Secularism is not the answer to fundamentalist violence

Religious fundamentalist violence is becoming increasingly pervasive and enduring in many parts of the world. In the past few years alone, we have witnessed horrendous acts of violence perpetrated by groups such as al-Shabab in East Africa, which is allied to al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, the West African branch of Islamic State, among others.

READ MORE: Why Al-Shabab targets Kenya— and what the country can do about it

They use religion strategically to advance political and social change. Their use of religion is based on a genuine conviction that it will provide solutions to social problems.

One could argue that while these groups have religious motives, they aren’t religious in their actions.

There have been attempts to deal with the problem of religious fundamentalist violence, and one such attempt is secularism. In my recent doctorate at Stellenbosch University, I drew on the ideas of German philosopher Martin Heidegger to argue that secularism provides a significant starting point in this regard, but it does not adequately help us to address the problem of religious fundamentalist violence — it has to be augmented.

Most religions provide a transcendental justification for worldly activities, for example, the belief that ethical actions in this world are necessary for eternal rewards in the afterlife.


The desire to carry out moral actions is believed to be influenced by God. This argument stems from the conviction that God is the creator of all good things, including the world. The world is often considered a place of sojourn and humans must strive toward the end, which is otherworldly. Religion plays a major role in the understanding of not only the world but also of life after death. It offers a moral and spiritual guide for people in their desire to make sense of the world and also provides answers to existential questions such as: Why were we created, what are we doing in the world and where do we go when we die?

Heidegger provides a different perspective to these questions. In his books Being and Time and What Is Metaphysics?, he maintains that human beings must return to the fundamental question (the question of existence), which he believes has been distorted by the desire to look beyond the very nature of the person posing the question. In other words, the question of existence posed by human beings must not be distanced from the nature of the existence of human realities. For Heidegger, the world itself is the essential starting point for addressing the question of existence.

He argues that our engagement with this question must rid itself of the belief that the answers lie beyond that which is presented within the phenomenon of human experiences. In other words, Heidegger insists that it is only within our experiences that effective interpretative tools can be derived. Phenomenology, simply understood, refers to the understanding of things as they appear to us, and how these things reveal themselves to us.

Heidegger emphasises that the world is the only reliable discursive space. He rejects positions that do not start from the world and return to the world. Conversely, religious views, although they address lived realities, may not necessary be worldly in their framework. This tendency informs some religious beliefs that sometimes legitimise acts of religious violence.

Heidegger does provide a legitimate theoretical model for addressing the problem of religious fundamentalist violence that emanates from a certain kind of religious disposition. He provides a secularist position that is critical of religious beliefs that seek to view human experiences from other-worldly religious perspectives. He limits human ability to the phenomenal. This position is valid in that it considers the lived world as a significant starting point.

But it reduces, as French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would argue, the nature of human experience to that which can only be ascertained by lived realities.

In addition, secularist views can promote violence, especially when world views are absolutised. Heidegger’s position risks being labelled absolutist in the sense that it imposes a particular world view. This is not to say that his position does not provide a significant starting point for addressing the problem that has been attributed to religious fundamentalist views. But it does not provide a sufficient solution for addressing the problem.

A solution to religious fundamentalist violence is neither a secularist view nor religious in nature; it entails a blend of both. On the one hand, Heidegger’s framework provides a significant and necessary starting point for reimaging religious views, especially views that are potentially dangerous. On the other hand, religious freedom must be promoted, especially as lived human realities are considered very important. A secularist position, with its emphasis on human reality as a starting point, must be reconciled with religious viewpoints to address the possibility of religiously motivated violence.

The way to combat religious fundamentalist violence is not through further secularisation or attempts to extinguish religious thoughts altogether, because they respond to a legitimate, authentic and enduring human need: asking about the ultimate meaning of human existence.

John S Sanni is a postdoctoral fellow in political theory at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research areas include African political philosophy, conflict studies, religion and politics, and contemporary philosophy

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John S Sanni
John S Sanni
John S Sanni is a postdoctoral fellow in political theory at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research areas include African political philosophy, conflict studies, religion and politics, and contemporary philosophy

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