The two secularisms

On the one hand, we will necessarily experience secularism as opposed to supernaturalism as involving a sort of lawlessness or absence of rules. There’s pretty good evidence (like the Princess Alice experiment) that people behave more morally when they believe that an invisible being is looking, and so we experience the absence of any such being as meaning that no one is watching the store.  My description is mildly tendentious: I could just as easily describe this aspect of secularization as the liberation from an immature slave morality, or as a Nietzschian possibility of creative rebirth, or as an awakening to our place in the universe. All the same, it is naive to underestimate the latent dangers in this aspect of secularization.

On the other hand, as the decades and centuries of secular life pile up, it’s hard to make the case that it makes persons particularly violent or lawless. Steven Pinker has been arguing this for years and the main thrust of his research (leaving aside some questionable sources and an overemphasis on the grotesque) is persuasive. The cliche-for-a-reason example of Sweden also deserves to be taken seriously.

Both sides of secularism strike me as factual, and so it would be a dead end to use one to “refute” the other. Some sort of moral basis is lost, and its loss does not lead to widespread loss of moral action. What theory will work to explain this?

We could just say that the moral law is written on the heart no matter what we decide to say about him. Whatever temporary thrill or abstract feeling we might get from feeling that no one is watching the store, we’re stuck believing in right and wrong, and in the concrete experience of lived life there is no actual escape from its strictures and commands. A religious person can take this writing on the heart as God’s or a Naturalist might take it as Darwin’s, but we’re stuck with it no matter what we choose to say about its possible supernatural warrant.

Running along side of this explanation we might wonder if desire to preserve ourselves from moral chaos is a worthy basis for a morality if morality is really based on relation to a divine person. Presumably, if a person is the ultimate source of morality, he would balk at having persons only recognize him because they would collapse into social anarchy without him. Personal relations cannot ultimately stand on such motives of social utility – to think that they could makes the god seem more like a primitive idol demanding sacrifice to ward off crop failure.

For the religious person, at least, the lesson of secularism is that the loss of a moral basis leads to the loss of something more subtle and profound than respectable work-a-day social order. Given the benefits of secularization, the religious person might even wonder if it was providential. At any rate, God has not arranged things such that all will collapse into chaos if we cease believing. What now?



  1. E.R. Bourne said,

    December 10, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    James, although our worst imaginings certainly have not come to pass (I think many Americans have in their mind something akin to a zombie apocalypse), I would definitely say that our civilization has either collapsed or is in the terminal stages.

    Americans, the people with whom I have the most direct experience, are a generally barbarous people. Men and women from earlier generations do not stay married, those from younger generations are fleeing from the institution. Abortion is rampant, which is at least as barbaric as any cliche historical atrocity. Our government is engaged in the mass killing of innocent people in other parts of the world, and we support brutal murderers in multiple countries.

    Our cities are not safe places. In my own city, we pretend that crime is low because we compare it to the sixties and seventies, a comparison that would make Iraq look tame. Metropolitan areas all over this country have criminal underclasses that utterly depend on the government while preying on each other and more civilized middle class people.

    I do not even have to discuss our popular culture or our crass materialism, and my point is not to just rant about how bad I think things really are. I am saying that it is easier to see a dystopia when it is in a fantasy setting, but the numbers and the trends suggest that we basically are living in a collapsed or collapsing society. That I still can get cheap fuel or electronic goods is irrelevant.

    • December 10, 2013 at 5:15 pm

      Right, but Pinker would argue that that’s still an improvement over past ages, and I think he’s substantially right.

  2. Martin said,

    December 11, 2013 at 3:12 am

    “We live in a functioning plutocracy” Philip Blond. Respublica.
    ‘The Memo Citigroup Didn’t Want You to See’

    Could be that, as PBXVI wrote, Christian moral capital is almost completely spent. Which could mean alternately that serious issues might be obscured for much longer.

    In our case secularism, reconciling the world to legal human sacrifice, Roe v Wade, around the time end of Bretton Woods gold-dollar to petro-dollar, and now enormous money printing, might have brought us to catastrophic failure. What really will happen when countries no longer buy US debt? A well watched YT on global currency/petrodollar/US Treasury bonds .There’s also Richard Duncan, author of ‘The New Depression’, IMF/World Bank economist explaining creditism has only a few years left.

    Stephen Pinker deliberately refuses to look at the industrial mass murder of abortion right under his nose, and so can’t see the demographic time bomb and civilisational collapse it causes. It is the very thing the people he moves with in Manhattan, as court philosopher, have created and simply can’t face. Lasch wrote that the standard liberal caricature of religion:

    “. . misses the religious challenge to complacency, the heart and soul of faith. Instead of discouraging moral inquiry, religious prompting can just as easily stimulate it by calling attention to the disjunction between verbal profession and practice, by insisting that a perfunctory observance of prescribed rituals is not enough to ensure salvation, and by encouraging believers at every step to question their own motivations. Far from putting doubts to rest, religion has the effect of intensifying them. It judges those who profess faith more harshly than it judges unbelievers. It holds them up to a standard of conduct so demanding that many of them inevitably fall short. . . . For those who take religion seriously, belief is a burden, not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. Self-righteousness, indeed, may be more prevalent among skeptics than believers. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion.”

    Without a critical mass of people at least some way along in the above training:

    If the economy should take a really serious downturn for any period of time, the narcissistic pain of large numbers of Americans, who believe that life owes them an active consumer life of self-realisation, would become overwhelming. And its political expression would become frightening, for we would have to find scapegoats to blame and punish. No doubt we would find the political leaders who would know how to take advantage of our victim psychology.
    Paul C. Vitz ‘Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self Worship’ p87

    In other words, we know the great aper of God and his kingdom must at least resemble peace as you have written before, even if it is built on the corpses of babies.

    • December 11, 2013 at 8:26 am

      Well, if the whole secular system collapses tomorrow, this would count as a data point. The verdict will never be totally in on whether secular society can ultimately keep off the loss of a transcendent moral basis from total chaotic collapse. The apocalyse could alwasy be tomorrow, and there will always be indicators to think it’s coming.

      That said, if your main point is that secular society is set apart by a peculiarly high desire to kill innocents or to fall into economic folly and narcissism, I’m not sure that this is right. The orphanages of, say, Rousseau’s time sure appeared to get the same practical result as an abortion mill, and it’s hard to think we are all that morally worse when previous ages never had to deal with the fact that their kids would dependably survive. Most of all, however, in reading older lit, it’s hard to avoid the idea that if you didn’t want the kid to live, a mild amount of neglect was all you needed to kill it off (I’m thinking of the story of Gruchenka’s mother in Tolstoy’s Resurrection). This is, of course, infanticide. We have no numbers to compare this abortion-by-neglect to what happens now, but I’m not convinced that the percentages would be all that different. And even if we have gotten worse in this area, we still have made great moral advances even in “life issues” – dueling is all but eliminated, Westerners selling their kids into prostitution is over (think of Sonia in Crime and Punishment), we occasionally flirt with torture, but nothing like what it was in the pre-Enlightenment world, etc.

      True, this doesn’t touch on your points of economic folly or narcissism. I’d be most willing to accept the necessity of secularism being narcissist – economic folly seems more universal.

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