we are to overcome the negative parts of religious tradition. But, this does not require refutation of religious claims or proving the non-existence of gods.  That is a mug’s game because of the enormous variety of god concepts, the vagueness of terms, seeming deliberate lack of clarity in religious arguments, and what Cliteur calls the ’humpty-dumpty’ way of using words.

Clitear spends some time discussing the different trends within Christianity and Islam and their possible political role. He does not see the role of liberal Christianity as positive precisely because it is so vague.

’If we could, together with Humpty Dumpty, let words mean what we choose them to mean, communication would be pointless. Yet many discussions, especially about sensitive issues — and religion is such an issue — are flawed because people are reluctant to provide us with clear definitions . . . . Once religion becomes ‘wishy-washy, you can’t refute it, but you also have no reason to believe in it.’ So Sinott-Armstrong tells us.’

This vagueness hides a compete refusal to face up to the problem of the ’divine’ or ’holy’ nature of scripture and religious pronouncements. In fact the confused nature of liberal Christianity seems to have the main purpose of avoiding this issue.

Cliteur sees a secular Christianity as being more positive. That is a Christianity which accepts moral autonomy and rejects ‘divine’ command ethics and the ’holiness’ of scripture. He argues this is possible within the framework of a religious world-view.

The book briefly considers a similar analysis of Islam, suggesting for the same reasons that we should place out hope in secular Islam rather than liberal Islam.

Religious intuitions and cultures are widespread.  This will not change quickly. But ’it is possible to criticise elements of a religious tradition without rejecting everything.’

I see this as an important message of The Secular Outlook. It is hopeful the negative parts of religious tradition can be opposed without having to first oppose religion in its entirety. In fact many religious people can engage in such a struggle. We can move from interfaith cooperation (which considers secularism a threat) to secular unity involving cooperation of the religious and the non-religious.


There is a lot in this book and I believe it is timely and valuable. It certainly helped me clarify some of my own ideas about morality and the need (and justification) for a secular society and outlook. His differentiation between literalist and liberal religion on the one hand and secular religion on the other is useful. It provides an analysis which helps reveal the possibilities for cooperation of the non-religious with the religious and the pitfalls in this.

My only criticism is of Cliteur’s simplistic presentation of religion in the USSR. He defines a ’political atheism’ as ’the conviction that the state has to eradicate all kinds of religious belief, as was done in the Soviet Union and in Albania.’

Religion was by no means ’eradicated’ in the USSR. (I attended a Christian church service in communist Moscow).  The relationship between church and state was certainly complex during Soviet times but I find such simple and mistaken claims in such an otherwise excellent book a little disturbing. It suggests a willingness to lower standards of objectivity just because few people will object in this case.

I also dispute his assertion that ’Maoism and Stalinism were not based on moral heteronomy but on moral autonomy. . .  . . Yet Maoism and Stalinism produced brutal dictatorships that warped the minds of the people subjected to them. So adopting the secular outlook is not a recipe for universal harmony.’

Some morality attitudes under Mao and Stalin may have differed strongly to that prevailing in the west. But my memory of Maoism, and my understanding of Stalinism, was of strong imposition of many moral attitudes. The authoritarian nature of the regimes and their political and moral guidelines don’t support the author’s claim of their being ’based on moral autonomy.’

In raising this I am not concerned at correcting the historical mistakes. More I think we should be able to see that moral heteronomy can be a problem with non-religious ideologies and non-religious social control. That we can apply much of the analysis in this book to some non-religious or ’secular’ ideologies too. I think that Cliteuir’s conclusion from the history of Maoism and Stalinism that ’adopting the secular outlook is not a recipe for universal harmony’ gives the wrong emphasis.

In fact, Cliteur infers as much when he writes about the ’pernicious influence’ of ideology ’which needs to be studied.’ And ’What makes Nazism, fascism or other ideologies preaching blind obedience problematic is precisely this element.’

So perhaps there is room for more discussion of moral heteronomy and authoritarian moral and political attitudes within non-religious communities.

But otherwise an excellent book.

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