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A prayer for secularism

Oct 15,2018 - Last updated at Oct 15,2018

The other day I indulged in the long-delayed pleasure of seeing the film “Darkest Hour”, in which Gary Oldman ably played the role of Winston Churchill. The film deservedly won the Best Film Award and Oldman the Best Actor Award, because the movie portrays vividly Britain’s despair at the outbreak of World War II, as it stood alone, while its allies, one after another, fell under the yoke of Nazi dictatorship.

Without doubt, the ordeal of life under this ultra-nationalist dictatorship, and the horrors of the war helped to push Western European societies to shed their imperialist legacies and turn into the present secular societies that are leading the world in human rights. 

But today, as in those dark days when the lights were going out, Europe stands once again threatened with the spectre of rising ultra-nationalism (including neo-Nazi parties), xenophobia and populism. Today, ultra-nationalist parties are either the second most powerful bloc in parliament or coalition partners in government in a number of European democracies.     

It was too tempting to resist making a comparison between May 1940 and the present day, when I read the news that the UK has gone in the opposite direction by conducting a Race Disparity Audit, which showed widely varying outcomes in pay and career prospects between Britain’s white and ethnic minority populations in areas including education, employment, health and criminal justice.

To redress this situation, the prime minister launched a consultation that will run until January, on whether mandatory reporting will help address disparities between the pay and career prospects of minorities. This consultation is intended to allow businesses to share views on what information should be published, so as to allow for decisive action to be taken, while at the same time avoiding undue burdens on businesses.

Admittedly, the comparison is simplistic, but it serves to highlight the danger which the whole world faces from revisionist ideologies that threaten to undermine a century’s worth of achievements in liberalism, democracy and human rights. The danger of the rising tide of populism and ultra-nationalism is no less menacing to human rights today than it was in the 1930s.

And to make things worse, today the US is not necessarily on the side of the angels. Unfortunately, it has become mired in populism, partisanship and personality cult worship, to the point where it is showing behaviour normally typical of Third World countries. Besides, American society is not secular. 

Secularism is vital for preserving and promoting human rights for two reasons: The first is open-mindedness, without which it would be impossible to relativise your belief in the truth of your views enough to consider the opposite point of view objectively. The other is the universality of rights. Human rights are universal, not the prerogative of a closed community based on ethnicity, faith, race or colour. 

So, today things seem to move in the same direction as in the run-up to World War II. Ironically, humanity’s best hope is to pray for the triumph of secularism.


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