[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
KRYNICA-ZDROJ — This little Polish town not only has a name hard to pronounce, but it is also quite difficult to reach. In order to arrive at this nice spa resort, you need to first fly to Warsaw, then take another plane to Krakow, and then drive for more than 200 kilometers.
Yet this long and winding – and nowadays heavily raining – road apparently does not prevent thousands of people to meet here every September for what they call “the Davos of Central-Eastern Europe:” The Krynica Economic Forum, which brings together top-level politicians including heads of state, and businessmen from Central Europe, the former Soviet Union and many other places.
This year I was in the “Turkish team,” assembled by TESEV, Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, and my job, to be frank, was to convince the Europeans that Turkey’s accession to the EU would be beneficial, not harmful, to the already packed union. Thanks to the presentations of other Turkish speakers, and to the careful and receptive listeners, I guess the message reached its audience.
Yet the most interesting exchange of views I have had in this ex-communist (but seemingly not-yet-capitalist) land was the chat I had with two lawyers– one from Poland, the other from Britain – in a cozy bar. Besides their success in their profession, and their obvious smartness, they shared a philosophical bent: Both of them were atheists, and they believed that religion has been an evil force throughout history. “People have killed each other in the name of God for centuries,” one of them passionately argued, “religion only brought us carnage.”
Killing for God
I hear that argument quite often from radical secularists. It bears, to be sure, some truth. Yes, we humans have killed each other throughout history during holy wars of all sorts. But, alas, in modern times, as we stopped confronting each other for God, we quickly found other reasons to battle for. Irreligious ideologies such as nationalism, fascism and communism have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocents throughout the past two centuries.
Actually the modern secular cruelty has reached such incredible heights that no major religion ever imagined. Hitler’s gas chambers and Pol Pot’s killing fields were unprecedented evils in human history.
Therefore it is obvious that men can kill each without appealing to God. Perhaps there is something in human nature to fight and, if necessary, to kill for whatever it deems valuable. That might be religion, but also ideology, tribe, nation, and, of course, simply wealth and power.
The other point that anti-religious evangelists fail to see is the contribution of the great faiths to humanity. The official rhetoric of radical Enlightenment tells about nothing but the “darkness” of the faith-driven middle ages – as its Turkish version keeps on bashing the Ottoman times – but the truth is much more complex. As historian Rodney Stark unveils in his tell-tale-titled book, “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery,” the Judeo-Christian heritage has contributed to not just some nasty episodes but also many significant advances in the history of Western civilization.
The same is true for Islamdom, too: It was thanks to the message of Prophet Mohammed that tribal Arabs created a world empire under which arts and sciences flourished. Under Islam’s golden age, between the seventh and 12th centuries, the Middle East became the world’s center of sophistication, and created or preserved much of the classical knowledge that the West would later embrace.
Islam also enlightened nomadic nations such as the Turks, who had little, if any, trace of science, philosophy, literature or architecture in their pre-Islamic times. The majesty of the Ottoman Empire would definitely not come into being had the Turks remained as pagan hordes.
One does not need to be a believer to see these great contributions of religions to mankind, or to appreciate the relief given by religious charities to millions of poor and needy people around the world. One just needs to objective.
Yet that is just what the radical atheists lack. Take Richard Dawkins for example, the world’s most famous atheist evangelist who notoriously calls religion a “virus” and faith-based education “child abuse.” The title of his documentary aired on the UK’s Channel 4 summarizes how he sees religion: “Root of All Evil?” The question mark is apparently an editorial touch, and the content only reflects Dawkins’s zealotry.
Here is the third crucial point that most atheists fail to see: Although they claim to follow nothing but “science and reason,” theirs is also a belief that one needs to take a leap of faith to accept. Agnosticism can well be a position based on pure reason, but when one becomes an atheist, he asserts that there is no God without any empirical evidence that he can refer to.
As philosophers Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek explain in their book, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist,” one needs a lot of faith to “believe” in the non-existence of the divine. And it is the atheist’s opium, to borrow a term from Marx, to regard this unsubstantiated faith as an established fact.
This should help us realize that atheism and secular philosophies based on it need be considered as faith systems, too. Moreover, like traditional religions, they can have their moderate and radical versions, and can be interpreted in peaceful and violent ways. Like religious fundamentalisms, there can well be secular ones.
This philosophical conclusion has an important political outcome. It shows that secular democracies should be neutral not only between traditional religions, but also between modern ones with atheistic foundations. Their secularity should not imply taking sides with anti-theistic philosophies.
In other words, they should be secular but not secularist regimes – a distinction that we desperately need to make in many countries, and, especially, in Turkey.