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.