Is secularism morally irrelevant? (Or worse?)

Back in the days of the European Enlightenment, sentiments like Denis Diderot’s “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest” rang true. Hotheaded and dangerously violent, yes, but I can sympathize. Get rid of the bloodsucking ruling class and their ideological enablers. You can see why opposition to organized religion once could be part a desire for broad-based social liberation. Secularism could once be an important part of standing up for the interests of the many against the oppressing few.

Later on, Marxism inherited this Enlightenment impulse. Especially outside the industrialized West, critiques of God and the local religion had (and have) a left wing flavor. Just recently, a secular Muslim acquaintance passed on “Why I am an Atheist,” a 1931 article by Shaheed Bhagat Singh, well-known as an Indian nationalist struggling aginst the British. It’s basically a Marxian version of the classic Enlightenment moral case against supernaturalism.

Ah, but we know what happened to Marxism. Criticizing the evils of capitalism and the religions that support a conservative social order is one thing, coming up with a new order that does better is another. Marxism was too often a substitute for religion that inherited all sorts messianism, fantasies of remaking human nature, and delusions of being a science of human societies.

But what happens after the early Enlightenment, after Marxism? These days, the whole notion of critiques of religion being tied to freedom for the many has to be a bad joke. If anything, non-fundamentalist religion is one of the few sources of opposition to a very secular politics of world-devouring greed. The religious, precisely because they believe in otherworldly values, can at least imagine trying to live differently.

Consider this. If you were to rephrase Diderot’s sentiments for today, would you really pick on religious figures? Yes, the Pope is an obnoxious bastard who, together with the hierarchy in the Vatican, condemns millions to misery with a principled opposition to people having sex for fun. Yes, you can find many a Muslim preacher ready to take half the world to the fire in his quest for religious purity. But can we really, with all honesty, say that a sentiment like “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest” is relevant today?

How about “People will never be free until the last corporate CEO is strangled with the entrails of the last Chicago School economist?” I mean, aren’t they the plunderers and ideological enablers of today? Aren’t we living in a time when ruling elites immiserate vast populations and devastate the environment in the name of good old-fashioned secular progress? Isn’t free-market fanaticism and overconfidence about economic “science” a distinctly Enlightenment form of lunacy, no less crazy than high-church Marxism? Are the usual preoccupations of secularists such as myself—natural science, free speech, separation of religion and politics—even relevant?

I don’t honestly know. But I am getting increasingly disillusioned with my own attitudes lately. I have spent a good stretch of my career thinking about science and pseudoscience, and trying to counter varieties of creationism. I have been involved with atmospheric physics, watching how the industrial civilization I enjoy has been screwing with the atmosphere with wild abandon. I have spent time on strange questions in physics which no one really cares about and likely won’t lead to anything. But in all this time, I wonder if the real lunatics I should have been concerned about had impeccably secular ideologies, if the more important pseudoscientists resided in business school buildings close to my offices.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • greg

    I’m tempted to think that if religion could just get past a few roadblocks, such as its hangups about sexuality and the evolution issue, then religion and secularism would get along much better. Science would reclaim its position of respect and everybody could start making the world a better place. But maybe I’m being naive.

  • exapologist

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • exapologist

    Hmmm… So let’s see. On the one hand, we have secular Canada and Western Europe — the most peaceful, tolerant, rational, progressive countries in the world at the moment, with the highest standards of living to boot, including minimal crime and poverty rates. They also kick our American asses in foreign aid on at least a per capita basis. And for some reason, they haven’t caught on to our “temporary, part-time, no benefits” trend in the U.S. They have no problem voting in minorities and females into office. They’re also the freest and most tolerant and progressive societies in the world.

    On the other hand, you’ve got the U.S. There are a handful of CEOs and billionaires of other sorts, and these fool the religious right to vote for people who further the interests of billioinaires by making sure their pro-economic-elite political candidates tack on some false promises about overturning Roe v. Wade, and other such bullshit. The result is the political and economic shit-storm of ever-increasing intensity we find ourselves in today, which includes, but is not limited to: a trend toward a “temporary, part-time, no benefits” job market, the massive polarization of the rich and poor, erosion of individual rights and liberties, a new effort to resume a cold war and arms race, unilateralism, military adventurism, and other horrific bullshit that prevents me from a sound night’s sleep.

    So do I think secularism is morally relevant? I’m tentatively going to go with ‘yes’.

  • Jim Lippard

    exapologist: I recall reading that while most millionaires supported George W. Bush in 2004, most billionaires backed Kerry. Certainly that’s true of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and George Soros.

    Canada is ahead of the U.S. on foreign aid as a percentage of GDP, but just barely–it’s #5 of the OECD nations while the U.S. is #7. The only western European nations ahead of the U.S. on the list are the top four–Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. #6 is Australia. In absolute terms, the U.S.’s contributions dwarf all of the others.

    While I think you have a point, I think you exaggerate it–for example, the U.S. is second to none on freedom of speech. I think the U.S. has generally done better at integrating Muslims into its society than Europe, as well.

    Next year, the U.S. will likely have a female president.

  • exapologist

    Hi Jim,

    I see your (nice!) points as well. However:

    i) While it is interesting that we give more on a non-per capita basis, I think the more interesting statistics are the per capita ones. For that seems to imply that it those secular countries *had* as much money as the U.S., they *would* spend more than we currently do on foreign aid in absolute terms. Also, the secular countries have a foreign aid policy that *makes sense*. A good chunk of American aid comes through private donations, and I understand that this sort of giving is much less effective than the government-based aid of the secular west. For (a) the bulk of private giving doesn’t get down to the people who need it, and (b) it leads to “giving fatigue”, where private donors stop sending their checks after several months, often long before the need ends, leaving the needy high and dry. By contrast, centralized aid is typically extracted from taxes, and thus ensures that the people who need the money continue to get it as long as they need it.

    (ii) While you’re right about our superiority with respect to free speech, it doesn’t seem to me that the credit should go to the religious among us. Indeed, it seems to me that the religious want free speech for them, and want everyone else to shut up if they have something to say that the religious don’t like (of course, this doesn’t apply to all religious people, or even all of religious conservatives, but to a large subset of the latter).

    (ii) Also, I want to make clear that I don’t think all is rosy in secular western europe. They have odd fascist and xenophobic tendencies in certain regions. But I wonder how much that has been encouraged by certain groups of Muslims mucking things up over there. However, I don’t know about this one way or the other.

  • exapologist

    … and of course I don’t mean to imply that such fascistic and xenophobic sentiments are *justified* if they’re based on the behavior of certain groups over there, Muslim or otherwise.

  • Jim Lippard

    I agree that a per-GDP or per-capita measure is a fairer comparison. I’m not convinced that government aid gets to the right place better than private aid–government aid tends to go government to government, and in places like Africa with serious government corruption problems, that aid doesn’t get to the right places. Private aid in the form of remittances goes directly to private individuals, and private aid through groups like AmeriCares goes directly in the form of food, medicine, and other assistance directly to the areas of greatest need. Compare AmeriCares and Wal-Mart’s actions during Hurricane Katrina to those of government.

  • Jim Lippard

    BTW, the October 20, 2007 _Economist_ reports an Economist poll by YouGov/Polimetrix that found that only 44% of those earning more than $150,000/year intend to vote Republican, and a Wall Street Journal poll last month found that “only 37% of professionals and managers identify themselves as Republicans or leaning that way.”

    I think that businessmen tend to be somewhat centrist, and throw their support behind whoever’s in charge (or they expect to be in charge) and making decisions that will affect their operations.

  • exapologist

    Yep, but I’m not really concerned in this thread with issues related to the Democrat/Republican divide (to the extent that it can meaningfully be said that there is one. fwiw, I’m neither; I’m a (Michael Albert-style libertarian socialist or a Schweikert-style market socialist depending on the day of the week, but I’d settle for a mixed economy of the sort had by a number of Western European countries).

    I don’t want to say that certain religious beliefs and institutions are the sole cause of American problems we’ve been discussing here, but rather that they’re a significant contributing (or perhaps enabling) cause. I tend to think that the deepest cause goes beyond religious issues completely, and lie primarily with the free market fundamentalism. My tentative big-picture diagnosis (and tentative is about the only sensible way to hold beliefs on such big and difficult issues) is that the owning and managing classes ensure, due to structural (i.e., non-conspiratorial) factors in our country, that their interests are enacted and preserved, and *one* of the many tools they use to ensure this is via manipulating that large subset of the american population labeled “The Religious Right”. They do this by supporting candidates — whether democrat or republican — who’ll have their interests in mind. One of the things they have to do to ensure that such people get in office is to get enough people to vote for them. And since the Religious Right are such a large and crucial sector of the voting population, they need to say things they like, e.g., that they’ll overturn Roe v. Wade, that this is a nation under God, etc.

    So again, on my view, it isn’t fundamentally a democrat vs. republican issue, or even a religious vs. secular issue, but rather a owning/managing class vs. everyone else issue.

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