August 28, 2011


Is That All There Is?: Secularism and its discontents. (James Wood, August 15, 2011. New Yorker)

Since the nineteenth century, the disappearance of God has often been considered elegiacally, as a loss or a lack. A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber asserted that the modern, Godless age was characterized by a sense of "disenchantment." Weber seems to have meant that without God or religion modern man moves in a rational, scientific world, without appeal to the supernatural and salvific, and is perhaps condemned to search fruitlessly for a meaning that was once vouchsafed to religious believers.

Nowadays, elegy has probably yielded to a milder nostalgia--given popular form in Julian Barnes's "Nothing to Be Frightened Of " (in which the novelist confesses to not believing in God but "missing" Him all the same), and complex form in the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" (2007). In that enormous book, Taylor, a practicing Catholic, presents a narrative in which secularism is an achievement, but also a predicament: modern Godless man, deprived of the old spirits and demons, and thrown into a world in which there is no one to appeal to outside his own mind, finds it hard to experience the spiritual "fullness" that his ancestors experienced.

"The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now" (Princeton; $35), a new collection edited by George Levine, the scholar of Victorian literature, attempts to counter such moping and mourning. Levine explains that the book's aim is to "explore the idea that secularism is a positive, not a negative, condition, not a denial of the world of spirit and of religion, but an affirmation of the world we're living in now; that building our world on a foundation of the secular is essential to our contemporary well-being; and that such a world is capable of bringing us to the condition of 'fullness' that religion has always promised." It is a valuable project, though not without its difficulties. One problem is that it's not always clear what Levine and his contributors mean by secularism. Some of the time, I think they mean just atheism or practical agnosticism (i.e., living without appeal to, or belief in, supernatural agency). Such a life is, of course, civically compatible with the continued existence of organized religion. More often, the working definition here is of secularism as a historical force ultimately triumphant and victorious: a vision of the future as an overcoming of religion.

Another difficulty is that, whether or not people did feel full or enchanted in centuries past, religion cannot be identified with the promise of fullness or enchantment. Both Christianity and Islam harshly challenge the self with an insistence on submission, sacrifice, and kenosis--an emptying out of the self, an exchange of the wrong kind of fullness for the right kind of humility--and Buddhism seeks to undermine the very idea of the sovereign, unified self. Revolutionary asceticism, which is what these religions in different ways embody, could be said to be hellbent on disenchantment.

Using secularism to fill the enchantment void runs the risk of making it at best religiose and at worst merely upbeat and vacuously "positive," and the danger is not always avoided here. For the most part, though, the book valuably works over middle ground, the space vacated by both dogmatic religionists and dogmatic atheists. It is tolerant of, and even interested in, the varieties of religious practice, and maintains an engaged and equitable tone of voice. We might call this the New Secularism. All these qualities are found in the book's first essay, by the Columbia philosopher Philip Kitcher, who establishes many of the terms of the larger discussion. Kitcher dislikes what he calls "Darwinian atheists" (that is, the New Atheists), who too often "think that once the case against the supernatural has been made, their work is done." He implies that philosophy must combat and educate common religious prejudice and, by example, suggests that it is more likely to do this effectively than journalism or propaganda.

Many people, for instance, believe that morality is a deliverance of God, and that without God there is no morality--that in a secular world "everything is permitted." You can hear this on Fox News; it is behind the drive to have the Ten Commandments displayed in courtrooms. But philosophers like Kitcher remember what Socrates tells Euthyphro, who supposed that the good could be defined by what the gods had willed: if what the gods will is based on some other criterion of goodness, divine will isn't what makes something good; but if goodness is simply determined by divine will there's no way for us to assess that judgment. In other words, if you believe that God ordains morality--constitutes it through his will--you still have to decide where God gets morality from. If you are inclined to reply, "Well, God is goodness; He invents it," you threaten to turn morality into God's plaything, and you deprive yourself of any capacity to judge that morality.

The Bible contains several examples of God and Jesus appearing to sanction what seems arbitrary or cruel conduct: the command that Abraham kill his son, the tormenting of Job (a game instigated by Satan, who seems quite chummy with the Lord), Jesus' casual slaughter of the Gadarene pigs. The Old Testament seems to have an apprehension of Plato's dilemma, when it has Abraham plead with a vengeful Yahweh to spare the innocent inhabitants of Sodom. Abraham bargains with God: would He spare the city for the sake of fifty innocents? How about forty-five, or forty, or thirty? He gets Yahweh down to ten, and almost seems to shame Him, or perhaps teach Him, and hold Him to an ethics independent of His own impulses: "Far be it from You!" he chides Yahweh. "Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?"

As frightening as it seems to people, the point is that even God is fallible and He is to be judged by the same morality He commands of us. When God fails to do justice He is not behaving in a godly manner and it is proper for Abraham to call Him on it. Indeed, God is finally reconciled to Man when, as Jesus, He despairs of Himself: "Oh Lord, Oh Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me." But the fact that morality is so hard a task master that no one can measure up to it does not relieve anyone of the obligation to try to do so. It just means that God understands our failure and forgives it.

Posted by at August 28, 2011 7:10 AM

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