Islam and the Secular Age: Between Certainty and Uncertainty
February 20, 2017
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Modernity was birthed in violence. It produced the nation-state, nationalism and with it a myriad of other “isms” which serve as new idols or heroes competing for people’s allegiances. Liberalism, feminism, Marxism, individualism, atheism, agnosticism, extremism, communism, capitalism, socialism, fascism, totalitarianism, racism - all competing ideologies which attempt to answer the question of what does it mean to be human and accordingly how should we live. The quest for human fulfillment is expressed partly in these competing “isms” which themselves are the results of schisms that were produced when the old world, also termed the pre-modern world, was replaced with the new, modern world. In the West, the search for the answer of what it means to be human began in the mid-17th century with the re-formulation of the Greco-Christian understanding of the human being, the soul, the world, and God. George Makari articulates the context quite eloquently and is worth quoting at length:
Later when ancient Greek thought merged with the Christianity of the Church Fathers, a soul-based view of human nature became one of the ruling conceptions of Western belief. In Christendom, the soul was the “knot of the universe,” the unifying link between nature, man, and God, and the single most prized human attribute. By the mid-17th century, however, these same beliefs were seen as a rich source of corruption, unceasing strife, terrorism, and cruelty of vast dimensions. For decades, Christian sects waged war with each other over competing claims regarding the soul and its salvation...While the soul and the psyche were once understood to be synonymous, some thinkers now advanced a radical idea. What if the mind was not so much spirit as it was bodily? What if thinking matter existed within human flesh. An object, this mind would still somehow house human subjectivity. Endowed by God, it still would be material, and therefore sicken and die...Once modernity gave birth to the theory of an embodied mind, the implications were grave. If it wasn’t the soul but rather a fallible mind that made men and women think, choose, and act as they did, then long-standing beliefs were erroneous. Convictions regarding truth and illusion, innocence and guilt, health and illness, the rulers and the ruled and the roles of the individual in society would need to change.
The last sentence is where I want to begin because the Enlightenment’s embodied mind theory not only led to the jettisoning of the soul and the rest of the transcendent world, but also a loss of convictions about truth and everything else. A climate of doubt and uncertainty prevailed and as a result humanity entered into a new era called the Secular Age. Secularism was therefore the first product of modernity and the Enlightenment.