Tag Archives: Secularism

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.

Maintain the Ignorance

ignorance-is-bliss-1-quarterThe Religious Education Council for England and Wales has claimed that all children should be educated in the subject of world religion. The counsel wants to start even the youngest students in a curriculum on the subject, and (if the informal poll is to be trusted) most are opposed to the idea.

Personally, I’ve never considered the idea of teaching world religion to primary students, but I’ve long since been bothered by the fact that one can graduate high school with no more than cartoonish stereotypes as one’s knowledge of world religion.

Nearly any time I’ve raised the issue, strong opposition isn’t far behind. The most common response is the idea that a world religion class would simply be a devotional class in disguise.

And this, to be honest, mostly reveals a certain ignorance as to what religion and religious education actually are. Really, this is a little like saying that history shouldn’t be taught in schools because it would be imperialist propaganda in disguise. It is highly questionable, at best, that students learning about all the world religions will be more likely to uncritically accept the most familiar of them. From my experience, it’s far more likely that “exotic” religions will be embraced through these classes. 

But this all misses the point. The potential for problems is not a reason to stifle education. Indeed, this is one of the chief complaints that secularists have with religious fundamentalists: seeking to prevent children from being exposed to opposing ideas. Any platform preaching that it is best to keep young people ignorant is, in my view, on a slippery slope to some rather dark places.

It always surprises me, how indifferent is the reaction to the idea that we’re not educating young people in the beliefs of 90% of the world–as if one can have a robust understanding of history, art, politics, and sociology while remaining completely ignorant  of the beliefs that so often shape those subjects.

I think part of the problem is that many people find it hard to seriously entertain the idea that anyone could possibly want a religious education class for a reason other than to proselytize to students. It simply doesn’t matter how, or how often, you say “knowing something about the beliefs of other people is part of being an educated person”, what too many people hear is “I’m going to try to brainwash your child.”

And this is unfortunate, because it is precisely those who don’t want children to learn who are, however unwittingly, brainwashing children. I’ve run across many young people who are so immersed in white, western, post-enlightenment culture that they have a hard time fathoming that there are other ways of thinking and doing things. Whether or not one, at the end of the day, agrees with those alternatives, it seems undeniable that it is better to reject them out of knowledge, rather than ignorance.

When I was a child, I struggled desperately with the questions addressed by the major religions of the world. Though I couldn’t have expressed it then, I was deeply frustrated and hurt by the unwritten rule that we simply do not talk about life’s most important questions in a place that is supposed to be teaching me to think and ask questions. An atheist, I suspect, may even argue that I am a Christian precisely because, as I quickly learned, the Church was the only place available to me willing to have that conversation.

On occasion, one encounters an idea that, the more one thinks about it, the less sense it makes. This has been my experience with opposition to religious education.

It seems to be connected to the foggy idea that it is somehow acceptable to drift through life without ever seriously considering the most important questions as more than matters of personal opinion–or ever looking into what great thinkers of the past have had to say on the subject. 

Here, one begins to suspect that it is not ultimately fear that one particular religion (presumably Christianity) will be favored in such classes. It seems that it just might have more to do with a certain fundamentalism. A fear that one’s own views will be dismissed by a generation that is better educated than one’s self.

Whether this is true or not, it is hard to see how this is all that different from insular religious groups sheltering their children from outside ideas–something opponents of religious education claim to decry.

Never Mind How Many Died Last Time, Try it Again

thAtheist philosopher Bertrand Russell ends his speech “Why I’m not a Christian” with some glib, and rather offensive, distortions of Christianity. But, as I think I’ve already addressed any real point being made by them in earlier posts, I’ll skip to his closing remarks about what secularism can create:

We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage … It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.

This is a bold claim in the wake of the Reign of Terror and the First World War, and the best response to it, I think, is to ask how that project has gone since. Around the time of this speech, the world’s largest and greatest experiment at creating a purely secular society filled with intelligence, courage, and brotherhood was begun in earnest. That experiment was known as Communism.

And, a decade later, the advances of science were placed in the hands of a group obsessed with the highly respected theory of eugenics: the Nazis.

Now almost a century on, there is no evidence at all that a more secular world will result in any of the virtues that Russell names here. In fact, passionate anti-theists tend to be reduced to assuming, rather than showing, that secularism will help at all in fostering such virtues. Any dispassionate historian should be astonished to run across anyone insisting today that secularism is clearly what the world needs.

But still we hear exactly this kind of rhetoric. Many are trying desperately to revive the corpse of the Enlightenment without any heed given to what killed it in the first place, and without any contrition over the atrocities it aided. Indeed, the New Atheists tend to cast scorn on those who suggest that we all need to repent of something. They seem to take glibly dismissing past mistakes as a sign of strength.

For all the demands for evidence made by such a group, then, I think it is only fair that they produce some evidence that secularism is nearly so good for the world as they claim before expecting others to believe it.