How secular can we get?

Take a reasonably secular bunch of people. They don’t participate in the local religious rituals, have a worldly morality that pays no attention to what the religious leaders say, and are inclined to think of sacred stories as a boring genre of fiction. They don’t identify with any particular religion, think religiously colored politics is a really bad idea, and don’t spend much time worrying about “the meaning of life” and existential matters.

Yet I would guess a clear majority among such very secular people will be inclined toward one or more of the following:

  • If pressed, they will agree with sentiments such as “There’s got to be more than this to life” or “there’s got to be a reason for everything that happens.”
  • They will tend to interpret certain odd events in a paranormal, or what I’d call a low-intensity supernatural fashion. Perhaps more importantly, they will respond to anecdotes about paranormal events.
  • They will evaluate beliefs on pragmatic grounds, emphasizing therapeutic value rather than truth.
  • They will be mind-matter dualists, not just in the implicit, folk-psychological fashion that everyone is, but also in some more explicit contexts.

(I could extend the list, but you get the idea.)

None of this adds up to religiosity in any substantial way; it does not even bring us into New Age or “spiritual but not religious” domains. Yet I suspect that such minimal spiritual tendencies characterizes even very secular populations. We know something about what societies without widespread God-belief look like—we even have countries in Western Europe that come close. But we really have no clue what a society dominated by, say, a scientific naturalist outlook would look like.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14836159330093349474 icelander

    Some responses:

    If pressed, they will agree with sentiments such as “There’s got to be more than this to life”

    My usual response is “What more could you possibly want?”

    “there’s got to be a reason for everything that happens.”

    My wife has a huge problem with this. I totally disagree with her, but she sort of assumes that when, say, someone cuts her off in traffic, it’s a personal slight against her. I’m able to shrug it off as another random event in a crazy, random world.

    They will tend to interpret certain odd events in a paranormal, or what I’d call a low-intensity supernatural fashion. Perhaps more importantly, they will respond to anecdotes about paranormal events.

    I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at here. Back when our daughter was young and I was suffering from extreme sleep deprivation, I would hear things like church bells and people walking up and down the stairs. It didn’t think that the arrival of the baby had stirred up a ghost. I thought I was sleep deprived and hallucinating.

    They will evaluate beliefs on pragmatic grounds, emphasizing therapeutic value rather than truth.

    I must say I’m guilty of this. My wife’s friend was talking about how her grandmother was dying, but wasn’t afraid because she was going to see her dead husband in heaven.

    Who am I to challenge her emotionally distraught granddaughter when it will only make people more antagonistic?

    They will be mind-matter dualists, not just in the implicit, folk-psychological fashion that everyone is, but also in some more explicit contexts.

    This is another area where I’m… weird. My wife is a non-believer, shifting from atheist to agnostic on any given day, but still insists that our minds and our bodies are separate. I don’t. I think that our minds are all we are.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: Yet I would guess a clear majority among such very secular people will be inclined toward one or more of the following…

    I’m not actually sure if there *are* majority Secular populations anywhere – even her in Europe. Certainly not the way I think of Secular societies anyway! Maybe the question needs to be re-examined in a few hundred years. It’s still too soon to tell where Secularisation is taking us.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15849294669666882070 norm101

    Nope. No paranormal. No soul. Nothing. I don’t believe in anything else.

    Most of this is a conditioning echo. Those neural pathways were created with religious indoctrination, which is everywhere in society.

    It might be impossible to completely overwrite those pathways, some of which reside in a very primitive section of our brains.

    The desire for definition and explanation has been exploited since we were very young. “Do as you’re told or Santa Claus won’t visit.”

    Some all-knowing guy judges your thoughts. Your brain can betray you. Therefore, your brain and body can be separate.

    That doesn’t go away in a generation where advertising and marketing exploit those fears and beliefs.

    It might not be as declarative as saying you are religious, but it is certainly close to it.


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