The Future of Secular Values

At a conference held three weeks after the September 11th, 2001, I spoke on secular values in the context of a discussion on “Asian values and Japans’ options”. My view about Asian values is that there is nothing substantive in them. The political references to them represent merely new versions of an older dichotomy. Their roots could be found in ideas concerning the Occident and the Orient; East and West. The Japanese had made an early contribution to this dichotomy by using Toyo (Eastern Ocean) and Seiyo (Western Ocean) and influenced the Chinese to adopt the same terms, Dongyang and Xiyang. The word “Asian” is a post-World War II revision of the word “Oriental”. In any case, both sets of alternative terms were really derived from European usage.

The recent manifestation of “Asian values” is a reply to American-led pressure on some Asian governments following the end of the Cold War, during which another dichotomy, that of (Western) capitalism and (Eastern) communism, had supported the notion of a “central balance” in world politics. That pressure was accompanied by a note of triumphalism that seemed to underlie a new mission to civilise the world in secular terms, for example, the focus on democracy, human rights and a free global market economy. The Asian response recalls for us the original Japanese and Chinese use of ideas about (Eastern) foundation (ti) and (western) application (yong) prevalent at the end of the 19th century. The stress on the ti may be traced back to the 19th century idea of kokutai or guoti (National foundations) which the new Western learning could be used (yong) to defend.

Understandably, recent events lead us back to Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”. Are we now facing a conflict between Christian and Islamic civilisations in which the East Asian “Confucians” would have to chose sides? Huntington is misleading in his use of the word “civilisation” and, perhaps even more so, in suggesting some sort of collaboration between Islam and Confucianism. As a political scientist, he was primarily describing the continuation of Great Power relations that would turn back to an older set of divisions derived from different religious traditions and value-systems. The struggle that he envisaged, however, would really be driven by secular power where the West was concerned, and this would be governed by a scientific and humanist spirit.

It is this secular drive that characterizes our age. This is where the image of civilisations as power players in global affairs rings false. The major value systems in the world today are each quite distinct in their respective relationship with secularism. These distinctions would be better understood if the value systems are recognised as having three different sources.

Firstly, the monotheistic religions. The two dominant variants of these are those with strong mission values. One is Christianity in its several forms. The other is Islam in at least two main divisions. What they both have in common is the mission to bring the only true God (that is, the only Truth) to the world. This has been the source of the continuous rivalry between them. In modern times, the major division has arisen from their very different attitudes towards the rise of secularism. With Christianity initially resisting but eventually accepting the separation of Church and State, secular values reached mainstream status among all states with Christian backgrounds. With Islam, this road has been all but impossible to take, despite the efforts of individual political leaders, intellectuals and scientists who recognise the secular basis for the modern world. How to be secular without losing one’s faith in Islam has met with too many obstacles. The answer for many today seems to be that protecting Islam is preferable to the material benefits of secular values.

Secondly, the “South Asia” religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. These emphasise values based on concepts of inward purity, either via many gods and many castes, as in Hinduism, or in variations permitting Buddhism to migrate and take root far away from home. In rejecting God or gods, this Buddhism may seem to have been somewhat of a heresy, but in essence, it still focuses on an inner tranquility that derives from the same source as Hinduism. The point to emphasise here is that, while neither of these religions has pushed for secular solutions to the world’s problems, they are both able to tolerate and embrace secular values that they see as being no threat to their core doctrines.

Thirdly, there are the secular faiths that were derived from the ancient Greco-Roman world and East Asia. Both have undergone transformations during the past two millennia. The new phase of these faiths is now led by Western Europe and its extensions in the Americas and Australasia and its offerings are being emulated to a greater or lesser extent in East Asia. But their separate origins are still important enough to create a strong tension between them. Both would claim the universality of the secularism they represent, with one largely claiming this through a scientific and legal spirit embodied in free individuals, and the other through an emphasis on social morality and harmony.

Let me add that the Greco-Roman spirit in itself had lost its way and had to be reborn by its recovery among Christian scholars. Therefore, it has been modified by, and has modified, Christian mission values. On the other hand, it has not succeeded in modifying Islamic mission values despite the fact that the classical texts that represent that spirit were well-known to early Muslim scholars. The Christian success was greatly stimulated by the church-state separation after the Renaissance. This provided the necessary condition for intellectual elites to advance the scientific & technological revolution that has shaped the modern world today.

As for Confucian moral secularism, the idea of shishu (being of this world) had also been found wanting by the end of the Han dynasty (3rd century, A.D.). It, too, had to be rejuvenated by religions that met the spiritual needs of the people. It was challenged and then modified by the Mahayana Buddhism that was brought from India, as well as by other faiths that remained popular among the majority of people who lived under Confucian principles of secular rule. The Confucian-Buddhist cosmology underlying the idea of rule by virtue did not require a dichotomy between God and Caesar, rendering it unnecessary for the separation of Heaven and Ruler. Hence the lack of binary centres, which differentiated the Chinese value system from that of Europe. While inspired by secular goals, different kinds of inclusive institutions were developed for their achievement.

Given the three dominant value systems in the world today, my thoughts on the future are as follows:

1. There are clearly no sets of values that are purely secular. Spiritual needs have to be met and secularism has been enhanced by at least two religions, Christianity and Buddhism. The question is whether their secularism has risen above the religions that had nourished them or whether they would remain divided by the different moral and spiritual roots that cannot be easily reconciled.

2. In modern times, secular values are considered to be universal. However, they have been selectively used by nation-states, each often claiming to be supported by the divine guidance of inherited religious traditions. This has been the source of continuous conflict, especially among Great Powers that sought imperial dominance and fought two World Wars. As a result, national secularism has steadily undermined the universal features of the value system.

3. Nevertheless, secularism was so dominant that it had no credible enemies from the traditional religions for more that two centuries, especially during the five decades since the end of the Second World War. The arrogance of the secularists led to a civil war between the two power groupings, capitalism and communism, which divided the world and asked the world to believe that the victor would have the Truth. When one side did eventually win, the triumph of global capitalism may have appeared final to some, but also exposed to many people the destructive capacities of secular ways.

4. It is in this context that older religions and their modern revivalist manifestations have begun to find their voice. Resistance against the secular had remained weak for centuries. Of late, it has found its strength in a fundamentalist defence against secularism that feeds on some of the glaring results of the secular civil war that we have just been through, notably where rich and poor seem further apart than ever, where narrow and selfish national interests have been paramount, and where the powerful exercise double standards for their own gains. Skepticism of the very basis of secular power has grown and calls for mission zeal to resist that power is being heard again.

5. When secular values are globalised and their limitations exposed, they are challenged by a global opposition. For many, a new dichotomy is needed to highlight the spiritual vacuum that many people feel. Therefore, they stress values that contradict the secular in order to dramatise a growing desperation that is seeking to gather strength world-wide.

6. The West and East Asia are the two nodes of modern secularism. It appears that the West is confident of its own set of secular values. Japan and China each tried to improve on the alternative versions they had, the former by adopting specific institutions from Western Europe and the United States early, and the latter ultimately choosing the “Western heresy” of communism. They are both seeking to redefine what they have accepted of modern secular values as ti (foundation) by using (yong) what they can of their past to minimize the spiritual damage to their peoples.

7. Finally, where is the future of secular values headed? There can be too much secularism. When Greco-Roman and Confucian values were dominant in their respective regions, they both failed. The former could have been revived by Islam, but were only rejuvenated by a divided Christianity. Confucian values were reinterpreted through a unique blend of Buddhist and Taoist ideas and regained a dominance that they retained until the 20th century. These comparisons suggest that secularism by itself cannot satisfy the human psyche. But what can soften and rescue modern secularism today? Christianity and the South Asian religions have contributed to a balance of secular and spiritual values, but sections of Islam have been alienated, not least by a perception of a persistent crusading bias against it. Obviously, the issue of Muslim-Christian tensions is too complex to be dealt with here. But it is unlikely to be solved by portraying the Confucian East as allying with Islam against a Christian West, least of all by driving that East to help Islamic states against a missionary secularism led by a dominant West.

One thing is clear. A divided secularism can be easily challenged. By itself, letting religion back in is not the answer. The greater and more urgent need is an objective re-examination of the roots of modern secularism. Most important of all, secularists will have to admit that there are fundamentalists among them too, including those who couch their faiths in terms of sovereign nationalist interests or insist that only their claim of universalism is valid and all others must conform to their standards. Today the proponents of secularism must consider how they can eschew the fundamentalism that has divided them. Without sufficient attention to spiritual needs, especially of people in the poorer nations in the world, secularism does not deserve the respect it has had so far.