By Ibrahim Arsalan
When Alverroes (Ibn Rashd) composed his philosophical works, some of which being rebuttals to Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina) theories on the “universal mind”, neither polymath ever imagined that their works would become the foundation for European secularism.
Nor did they imagine that this young race of “barbarians” would use the theory to undermine the societies each man had hoped to reform, or that their social theories would morph into a new pseudo-religious ideology championed by later-day secular saints like Sam Harris and Bill Maher.
The theories of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rashd were far ahead of their time and fell upon the deaf ears of a world more concerned with the complexities of commerce than the mysteries of the self. Born largely from Quranic concepts of the nature of the Nafs (soul or self), their philosophical inquiries, lead directly to the world’s first psychiatric hospitals, clinical treatments of mental illness, and the scientific method itself. But once these ideas became readily available to those few Europeans learned enough to read, it took on a new form - like the ax whose wielder realized its power and transformed the tool into a weapon. Through their works and those of other Muslim scholars, Europeans were able to reintroduce themselves to ancient Greek philosophy (some Muslim scholars classified Socrates as a prophet of his age) and catch up to the intellectual development of the rest of the world.
But most importantly they’d forged a new weapon against the tyranny of the church.
However, the scholars who devised these works never found themselves at odds with the “church” (or rather the mosque) because there was no church authority with which to contend, much less a contention between science and religion. In fact, they themselves were respected religious scholars and judges. It could be said that the only true opposition they faced was from the state that often saw fit to employ such minds when formulating strategy or predicting the maneuvers of its rivals, but vehemently opposed the culture of logical inquiry their teachings elicited.
In that juxtaposition a link emerges: The State. In Europe the “church” was the state and its dogma the ideology of the state. As the ideas of these foreign scholars took hold, – ideas born from a doctrine that undermined the chief tenets of Christian dogma – Europe’s new scientists ran into direct opposition with the state in the form of the “church”.
Secular thought would continue to gain ground within the state, leading first to divisions of power between secular and religious entities, then to reformation church movements spearheaded by European polymaths. These African and Arab scholars who had accidentally penned Europe’s educational corpus, heavily influenced this new breed of European scholars, like St. Thomas Aquinas. But these ideals wouldn’t take hold immediately, for the new secularism was wresting power from the church and placing it firmly in the hands of the crown. What originally could be perceived as the decentralization of power, was in reality the fragmenting of power into disparate highly centralized hands.
As the economies of Europe transitioned from agricultural fiefs to moneyed trade centers, a new ideology began to emerge to supplant the church. The church was no more tyrannical than this new system, it was simply unable to adapt to the challenges of the new epoch. Now instead of Papas in big white hats pushing hidden agendas under the “guidance” of a distant and invisible God, Europe had Princes in big white palaces pushing hidden agendas under the guidance of nebulous and intangible forces; state interests and the market.
The old clown in a new suit would not be fully recognized, even until our present day. But this new structure would provide the state with a more adaptive and morally flexible premise from which to rule, and give rise to the nation-state. Soon the efficiency of the nation-state would out compete the empire structure the world over (the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the institution of Kamal Ataturk’s reforms heralded the global triumph of nationalism). The state then became ‘Father’ or ‘Jalal’ (Majesty/Power), the market the ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Jamal’ (Beauty/Beneficence), and propaganda the ‘Word’ become flesh.
Ultimately the same crimes that compelled Europe to oppose the church would continue long after its demise as a state entity, and even take on a new more horrifying scale through the efficiency of science. The lessons of Avicenna, Averroes, and company were not fully understood in either society, with few exceptions, it would seem. Their primary goal was to free people from any lifestyle that didn’t emulate the natural state of the human being, so they believed the human form to be the most complete manifestation of the divine.
Instead the modern world has endured the abuses of state and church forces that in their collusion, made a play of being at odds with one another. Numerous examples of this can be observed. While market forces set the trans-Atlantic slave trade in motion, its justification rested heavily on church sanction. The emerging doctrine justifying Europe’s aggressive and inhumane activities would come to be known as the “White man’s burden”; a belief that caste the state and the church as co-joined partners in a joint venture to civilize and/or Christianize the rest of the world. Strong contenders to this doctrine were the ideologies of the almost purely secular free-market aspirations of northern Europe. These too would prove just as effective at securing gains for the state and just as nightmarish in their ability to terrorize and destroy foreign populations. No greater example can be found than the efforts of King Leopold II in the Congo.
When first laying out his colonial aspirations, the ideology Leopold espoused was purely secular. So great were the abuses imposed by his endeavor that even the church rebuked Leopold, contending that he should only “kill the people for the ‘crimes’ they commit.” While church forces seemed unwilling to endorse amputating the limbs of children and forcing women to carry the heads of their dead husbands, the emerging secular states of Europe felt all too obliged to implement these methods in their own colonial holdings; of this, Haiti is a towering example.
When King Leopold created his own private colony the population of the Congo was approximately 20 million, when at last international outcry forced him to cede control to Belgium proper, 11 million tortured and broken souls remained, divided in ways that they had never before known. Then with the emergence of the industrial era the state would completely subvert the church, claiming dominance for its own trinity and empowering state sponsored scientists as the new clergy. This move was born purely of logical necessity: the church, though captivating, is largely stagnant and barely able to compete with the inspirational nature of the new possibilities science could offer. Furthermore, the church had always served to bring people together, even if only to be ruled, but the new scientific trends were able to bring the world together while simultaneously driving societies apart by isolating the individual in convenience.
Enter Nationalism, a modern secular philosophy that would forge a reality where nation-states decimate entire populations of people with but an utterance of the Word, preaching the doctrine of securing State interests through the right guidance of Market Forces.
This new ideology would centralize power, subvert dissent, and captivate the minds of its adherents far more effectively than religion ever has, and simultaneously gather resources both domestically and abroad more efficiently than the empire structure ever could.
The clergy would be replaced by the greater scientific community, as scientists now entered the religious sphere to engage in Christian style apologetics against the vanguard who first employed the method. Magic Thinking would be replaced by doublethink, and the ritual of prayer with the pledge of allegiance to the state. The original Pledge of Allegiance, having been penned by a Christian socialist Francis Bellamy without the words “under God”, would prove a tremendous success in the effort to attribute the state structure the all-transcendent nature normally attributed to Godhood. But even this would be surpassed by the movements of Mao in China and Stalin in Russia. Both states would preside over the destruction of their respective cultures and internal massacres of a scale never before seen; 10 million in China’s “Great Leap Forward” and 20 million throughout Russia’s reign of terror. In the face of unprecedented foreign and domestic violence, disintegrating social structures, and sociopathic state behavior a new wave of later-day secular preachers have emerge. Men like Sam Harris who masterfully craft their words to attribute every act of violence in the world to religious zeal, then quietly ignoring those zealous secular movements who prove just as violent and fanatical. Anyone who watched Bill Maher’s Religulous may have found his epilogue most interesting. He issued words of encouragement to “sane” secularly minded people to “overcome our timidity” and “do something” to stop the rising tide of fanaticism. Then behind it all played a running collage of nuclear blasts and other apocalyptic results of secular endeavors along side scenes of the recalcitrant victims; implying “they” are the source of the problem. His sermo
n left many questions unanswered like, “What exactly does he propose we do about this dangerous and unwanted population of insane and degenerate people?” The style and tone of his message was reminiscent of Mao’s message just before he began torturing Buddhist priests in an effort to “reform” them from their faith.
But underneath all of this echo the words of Averroes, haunting our collective conscious from the grave. His lessons were at once a lesson and a warning. Having been among the first to clinically treat mental illness and seeing the state as an extension of the individual, he knew well what a purely logical mind would lead to, sociopathy. Inevitably the state, like a sociopath, would reach all decisions as the aggregate of several cost-benefit analyses, wherein citizenry is one among many assets to be weighed.
This is not to say that all secular states behave this way, in fact none currently act purely in this fashion. There are still lingering vestiges of the old moral codes peppering their decisions. But these mores are rapidly deteriorating and every state, it seems, is in a race to achieve this pure secular ideal. Again the echoes stir, and now the ancient teachings are as poignant as the day they were inked on pages which sat long untouched, crumbling beneath the weight of age and the apathy for age this new world enjoins. The center collapses and society falls in upon itself, each aspect in his own capacity blames the others for his own fall, and those who blame the self for its own fall are silenced.
But truly, secularists should not be unnerved by all of this. A pure logician would see ethics and morality as a hindrance to logical deduction, based entirely in unobservable abstractions of the human imagination. Ultimately the secularist should care little weather people “believe” or not, this is no more than a variable to consider when formulating strategy to deal with such people. Religious fundamentalism maybe on the rise but this should be of no more concern than our changing climate. Each observable phenomenon has its cause and inevitable effect on the greater reality; so then the logician should work only to exploit the opportunities arising from these occurrences while checking their adverse consequences. This can be illustrated in the need for fire to survive, but the knowledge that all fire burns. A fool would become angry at the fire should it burn him. The logician would take steps to ensure she is never burned. Ultimately logicians should be detached. Thoughts of right and wrong are irrelevant consequences of differing perspectives, and all that matters are the goals and objectives they have set out to achieve. If nothing else, the beliefs of people would be seen as a set of rules that make a population more predictable. When one sees “secularists” arguing passionately against believing people or condemning the behavior of fanatics, it’s difficult to determine whether they are arguing for logic, or simply a belief in the “good news and tidings” of our times.
Whatever their true motives, one thing is certain. Whether through secularism or religion, humanity has achieved the same result and not much has changed, save the rhetoric.