Secular Dogma

sj-sallyMoving on from individual religious experience, Mackie discuses religious histories. In particular, he discusses secular religious histories, and I find myself largely in agreement with his conclusions.

That is, Mackie rightly sees that all the most famous theories on the origins and social function of religion are far too reductionistic to be considered valid. They all seem to assume that, because they can point to a particular effect or use of religion, they have thereby explained all religion.

In pointing out these problems, Mackie makes a rather penetrating observation of Marxism:

“What is more, the characteristic Marxist over-optimism of expecting social conflict and alienation themselves to disappear after a proletarian revolution is itself best understood as a kind of secularized salvationism, the expression of a consoling illusion different, indeed, in specific content but not in general character from the vision of a supernatural ideal realm.”

This caught my attention, not because Marxism is terribly relevant to our current social context, but because similar observations can be made, in any time, of those who are most passionately anti-religious.

The current wave of anti-theists (the New Atheists) can be almost entirely understood as enlightenment-revivalists. Setting aside their lack of concern for what killed the enlightenment in the first place, the logical problems with its propaganda, and the horrific acts it spawned, it is worth noting that the same sort of secular salvationism does seem to have taken hold in this group.

There is a near-constant implication, after all, that the problems of humanity–threats of terrorism, oppression of the poor, lack of education–will be removed or greatly diminished so long as one can rid the world of religion. There is even, if one looks for it, an unspoken assumption that one can count one’s self one of the “brights”, one of the intelligensia, if only one can thoroughly embrace an atheistic way of thinking.

In both cases, we have a secularized salvationism–the first being social, and the second a matter of personal value and identity. This is not unlike the religious claim that devotion to God is beneficial to society and empowering to the individual.

Essentially, the emotional issues traditionally addressed by the world’s great religions are fundamental questions of the human condition. These needs cannot be removed from one’s nature simply by rejecting particular answers to them, or eschewing the trappings of religion.

A thoughtful approach, therefore, will not simply replace one consoling illusion for another–say, dogmatic religion for dogmatic atheism–but by taking an altogether more nuanced view of both these questions and the answers presented by the world’s great religions.

And that is where one must start (and where far too many refuse to start): asking these basic questions and examining the options available.

When one does this, the foibles, and sheer uselessness, of blunt materialism become much more obvious.

4 responses to “Secular Dogma

  • violetwisp

    What do you of secular humanism? You don’t seem to have covered that here and I would think it bridges the gap. You’re right that ridding the world of religion wouldn’t solve our inherent problems – some will argue it had it’s function as the opium. Replacing it with TV and alcohol doesn’t improve our lot.

    • Debilis

      I love the last line.

      You make a very good point in general. But, as to your questions, let’s see…

      I tend to agree with the behaviors recommended by secular humanism, but I don’t know of any answers regarding meaning of life or value as a person to be found in it. Surely secular humanists affirm these things, but I’ve never heard them offer any rational defense of them other than simple assertions.

      As such, I tend to respect secular humanists, insofar as they are genuine, but not have much time for secular humanism itself.

      Part of this is due to the fact that I see more function in religion than just as an opiate of the masses. It has a great deal to say about issues of meaning and value.

      And (geek alert) I can’t resist pointing out that the original claim by Marx was far more positive on religion than is typically assumed. At the time, opium was used primarily as a pain killer. In addition, he immediately follows “opiate of the masses” with “the soul of a soulless world”.

      That is, even Marx seems to be pointing out that religion offers resources not available in a secular worldview. As an atheist, he saw these offerings as pleasant fictions, but secular humanism doesn’t offer an alternative. If it is a “soulless world”, there is simply no other answer.

      This is the famous argument from nihilism: that, if atheism is true, there is no logically defensible meaning to be found in life.

      Tragic, to be sure, and there should be no implication here that atheists are any less kind or wonderful than other people. Rather, it is that, if atheism is true, we’re all equally worthless.

      • violetwisp

        Thanks, you inspired a post. Hope you don’t mind me quoting you. Feel free to pop over and comment or stay here and comment (John calls this your mother’s basement, hehe).

        If atheism is true, we’re all also equally worthwhile. I don’t know why ‘worthless’ would be the conclusion. We have value to those around us and we have value to ourselves.

        Is it correct that you believe in a god that created billions of little ants like us and wiped us out with impunity because he didn’t like us, and even after promising not to do that again, still promises eternal torture for most of his creation? I would be interested to know why you think this would demonstrate that we are of value.

        • Debilis

          Thanks! I’ll have a look at it.

          As far as the comment about worthless, I mean in any factual sense. Personally, I don’t see how the fear of being worthless (that we all face, from time to time) is calmed by an appeal to the subjective–particularly if we are going to insist that we only accept those things that are real or supported with evidence.

          To your bigger question, the short answer is “no”.

          Essentially, this would be a deep distortion at best. I believe that God created the universe, including life in it (in a metaphysical sense).

          But, first, I don’t believe that God “wiped us out”, because God preserves all life (that is the entire idea of the afterlife). To say that God “wiped us out while simultaneously making us immortal” does seem more that a bit contradictory.

          Second, it is nowhere in my theology that God “promises eternal torture” for anything, much less most of creation. Rather, the Bible warns that, as God is the source of all good, (factual) meaningfulness, and joy, separation from the same is horrifically, tragically painful.

          In simpler terms, Hell is separation from God. He is saying “you’re free to leave if you want, but I’d be cruel if I didn’t warn you that it’s literally Hell out there”.

          That’s not, I hasten to add, that I have any idea who is or isn’t going to heaven. Some who loudly proclaim God, I suspect, want nothing to do with the real being. And some who doubt what they’ve been told about Christianity will be very drawn to the actual God.

          That latter group has a lot to teach Christians, I suspect.

          But, what does this have to do with our having value? Rather a lot. It says that there is a factual standard of goodness that exists as more than a subjective feeling. Under this system, we are all equally worthwhile–as a matter of objective fact.

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