Religion for the Secular

What do you mean Religion for the Secular? How does that make sense?

I am currently reading the story of Ibn Battuta’s travels throughout the Muslim world. A very educated scholar in his own right, the text speaks of his education and the education common to the learned men of his time. Among the subjects that are attributed to his education are law and legal theory, rhetoric, history, art, classical literature and texts, and architecture. In other words, he was primarily trained in fields of study we would collectively term Humanities.

In contrast the modern world, particularly the West, is in courtier of Hellenistic philosophy which values rationalism and objectivity over the non-tangible aforementioned disciplines. Compounding this, over time the Western world has witnessed its culture atrophied away and be replaced with the musical genius of the likes of Justin Bieber. Students are dissuaded from studying liberal arts — and for good reason, considering the unemployment rate of liberal arts students versus the hard sciences.

As the West’s culture erodes, corporations and cultural capitalists fill the with their own engineered and synthetic culture. Just one example is music. Music is no longer an organic expression of the human condition. Instead, it is designed by industry experts, who look for a pretty young face to perform their pre-written and pre-recorded widget-music, sometimes literally auto-tuning the human voice to further mechanize the sound. The objective is to design music for the masses to bring in the highest revenue.

Since culture is an expression of those non-rational components of the self, what’s left is a mind that not only lacks the ability to appreciate its own humanity, but belittles or aggressively attacks those who connect with their inner nature. Poets, genuine musicians, and religious experts are seen as “cute”, dismissed as belonging to a subculture, maligned and called “hippies”.

And in this backdrop do we find the secularist who struggle to understand the religious phenomena. He fails to distinguish between the non-rational and irrational by asking sophomoric questions such as, “Science has brought us progress, what has religion done?”, as if the questions of science are the same as the questions of religion. And to a degree, you cannot blame him. The Western mind is so infected with this strain of thought that even the religious among them beg acceptance from the scientific community by hunting for scientific justifications for miracles or reinterpreting religious texts as hints to scientific phenomena.

The issue is not that the secular mind has just not heard the right arguments to believe in God. It is that the secular mind simply does not have the tools necessary to understand the discipline. For the secular to understand religion, the Western mind needs to change its perspectives. But How? Below are just four examples.

The first is about re-orienting one’s approach to literature. Consider the Bible, an undeniably foundational text in Western civilization. Rather than reading the Bible with the eye of criticism, hunting for the inconsistencies and unhistories, look at the stories as examples of human experiences from which we can take valuable lessons. The Book of Job is not about God’s cruelty towards his prophet, as if there is a flat moral landscape between humanity and God. It is about Job’s unbreakable spirit in the face of extreme adversity. The Sermon on the Mount was told to a people who had immensely suffered under foreign oppression helped them purify their hearts of anger and hopelessness. The secularist can take from these and apply it to his own life. The goal is not to endlessly point to external factors, but to tame one’s inner state.

Another aspect is communication. Have you ever seen a beautiful landscape? Can you perfectly describe how beautiful it is, or objectively measure its brilliance? Sam Harris has the laughable notion that with enough explanation you can. People like him posit these types of absurd ideas because they divorce information from the human element, as if there is no difference between looking into the eyes of you wife and saying “I love you” versus sending the equivalent text message. Instead, recognize the differences, not through mere affirmation but through experience. Spend time with people you ordinarily talk to online, ask about their life, and understand them as human beings.

A third and perhaps most morally bankrupt conclusion of the secular mind is the preference of knowledge over wisdom, resulting in the disregard of the elderly. With time and life experience, people attain a clarity into situations that can never be attained from reading a book. But because this insight is rarely expressable as an absolute rule, it is rejected. This leads to a preference the accumulation of facts, mistaken as knowledge. And because knowledge in the modern world is constantly changing, those who cannot maintain, the elderly, are belittled and disregarded. Their council is not sought, instead they are seen as a financial burden waiting to die. One way for the secular to reconnect with their own humanity is to spend time with those who have accumulated a few more decades of life than you, present them with your problems and take heed of their advice. Take care of them while they are sick, be patient when they become angry or irrational and hope to be lucky enough to witness someone dying before you — it is not easy, but it works wonders. Over time, you will come to realize that some wisdoms, what the Sufis call Asrar (secrets), cannot be written on paper.

In my opinion, the most powerful skills that the secular need to develop is the ability to spend periods of time in silence and solitude. The modern world assaults the individual with constant sensoral stimulation in the form of TV, radio, music, sexualized imagery, etc. As a result, the individual’s focus is exclusively on the outward, caught up in distractions, and never on his own inner state. He never, for example, goes for a solitary walk in a park or spends a night alone without a computer or cell phone. At best, if he witnesses a sunset, he feels the compulsive need to take a cell phone picture and modify it with Instagram. When he cuts out the distractions and spends time alone, he forces himself to confront his inner-self, his humanity, focus on it and see what awakenings occur.

There are countless other examples of the modern erosion of one’s humanity. Other examples include the disregarding of food as material substances rather than recognizing it as an immense blessing, perceiving oneself as an individual free from obligations or humility towards his parents, the constructed convolution of gender differences to create an intellectual framework for denying what you are, recognizing clothes as genuine self-expression and not purely to chase forever changing trends, the nihilism of modern stories that are more about interesting events and never about morals, and much more.

I hope that through these exercises, the secular mind can grow to reconnect with his inner self, affirm his own non-rational humanity and use this as a bridge to either connect with God, or at the least understand the phenomena of religion.