Take Me To Your Secular World

You may have seen James Wood’s review of the The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays […]

David Zahl / 8.11.11

You may have seen James Wood’s review of the The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now in the recent issue of The New Yorker. It’s a worthy overview of that most tricky of philosophical projects, namely, articulating the upside of Godlessness, the Good News of Secularism if you will, be it ethical, existential or aesthetic. I’ll say this: they’re certainly trying! Trying not only to conceptualize what a post-Christian world looks like, but to do so while steering clear of the “reductionism” of New Atheism and retaining a relatively charitable attitude toward religion. There’s not a whole lot to say from a Christian standpoint that Wood doesn’t say in his conclusion, i.e. there’s only so far you can go with any of this without it becoming a massive headtrip. But you can’t deny the irony of the difficulty in conceiving a “humanism” isn’t too dehumanizing…

Since the nineteenth century, the disappearance of God has often been considered elegiacally, as a loss or a lack. A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber asserted that the modern, Godless age was characterized by a sense of “disenchantment.” Weber seems to have meant that without God or religion modern man moves in a rational, scientific world, without appeal to the supernatural and salvific, and is perhaps condemned to search fruitlessly for a meaning that was once vouchsafed to religious believers.

Nowadays, elegy has probably yielded to a milder nostalgia—given popular form in Julian Barnes’s “Nothing to Be Frightened Of ” (in which the novelist confesses to not believing in God but “missing” Him all the same), and complex form in the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” (2007). In that enormous book, Taylor, a practicing Catholic, presents a narrative in which secularism is an achievement, but also a predicament: modern Godless man, deprived of the old spirits and demons, and thrown into a world in which there is no one to appeal to outside his own mind, finds it hard to experience the spiritual “fullness” that his ancestors experienced.

[Joy of Secularism editor George] Levine explains that the book’s aim is to “explore the idea that secularism is a positive, not a negative, condition, not a denial of the world of spirit and of religion, but an affirmation of the world we’re living in now; that building our world on a foundation of the secular is essential to our contemporary well-being; and that such a world is capable of bringing us to the condition of ‘fullness’ that religion has always promised.”

Using secularism to fill the enchantment void runs the risk of making it at best religiose and at worst merely upbeat and vacuously “positive,” and the danger is not always avoided here.

In other words, if you believe that God ordains morality—constitutes it through his will—you still have to decide where God gets morality from. If you are inclined to reply, “Well, God is goodness; He invents it,” you threaten to turn morality into God’s plaything, and you deprive yourself of any capacity to judge that morality.

[Columbia philosopher Philip Kitcher’s] essay is characterized by its humanity, and by its willingness to borrow from religion. He will get no reward from the Darwinian atheists for this, but he is keen to credit what religion does well, noting how it offers community, companionship, and strength in times of need, and how it has frequently inspired ordinary people to remarkable acts of charity and selflessness. He points out that many modern religious believers do not cleave to the kind of literal belief in God imputed to them by militant atheism. In order for secularism to have a wide appeal, he writes, it will need to become a secular humanism that is more than “blunt denial” but is as attuned to human need as religion has been, and as responsive to social injustice as the teachings of Jesus or Muhammad.

To take a central example, many religionists assume that life without God would be life without meaning. Where secularists cherish autonomy and choice as qualities that make life meaningful, religionists often emphasize self-abnegation and submission to a higher power. This would appear to be a wide gulf. But Kitcher suggests that religionists and secularists actually agree about how to create meaning in a life. Many believers think of their submission to God not as compelled, he points out, but instead as “issuing from the choice of the person who submits.” Life develops meaning because someone identifies with God’s purpose. This identification must spring from an act of evaluation, a decision that there is value in serving a deity whose purpose is deemed good. Believers, then, make an autonomous choice “to abdicate autonomy in order to serve what the autonomous assessment has already recognized as good.” Both atheists and believers are involved in making independent evaluations of what constitutes life-meaning. They draw different conclusions about what that meaning is, but they go about finding it in similar ways.

Ed. note: Sounds like the least convincing section of the book to me! A stretch, to say the least, and obviously not something that really applies to those of us that don’t believe in “choice,” as such.    

In a secular world, our meanings and values are thought to be generated by our minds and projected onto the world. For [Charles] Taylor, though, this “mind-centered” conception is a mistake. It doesn’t follow from the successes of post-Galilean science, he suggests, that our attributions of value are merely arbitrary. We can argue about them rationally, and some of them can be said to be “strong evaluations” of an objective state of affairs. By a “strong evaluation,” Taylor means a judgment so powerful and wide that, when someone else is incapable of sharing it, this suggests some limitation or inadequacy on his or her part. When our neighbor doesn’t agree with us that murdering scores of people at an island camp in Norway is wrong, we do not shrug and say, “Chacun ses goûts.” When Tolstoy calls Shakespeare a poor writer, it is a judgment that judges Tolstoy, and marks his eccentricity.

Altruism, for instance, may involve strong evaluation: we admire it as something larger than ourselves, and those who don’t share our admiration of it seem inadequate, or worse. But where are we left when evolutionary biology tries to reduce the strong evaluation we make about altruism by claiming that, like all animal behavior, it is just a contrivance that benefits our selfish genes?

The emphasis on “joy” and “fullness” inevitably asks secularism to provide what Bruce Robbins calls an improvement story—to bring the good news about the consolations of secularism. Yet Lily Briscoe’s (or Terrence Malick’s, or my philosopher friend’s) tormented metaphysical questions remain, and cannot be answered by secularism any more effectively than by religion. There are days when Philip Larkin’s line about life being “first boredom, then fear” seems unpleasantly accurate, and on those days I might be more likely to turn to a tragic Christian theology like Donald M. MacKinnon’s than to this book, in which the tragic or absurd vision is not much entertained. Thirty years ago, Thomas Nagel wrote a shrewd essay entitled “The Absurd,” in which he argued that, just as we can “step back from the purposes of individual life and doubt their point, we can step back also from the progress of human history, or of science, or the success of a society, or the kingdom, power, and glory of God, and put all these things into question in the same way.” Secularism can seem as meaningless as religion when such doubt strikes. Nagel went on to conclude, calmly, that we shouldn’t worry too much, because if, under the eye of eternity, nothing matters “then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” This is impeccably logical, and impishly offers a kind of secular deconstruction of secularism, but it is fairly cold comfort in the middle of the night.

Final note: I’m always a bit puzzled by the way people set up doubt and faith as opposites rather than, say, bedfellows. Then again, if they didn’t, they might not be expending so much energy trying to redeem secularism.