Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A Defense of Secularism - Introduction: Preconceptions

Is secularism a good thing?

A lot of secularists throw the word out almost as if it has magical powers. Merely by sprinkling something with "secular" we give it legitimacy, whereas those things that lack "secular" must be rejected.

But can it be defended.

What is secularism anyway? If we are going to defend it, we certainly need to start off by explaining what it is that we are defending.

I have decided that my third project this year will be a defense of secularism. My first project - a critique of Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy - took me through January and February and into March. I spent the rest of March in defense of the Reason Rally. Now, I am ready for a new project.

I wish to present a defense of secularism. Before I start, I want to address a concern that may make what I write on this subject seem confusing to some.

Reading always requires interpretation. A reader comes to a document with a certain set of preconceptions and ideas (including theories as to what certain words mean as they are used). What she sees is a string of characters on a page. To assign meaning to those symbols, the reader draws on her own beliefs - beliefs about how symbols are commonly used, beliefs about the context that surrounds those concepts, and the agent's own desires as to what she wants the author to be saying. If the writer and the reader do not agree on those traditional uses or the context, then miscommunication results.

There are two mindsets common in the atheist community that, if they are brought to the interpretation of this defense of secularism, will cause confusion and miscommunication.

I reject both of these sets of background assumptions.

One of these is the "us versus them" (or "atheist versus theist") tribal mindset. My defense of secularism will not provide a blanket defense of the atheist tribe in its battles against the theist tribe. The type of secularism I will defend is something many religious moderates already embrace. At the same time, my leading opponent - the philosophy which will be the main focus of my criticism - is an atheistic liberal philosophy called 'multiculturalism'. Multiculturalism became widely accepted, particularly in Europe. It through the academic community late in the past century. It is still widely accepted.

The "new atheist" faction has spent the last ten years accusing religious moderates of a fault that actually comes from the atheist community. The accusation is that religious moderates provide apparent cover and legitimacy to the dangerous ideas of religious extremism. They do so by telling us that we must respect religious conviction in all its forms. This would include the religious conviction of the extremists.

Yet, this idea actually comes from the atheistic philosophy of multi-culturalism. Multi-culturalism does not get its ethos from scripture. It is entirely a-theistic. It tells us that we have no legitimate way to criticize other cultures. The only criticism we can make comes from within our own culture, and requires the unwarranted and arrogant assumption that "my culture is better than your culture."

For the most part, religious moderates found this idea repulsive. "What? Are you telling me that I cannot judge the culture of the Holocaust, the slave culture of parts of pre-civil-war America of the racist segregationist culture that followed, or the culture of Stalinist Russia? That is absurd! These things are wrong and any view that casts them as 'just another opinion' is absurd and should be dismissed as such."

Indeed - the religious moderate is right. The natural implication of post-modernism is that we cannot criticize the religious fanatic who flies an airplane into a sky scraper, throws acid on the face of a woman who dares not wear a veil, executes gays and apostates, and holds that atheists cannot be patriots and are not to be considered fit to hold public office. The idea that there is no "right" or "wrong" but only "different" was not a view of the religious moderate. It is - or was - the dominant view of the atheist liberal.

I consider the ongoing practice of attributing to religious moderates the attitudes of the atheistic post-moderns to be not only a mistake, but a moral wrong as well. The new atheist-theist tribal distinction motivates those afflicted with a disposition to forgive and forget the trespasses of fellow atheists and blame all that is wrong in the world on members of the other tribe - some branch of the theists. Thus, we get the accusation made against moderate theists, "Either you are with us, or you are against us - but, to be with us, you must be an atheist."

I will not be making this mistake. My defense of secularism will primary agree with the religious moderates that the atheistic post-modernist multicultural philosophy is morally bankrupt. My allies will be found among the religious moderates. As a preview of coming attractions, there is a significant difference between multiculturalism and secularism. Multiculturalism says to listen to all voices, religious and non-religious. Secularism, on the other hand, will argue for excluding religious reasons from public policy.

The second distinction that a reader might bring to these posts that will cause confusion is the "new-atheist versus accomodationist" distinction.

I will offer a strong defense of secularism that, with its near absolute prohibition on religious reasons for public policy, will appear to many to be "new atheist" in its approach. The reader may then be tempted to adopt the attitude, "Since this is a 'new atheist' position, I will apply new atheist assumptions to the whole of these articles."

That person will soon see me make other claims that are not new-atheist at all but, instead, accommodate a wide range of religious beliefs.

Typically, when a reader gets into a spot like this, her reaction is not to say, "Maybe I should rethink my assumption that the author is a new-atheist." Indeed, she does not even know that she has made that assumption - it is a type of move that comes without effort or conscious acknowledgement. Instead, she is likely to conclude, "The author must be confused to think that these claims actually fit into the 'new atheist' pigeon hole I have put the author into."

The fact is, I reject the new-atheist versus accomodationist distinction. This defense of secularism will draw upon and add strength to that rejection. Putting it in a "new atheist" or "accomodationist" pigeon hole in which it does not belong will only create confusion.

Tomorrow, I will start my defense of a rather hard-line form of secularism. You, the reader, will come to those articles with a set of ideas that you will use to interpret the article. In doing so, I would recommend leaving the atheist-theist tribalism, and the new-atheist versus accomodationist classifications at the door. They will not help where we are going.


drdave said...

Alonzo, Natalie Reed recently offered a defense of post-modernism that rejects the cultural relativism you also seem to reject.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I thank you for this.

I sincerely hope that readers will provide me with links to their favorite defenses of or (much preferred) attacks on secularism, so that I may incorporate them into my discussion.

I can set aside a defense of post-modernism that rejects cultural relativism on the grounds that this was not the secular view of the 1990s that I reject. Radical subjectivism was a popular atheist-liberal view of the 1990s and it is radical subjectivism, not religious moderates, that provided a defense for radical religious fundamentalism. That remains true even if it is not true of all interpretations of post-modernism.

Though, I would have to say, it seems like Natalie Reed is defending post-modernism by redefining the term.

Her post reads a lot like one who claims, "Christianity never claimed that a God exists. It is not about a God. It is about a struggle for human beings to find meaning - a struggle which found expression in a lot of different ideas including the idea of a God. However, it never endorsed that idea. In fact, the absurd stories we get in the Bible was its way of saying that finding meaning through God is absurd and ultimately has to be rejected."

I suspect one can actually defend this view. But, really, it would require a radical shift in what the term "Christian" means.

Justin said...

I look forward to your next few posts on this subject. It's always good to see these positions fleshed out as we often adopt them with a limited sense of what the terms mean because they suited our opinions at one time. I look forward to having some of my misconceptions corrected and having some interesting ideas to mull over!

Drake Shelton said...


Protestant Christian Theocrat back again.

"Multi-culturalism does not get its ethos from scripture. It is entirely a-theistic. It tells us that we have no legitimate way to criticize other cultures. "

Amen. You are hitting the nail on the head. I wish i could get some Christians to see this.

"Are you telling me that I cannot judge the culture of the Holocaust..."

You asserted that you thought these were wrong but you gave no basis for that.

"Secularism, on the other hand, will argue for excluding religious reasons from public policy."

So how do you even come to the position that there should be such a thing as "public policy" or government at all?

drdave said...

Alonzo, I agree that Natalie basically repudiates the radical post-modernism of the 1990's. To the extent that post-modern is only what follows modernity of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century and its failures, she is ok.

As for the argument about Christianity you propose as parallel to her interpretation of post-modernism, I doubt you get much traction among the Christians, no matter that the rest of us agree with the components you set out.