Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Is Secularism Sustainable?

(Originally posted by Pat in 2/2012)

I am writing today to challenge one of our foundational assumptions. We are of course the Secular Student Alliance, and I do not take this to be a mere euphemism for “atheist”; it really does suggest a commitment to the principles of secularism in society and especially in government.
I want to believe that this is the right path; I certainly am horrified by the prospect of enforcing any belief, however correct, at the point of a gun. I would not want death squads to hunt down even people who believe that 2+2=5.
Yet the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that secularism is at best a compromise, and at worst a capitulation to the status quo. “Yes, you can go on believing in ridiculous things and teaching them to your children, as long as you keep me out of it.”

Indeed, the problem is, they don't keep us out of it—and what's more, they really can't be expected to. Fuzzy-headed “moderates” can live secular lives, because they have given up on the basic meaning of what it is for a belief to be true. Instead, to say “this is the body of Christ” is to recite a password, a (not-so) secret code that entitles them to recognition in a particular subculture. It doesn't actually mean anything, and could be freely substituted for things that are completely incomprehensible, like, indeed, “three persons in one God”.
Fundamentalists, by contrast, and fanatics even more so, have many vices but one great virtue: They are sincere. If it really, truly, were the case that anyone who engages in homosexual sex or uses contraception is doomed to an eternity in unending fire, it would be no service to anyone to pretend otherwise. If a nation of people who do not show fealty to Allah really, truly will suffer eternal damnation, then even 3000 deaths is a small price to pay to show them the truth. Even the Crusades, with all of their wanton rape, murder, and infanticide, begin to make sense under the assumption that cosmic morals are at stake. Suddenly the horrors of baptizing infants immediately before murdering them seems comprehensible: You are guaranteeing innocent souls their place in eternal bliss.
For this reason I have a great deal of sympathy for even the most radical fanatics, because they are the ones who seem to me to actually believe what they are saying. If these ancient books really were true, true unqualified, the way that “2+2=4” is true, “the Earth is round” is true, and “the speed of light is constant” is true, then the extremes of violent, hateful behavior that fanatics engage in would not only be justified—they would in many cases be obligatory. The kind of person who would allow someone to doom himself to hell in the name of political expediency is like the kind of person who would watch a child drown in a lake to keep his shoes from getting wet. The kind of person who would even refrain from homicide in the service of objectives this important is the sort of insane pacifist who would have tried to reason with a Nazi death squad or make an appeal to Stalin's nonexistent conscience.
Thus, when I think of someone like Rick Santorum, his views on how government should operate do not actually seem so wrong. He really is a true believer, and he thinks that gays and condoms are immoral the way that rational people would think that theft and murder are immoral. So of course he would want to ban them! That's what you do with immoral behaviors—you use the law to deter and punish them. The problem here is not the logic of his argument—it's perfectly valid—but rather his premises—which are the premises of religion itself.
Hence, I do not think we can defend secularism—not honestly, anyway—on the grounds that religious beliefs are a private matter to be kept in the home. They aren't; they couldn't possibly be, because their content almost by definition involves matters of cosmic importance. This kind of secularism requires us to say with a straight face, “Well, yes, obviously tax policy and business regulations are the sort of thing that should be publicly debated, but the meaning of life and the ultimate fate of the universe are matters far too personal to be involved in public discussion.” It would be like saying that it is legitimate for governments to regulate on the color of t-shirts, but not to make laws on theft and murder. God forbid governments regulate on anything important.
If there is a defense of secularism to be made, it's one that's definitely not formulated in a way religious people will want to hear. It would have to be something like this: “As much as we would absolutely love to have you see the light of day and abandon your absurd, unfounded, and in many cases morally appalling beliefs, we can't—you're too far gone. Of course we don't want to harm you—unlike you, we actually value this human life as ultimately important. So instead we're going to restrain you, much as we would restrain someone who engages in suicide attempts, or a violent psychopath who poses a threat to others. We are going to place a barrier around you, a wall called secularism, a sort of restraining order which prevents you from injecting your absurd notions within 20 meters of a house of government. We are still debating on whether teaching your children to believe in your insanity is abusive; so please don't do it, but at this time we cannot make that request enforceable by law.”
Indeed, we might even want to go further than this, proposing even to medicate religious people in order to repair their obviously defective brains. This sounds a bit Clockwork Orange, but then, isn't it what we do with schizophrenics and suicides? Is there really a principled case to be made that believing you are Jesus (a classic symptom of schizophrenia) is more harmful than believing that Jesus will send believers to heaven? It's really only marginally more implausible, rather like the case Sam Harris uses of “talking to God every day” versus “talking to God every day through my hair dryer”.
Secularism only makes sense under the (accurate) assumption that religious beliefs are false. If they were true, or even reasonably likely to be true, secularism would be nonsensical. The enforced systematic exclusion of religion from government would like the exclusion of biology, or climatology. (Indeed, these two in particular, because religion is intimately tied up in how people view these sciences.) It would be like making a law of Separation of Science and State.
But then, if religion is indeed false, then secularism begins to undermine its own justification. Rather than seeking to eradicate delusional beliefs, find ways to educate (or medicate!) those whose ignorance and irrationality perpetuates them, it instead erects a barrier between them and government, but otherwise allows them to continue on their way.
Is there something I'm missing here? I'd particularly like to hear from religious moderates: How do you justify secularism, given that you claim to believe that religion is actually true?

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