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Bertrand Russell and My Secular Odyssey

Sun, 1 Mar 2015 Source: Igwe, Leo

Leo Igwe

On Sunday 22 February, 2015 I had the honour of addressing a meeting of the Leicester Secular Society in the UK. The group started in 1851. It is the world's oldest secular organization. The meeting took place at the Secular Hall. The Hall was built in 1881. I was inspired by the long and rich history of secularism in Leicester and in the entire United Kingdom. It was a great delight to know that many distinguished personalities like William Morris, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and Annie Besant had addressed the group's meeting in the past years. Of all the past speakers, the person whose influence resonates most in my mind and memory is Bertrand Russell. I first read about Bertrand Russell when I was a young catholic seminarian studying to become a priest in Nigeria. Of course the books or essays by Russell are not what anybody would recommend to a person being groomed to become a priest. I read them any way and benefited greatly. As a teenager, I wrestled -and still wrestling- with those basic questions of life and meaning. One of the assignments we were given those days was to counter the arguments proposed by the likes of Bertrand Russell against the existence of God and other objections he raised and the reasons he gave on why he was not a christian.

Well I found Russell's his arguments persuasive and compelling. I could not figure out how to debunk them. So at the end of the day, countering the argument awakened my doubts and curiosity. Reading his book, Why I am not a Christian, inspired me to embark on an intellectual journey. This is a secular journey embarked on in a country that is one of the most religious nations in the world, a country where the competing influences of traditional religion, christianity and Islam have continued to hamper the evolution of a secular democracy and a secular state. I embarked on this journey on a continent that too often assumes traditional ownership of faith, magic and dogma not the canons of reason, science and critical thinking and other values that have shaped and sustained the secular enterprise. I commenced this journey in a region where secular values are too often adjudged western, alien and forbidden, where the racial card is used to opt out of the secular march; the racial wedge is deployed to frustrate secular advancement; and where anthropologists, sociologists and ethnologists have located the modernity of witchcraft.

Over the centuries, we have seen the secular wind blow across the world against the torrents and waves of divinization, christianization and islamisation of the public sphere. We have witnessed the secular movement grow and glow beyond borders, beyond cultures, secular values have been transmitted from one generation to another.

Secularism has not yielded to the dark and destructive influence of religious militancy and the holy wars of jihad or crusade and the contemporary imitations that are waged using the force of arms, of education, law and politics. Instead the march against religious privilege and extremism, the march for a society that is not define by the dogma of a particular religion or faith but the dignity of the human being goes on through defiance and debate, through stimulating cognitive dissonance, through free expression of ideas and fostering the values of enlightenment, yes through publishing cartoons or works of art which some may judge as offensive or insulting to a prophet or to a religion or to a god.

Yes the march for a secular world goes on.

Columnist: Igwe, Leo