For the majority of people in secular society, martyrdom is something that is most frequently associated with religious fanaticism. Many who do not hold religious beliefs assume that martyrdom is an act of self-sacrifice that is only committed under the naive and misguided assumption that there will be the reward of a better afterlife. However, I doubt that simply the promise of an afterlife would be enough to motivate many, if any, religious individuals to sacrifice themselves in such a way, as the concept of afterlife alone is entirely contradictory to everything we know. Alternatively, if religious individuals did believe in a literal afterlife so strongly, then presumably acts of martyrdom would occur far more often.
I think that religion works best as a system of beliefs and values, communicated through figurative stories, that can then go on to impact on peoples’ lives. Treating religious doctrines or biblical stories as literal, rather than metaphorical, brings them onto a plane where they become contradictory and invalid. My view is influenced by the likes of Wittgenstein, Tolstoy and Simone Weil. Religious beliefs make far more sense to me when seen as something emotional, operating separately from what is literal and material. This doesn’t make them any less significant, as these beliefs go on to have a massive effect on how people think, act and live. This also makes religious martyrdom more understandable as a situation in which an individual believes in a set of values so strongly that they are willing to put their values before themselves, meaning that a martyr does not necessarily have to be religiously motivated; the act just needs to be backed by a strong sense of principles.
The Apology, written by Plato, is a perfect example of this kind of irreligious martyrdom. It is alleged to be a historically accurate account of Socrates’s trial, in which he was sentenced to death. In the Apology, Socrates is accused of intentionally corrupting the young and not believing in gods. He disproves these allegations through his trademark Socratic interrogation, but this is not enough for him to convince his jurors of his innocence. The main problem is that he has an unpopular reputation with the majority of the jury who have been told slanderous stories and rumours about Socrates since they were children. This slander is unfounded and only believed by those who have never spoken to Socrates, but it has still turned most of the people present at the trial against him. Socrates has not been given enough time to rid his jurors of these false beliefs; he can only save himself through rhetorical means, such as appealing to their sympathy, but to do so would contradict his philosophy.
Essentially, Socrates has been falsely accused of impiety, but to be found innocent he must act in a way that he deems impious. Because of this, he refuses to rhetorically manipulate his jury and allows them to autonomously reach their verdict, which means that they find him guilty. If this account is true then Socrates sacrificed his life for his philosophical beliefs, rather than for any particularly religious reasons. He did so because he knew that fleeing or manipulating his jury in order to save himself would only serve to undermine his philosophy, whilst sacrificing himself would make it far stronger.
Edward Snowden’s actions in 2013 involved a similar kind of sacrifice. He may not have gone as far as martyrdom but, by publicly revealing himself to be the source of the NSA leaks that he was responsible for, he sacrificed his own freedom and wellbeing. He leaked classified information because he wanted to demonstrate that the American government were involved in activities that he considered to be immoral, and he refused anonymity because he did not want the search for the “perpetrator” to take media coverage away from what he had revealed.
Snowden was also willing to give himself up to the US authorities, but was later persuaded to seek refuge in Russia by Julian Assange. If he had allowed himself to be arrested then the significance of his sacrifice would have been even greater, as he would have been imprisoned as a traitor, even though he acted mainly out of concern for the American people. Instead, by seeking temporary asylum in Russia, his sacrifice is limited, as it allows those who dislike Snowden to portray him as a traitor and an enemy of America.
Whether it is worth making a sacrifice of this kind is a question the can only be answered subjectively. In the cases of both Socrates and Snowden, no huge changes occurred as a result of their actions. On the other hand, it is unlikely that either would have been able to continue living happily if they had acted any differently. In other cases (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Emily Davison are just a few examples) similar acts of sacrifice have gone on to help change the world. Martyrdom may not have to necessarily involve literal religious beliefs, but traditionally religions also concern themselves with encouraging individuals to transcend their humanity. The actions of Socrates, Snowden and countless others, all of whom have sacrificed their wellbeing for what they believed in, are certainly religious in this sense. To give up your life as you know it, for something you believe in, is an act that is nothing short of superhuman.