Secularism and its discontents.
by James Wood August 15, 2011
The disappearance of God is often considered elegiacally, as a loss. But secularism can also be an affirmation of the here and now.
The disappearance of God is often considered elegiacally, as a loss. But secularism can also be an affirmation of the here and now.
I have a friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who told me that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, anxiously turning over a series of ultimate questions: “How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?” In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts. We are locked into our rival certainties—religiosity on one side, secularism on the other—and to confess to weakness on this order is like a registered Democrat wondering if she is really a Republican, or vice versa.
These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer. Religion assumes that they are not valid questions because it has already answered them; atheism assumes that they are not valid questions because it cannot answer them. But as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night. I think of these anxieties as the Virginia Woolf Question, after a passage in that most metaphysical of novels “To the Lighthouse,” when the painter Lily Briscoe is at her easel, mourning her late friend Mrs. Ramsay. Next to her sits the poet, Augustus Carmichael, and suddenly Lily imagines that she and Mr. Carmichael might stand up and demand “an explanation” of life:
For one moment she felt that if they both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. “Mrs. Ramsay!” she said aloud, “Mrs. Ramsay!” The tears ran down her face.
Why is life so short, why so inexplicable? These are the questions Lily wants answered. More precisely, these are the questions she needs to ask, ironically aware that an answer cannot be had if there is no one to demand it from. We may hope that “nothing should be hid” from us, but certain explanations can only ever be hidden. Just as Mrs. Ramsay has died, and cannot be shouted back to life, so God is dead, and cannot be reimplored into existence. And, as Terrence Malick’s oddly beautiful film “The Tree of Life” reminds us, the answers are still hidden even if we believe in God. Lily Briscoe’s “Why?” is not very different from Job’s “Why, Lord?”
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?”
Or take the question of immortality, which many millions of people cling to, as solace and threat. As Kitcher explains, people tend to think that death “will damage the value we aim to create with our life.” We fear the gradual loss of our abilities as we get older; premature death is a special terror. But, he gently points out, immortality does not help with this:
If your life is directed toward nurturing others who need your protection and guidance, and if, unluckily, you die before they are ready to cope without you, the fact that you will be restored—and maybe restored to them in some entirely different state—is immaterial. Your project, on which you have centered your existence, has still been compromised by premature death.
Many religious people look forward to meeting loved ones in Heaven, Kitcher notes, and yet the reunion can’t be simply a continuation of life together on earth. If, say, a father lost his young son, as the Victorian agnostic Thomas Huxley lost his son Noel, Heaven would not restore what he most wanted, which was to see his son continue his life on earth. “Moreover, any reunion would apparently confront two strangers with one another, a parent whose life had extended in different directions after Noel’s death and a child who would no longer occupy the emotional space vacated by his earthly death,” Kitcher writes.
His essay is characterized by its humanity, and by its willingness to borrow from religion. He will get no reward from the Darwinian atheists for this, but he is keen to credit what religion does well, noting how it offers community, companionship, and strength in times of need, and how it has frequently inspired ordinary people to remarkable acts of charity and selflessness. He points out that many modern religious believers do not cleave to the kind of literal belief in God imputed to them by militant atheism. In order for secularism to have a wide appeal, he writes, it will need to become a secular humanism that is more than “blunt denial” but is as attuned to human need as religion has been, and as responsive to social injustice as the teachings of Jesus or Muhammad.
It’s no small challenge. To take a central example, many religionists assume that life without God would be life without meaning. Where secularists cherish autonomy and choice as qualities that make life meaningful, religionists often emphasize self-abnegation and submission to a higher power. This would appear to be a wide gulf. But Kitcher suggests that religionists and secularists actually agree about how to create meaning in a life. Many believers think of their submission to God not as compelled, he points out, but instead as “issuing from the choice of the person who submits.” Life develops meaning because someone identifies with God’s purpose. This identification must spring from an act of evaluation, a decision that there is value in serving a deity whose purpose is deemed good. Believers, then, make an autonomous choice “to abdicate autonomy in order to serve what the autonomous assessment has already recognized as good.” Both atheists and believers are involved in making independent evaluations of what constitutes life-meaning. They draw different conclusions about what that meaning is, but they go about finding it in similar ways.
An acutely intelligent piece by the literary theorist and scholar Bruce Robbins attacks, in a different way, the idea that secularism implies meaninglessness or, at best, second-rate meaning. Robbins has little time for the idea of “enchantment”; the word seems to flatter certain emotions or activities (such as religious epiphanies or their secular substitutes), while excluding others. Secularism must find and create its own values, and these might be quite varied—for instance, “helping children with their homework or cooking good meals,” or “men campaigning to protect doctors from murderous antiabortion activists or Jews campaigning against Israeli settlements on the West Bank.” He faults Charles Taylor for assuming that modern secular life “is beset with the malaise of meaninglessness.” Weber’s word for disenchantment, Entzauberung, actually means “the elimination of magic,” but it is a mistake to infer the loss of meaning from the loss of magic. If a malaise besets contemporary life, Robbins writes, it may have been produced not by the march of progress but by the faltering of progress—“by the present’s failure to achieve a level of social justice that the premodern world did not even strive to achieve.”
In fact, Charles Taylor’s own essay in this collection, entitled “Disenchantment—Reenchantment,” suggests considerable agreement with Robbins. Taylor describes a crevasse that separates a world filled with gods, demons, and magic from our own mind-centered world. In the old theistic world, meaning and value were believed to inhere in the world itself, outside the human mind: in God, in the cosmos, and in God’s natural world, whether charged objects (such as religious relics) or the structure of the universe itself. Meaning came to you from out there. In a secular world, our meanings and values are thought to be generated by our minds and projected onto the world.
For Taylor, though, this “mind-centered” conception is a mistake. It doesn’t follow from the successes of post-Galilean science, he suggests, that our attributions of value are merely arbitrary. We can argue about them rationally, and some of them can be said to be “strong evaluations” of an objective state of affairs. By a “strong evaluation,” Taylor means a judgment so powerful and wide that, when someone else is incapable of sharing it, this suggests some limitation or inadequacy on his or her part. When our neighbor doesn’t agree with us that murdering scores of people at an island camp in Norway is wrong, we do not shrug and say, “Chacun ses goûts.” When Tolstoy calls Shakespeare a poor writer, it is a judgment that judges Tolstoy, and marks his eccentricity.
Secular explanations of the world (modern physics, astronomy, evolution) have not made the world less wondrous, and have not undermined the validity or the authority of our wonderment. Taking pleasure in the flight of a bird is not undermined by knowing a lot more than our ancestors did about how that bird evolved, and about how it works: on the contrary. The contemporary discourses that trouble Taylor seek to explain not the world but our minds. What happens when, say, neuroscience “explains” that our wonderment is merely an evolutionarily determined product of certain processes in our brain? Isn’t the strong evaluation that may sponsor such wonderment undermined by a mechanistic surrogate? Altruism, for instance, may involve strong evaluation: we admire it as something larger than ourselves, and those who don’t share our admiration of it seem inadequate, or worse. But where are we left when evolutionary biology tries to reduce the strong evaluation we make about altruism by claiming that, like all animal behavior, it is just a contrivance that benefits our selfish genes? In Taylor’s terms, the question is whether an “upper language,” in which we describe altruism as noble and admirable, can be fully captured by a “lower language,” of instrumental and biological explanation, a language that scrupulously avoids the vocabulary of purpose, intentionality, design, teleology.
Taylor is skeptical that it can; he worries about the undermining allure of such reduction, and not without cause. These days, one is continually running up against a crass evolutionary neuroscientific pragmatism that is loved by popular evolutionary psychologists and newspaper columnists (of the kind who argue that we are happiest living in suburbs and voting Republican because neuroscience has “proved” that a certain bit of our brain lights up upon seeing Chevy Chase or Greenwich; or that we all like novels because stories must have taught us, millennia ago, how to negotiate our confusing hunter-gatherer society—I exaggerate only a little). Taylor is right to claim that the popularity of this type of reduction is “one of the most burning intellectual issues in modern life.”
But he is perhaps too defeatist. There is good reduction and bad reduction. Taylor does not attack the bad reduction case by case, but proceeds as if it were generally already winning—as if it were already vitiating the prospects of a moral and meaningful existence. This is a little like decrying a conspiracy theory because it has damaged a sacred truth, instead of attacking the conspiracy theory as simply untrue. In this sense, Taylor’s essay seems a narrative of loss and lament, even as he protests that it is not. It would be better to lay the problem of reductionism at the doors of specific forms of reduction (many of those doors little more than temporary storefronts), rather than at the very large door of “post-Galilean science.” The former is secular argumentativeness; the latter is closer to religious elegy.
Actually, “The Joy of Secularism” finds its own ways of countering some of Taylor’s anxieties. A valuable essay by Frans B. M. de Waal, a celebrated Dutch-American primatologist, offers an example of “good” reduction, reduction tempered by a recognition of its limits. In an account of spontaneous altruism and empathy in chimpanzees—acts of “genuine kindness” that he and his researchers have recorded—de Waal speculates that human morality “must be quite a bit older than religion and civilization,” and “may, in fact, be older than humanity itself.” On its face, talk of grounding human morality in animal behavior is the kind of “lower language” of reductive explanation that might make Charles Taylor shudder. Yet de Waal detaches his speculation from genetic instrumentalism. Once a tendency has been put in place by nature, he writes, “it is not essential that each and every expression of it serve survival and reproduction. It is a bit as with the sex drive: it evolved to serve reproduction, but that does not mean that humans and animals have sex only in order to reproduce. The behavior follows its own autonomous motivational dynamic.” De Waal warns against conflating “the reasons why a behavior evolved and the reasons why individual actors show it, a distinction as sacred to biologists as the one between church and state in modern society.” As he says, “The evolutionary reasons for altruistic behavior are not necessarily the animals’ reasons.” In other words, human morality can be explained without being explained away.
And perhaps Darwin was no great reducer himself ? A wonderful essay by the historian and philosopher Robert J. Richards convincingly argues that Darwin was very slow to abandon the language of purpose and design in discussing evolution and natural selection. While he was writing “The Origin of Species,” he seems to have persisted in the belief that “events in nature had to be understood as occurring through natural law.” In the manuscript of the “Origin,” he defined nature as “the laws ordained by God to govern the Universe.” By the eighteen-sixties, Richards asserts, Darwin had “begun to waver in his conviction that natural law required an independent designing mind to provide its force”; by the end of that decade he had withdrawn any reliance upon belief in God. And yet, Richards concludes, “what he seems never to have abandoned is the ascription to natural selection itself of those properties of discrimination, power, and moral concern previously conferred on it by divine agency. These properties allowed the law of natural selection to lead to the end Darwin foresaw as the goal of the evolutionary process . . . namely, the natural creation of man as a moral creature.”
Essays like this one, and others, by Adam Phillips (on helplessness) and Rebecca Stott (on Darwinian wonderment), make for a nicely prismatic collection, in which the contributors happily pursue their own interests, and are often at their most secular when they’re not trying especially hard to be. The book naturally radiates outward from its editorial theme as an ideal medieval town might spread outward—from a relaxed and unpoliced center.
Sometimes one feels that the center might be a little too serene. The emphasis on “joy” and “fullness” inevitably asks secularism to provide what Bruce Robbins calls an improvement story—to bring the good news about the consolations of secularism. Yet Lily Briscoe’s (or Terrence Malick’s, or my philosopher friend’s) tormented metaphysical questions remain, and cannot be answered by secularism any more effectively than by religion. There are days when Philip Larkin’s line about life being “first boredom, then fear” seems unpleasantly accurate, and on those days I might be more likely to turn to a tragic Christian theology like Donald M. MacKinnon’s than to this book, in which the tragic or absurd vision is not much entertained. Thirty years ago, Thomas Nagel wrote a shrewd essay entitled “The Absurd,” in which he argued that, just as we can “step back from the purposes of individual life and doubt their point, we can step back also from the progress of human history, or of science, or the success of a society, or the kingdom, power, and glory of God, and put all these things into question in the same way.” Secularism can seem as meaningless as religion when such doubt strikes. Nagel went on to conclude, calmly, that we shouldn’t worry too much, because if, under the eye of eternity, nothing matters “then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” This is impeccably logical, and impishly offers a kind of secular deconstruction of secularism, but it is fairly cold comfort in the middle of the night. ♦