Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Have You Encountered Secularism?

Have you encountered secularism? It is a growing, if not dominant, religious viewpoint in the west and affects all of our lives. Sadly, there are many fallacies that go along with it and we need to be careful to detect them and defeat them.

For starters, check out Hunter Baker's interview with Sarah Harland-Logan at Harvard Political Review. The article by Harland-Logan did not fully represent the original interview. Here are some excerpts:
-What exactly is secularism about?  Why have so many people turned to this idea/ideology in the last few decades?
Secularism is about removing religion/consideration of God from public life.  The desire to do so does not have to be invidious.  Those who embrace secularism, including many Christians, often do so because they believe it is a good answer to the problem of religious difference among people in a political community.  They think that if they can remove differences among people, especially religious differences, our community will grow stronger.  At the same time, secularists tend to see religion as something human beings once needed, but no longer do.  They think religion is irrational and extraneous to the things that really matter in life.
On the other hand, some types of secularists are less well intentioned in their efforts to remove religious faith from public life.  Secular totalitarians (such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and others) have the desire to marginalize religious belief and institutions because they are potential roadblocks to enforcing the will of the state.  They would prefer there be no intermediary institutions between the state and the individual.

-You argue that the assertions made by secularists routinely fail.  Would you be able to provide an “executive summary” of what you see as the principal assertions made by secularists, and why exactly each one fails?

Sure, this is the heart of my book, The End of Secularism, so I encourage people to read it and engage the arguments in fullness.  But there are two prongs of argument that I think are very important.
The first is that secularists argue religion should be kept in the private domain because our society will be more socially harmonious as a result.  This is an admirable hope, but I think it discounts how important religion is to people.  Individuals bring their religious beliefs to the public square because they have integrity.  They want to provide their real basis for a stand they take rather than formulate a false one that meets some secular language requirement.  And we already have a built-in limit on religious language and philosophical stands.  They must be persuasive or they will fail.  If someone comes in quoting obscure sections of scripture without building any connection to reason on a public issue, they won’t be much listened to.  I suspect many secularists think pro-lifers are guilty of doing that, but in fact, they are relentlessly rational in making their argument.  You may agree or disagree with it, but it is not some kind of inaccessible argument that you could never understand if you weren’t religious.
The other problem with the social harmony argument, which is well-exposed by postmodernism, is that secularists are human beings and human beings have all kinds of orthodoxies (religious or not) to which they cling.  Secularists are a team on the field of public debate who want to don striped jerseys and call penalties, as well.  They can’t be neutral even though they claim to be.
The other key assertion is that secularists think they have a corner on the use of reason.  Secularists sidle up next to science and say, “We’re the natural allies of science.  Religious people are the enemies of scientific rationality.”  That’s a publicity campaign, not the truth.  Christians, for example, want scientific knowledge everywhere they can get it.  It’s the best kind of knowledge we can have in many areas of life and we would be foolish not to rely upon it.  Augustine made that argument many centuries ago.  Too often religious opposition to some use of science (such as embryonic stem cell research) is confused with an opposition to science, itself, as a way of knowing.  The reason for the somewhat insincere publicity campaign is that it is an effective way of marginalizing religious people.  If an audience can be made to believe that Christians reject science, then they must not be rational people.  And if people aren’t rational, then there is no need to listen to them.  In fact, they may need their children taken from them, as some secularists have semi-seriously suggested.
There’s another critical point to think about.  Secularism mostly has to do with separating politics and religion.  I’ve already suggested that the separation of church and state is adequate and that separating politics and religion goes too far.  Part of why secularists are wrong to attempt this isolation of politics from religion is because we cannot justify our basic political commitments without going beyond pure scientific rationality.  For example, consider the idea of equality.  How are we equal?  The Federalist Papers point out that we could drag everyone back to the starting line of life and eventually people would sort back out in low, middle, and high because they have different gifts, talents, interests, etc.  But we are committed to equality.  In the western world, where we value equality more highly, the basis of this idea is equality before God.  You can try to create another foundation for it, but I think even John Rawls’ version sounds like a conversation in heaven at the beginning of the world.
-If secularism actually damaging to the culture/the individual (as opposed to merely unpersuasive and/or unsustainable)?
I think the small threat of secularism is that it marginalizes religious people and groups and causes them to feel resentment.  Thebigger threat of secularism is that it removes the church as an effective counter to the state.  Rousseau complained that the church caused people to have a conflict between two masters which are the church and the state.  But he failed to consider that having a counter to the government can be freedom-enhancing and protect against the development of totalitarianism.  That is why Hitler was so keen to gain control of the church in Germany.  He knew it could stand in his way.  Of course, the part of the church that did, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were killed.  Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, was part of a Polish church which worked for the freedom of the Polish people against the secular Soviet-sponsored state.
You can read the whole post here. You can also obtain Hunter Baker's book here.

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