Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Secular Society

At The New York Times David Brooks takes on the formidable task of summarizing Charles Taylor's dense 800 page tome titled A Secular Age. He begins his essay where Taylor begins his book, with this question:
“Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” That is, how did we move from the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?

This story is usually told as a subtraction story. Science came into the picture, exposed the world for the way it really is and people started shedding the illusions of faith. Religious spirit gave way to scientific fact.

Taylor rejects this story. He sees secularization as, by and large, a mottled accomplishment, for both science and faith.
It's conventional to think that science shed the "illusions of faith," but I'm not so sure. None of the alleged illusions that are usually imputed to believers are critical dogmas of religious faith, at least not Christian faith. Science disabused us of a belief in a geocentric universe and has given us reason to doubt that the universe is relatively young, but neither of these beliefs is central to any of the world's major religions. There are adherents to the young earth view among Christians, to be sure, but there are many devout, scientifically-literate Christians who accept that the universe is on the order of billions of years old, so I don't know what illusions Brooks is referring to that have been undermined by science.

Science has, if anything, made belief in God more difficult to avoid, not less. Nor has it done nothing to undermine the traditional accounts of the Deity, Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's true that to the extent one embraces materialism or naturalism one will certainly reject all of these doctrines of Christian faith, but materialism and naturalism are alternative metaphysical postures, they're not science.

One can, and many do, labor in the field of science while embracing all the major elements of the Christian religion. Some of the greatest names in the history of science - Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Boyle, Agassiz, just to mention a few - were devout Christians. Their science did nothing to diminish their faith. If anything it enhanced it.

Brooks adds this:
These achievements [of a secular age] did make it possible to construct a purely humanistic account of the meaningful life. It became possible for people to conceive of meaningful lives in God-free ways — as painters in the service of art, as scientists in the service of knowledge.
Brooks fails to explain what he means by the term "meaningful lives." The quotidian activities of life can of course have temporary, proximal meaning. One has a job to go to in the morning which gives him a reason to get out of bed, for instance, but it's hard to see how anything we do can have ultimate meaning unless it's somehow lasting. If all is ephemeral and if death is the end, then we're in somewhat the same position as a condemned man who insists on weeding his garden before being taken off to the gallows. The activity may occupy the mind and seem purposeful, but it's really rather pointless.

Brooks goes on:
But, Taylor continues, these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength. People are called to greater activism, to engage in more reform.
This is a very peculiar statement, I think. "Called upon" by whom? In a Godless world who, exactly, calls upon us to "construct a life in the universe" and to "exercise all our strength" in doing so, and by what authority do they call upon us to do this?

Moreover, the idea that in a secular world we're called upon to greater activism is a non-sequitur. What reason is there for reforming anything? The word "reform" implies that there's something wrong with the way things are, but if there is no objective moral arbiter of right and wrong, what's wrong with, say, the institution of slavery? Why should not the strong exploit the weak? Why is it wrong for those with the power using it for their own benefit? What's wrong with being selfish or cruel? What light can science shed on the matter for us? The answer is "none."
Taylor can be extremely critical of our society, but he is grateful and upbeat. We are not moving to a spiritually dead wasteland as, say, the fundamentalists imagine. Most people, he observes, are incapable of being indifferent to the transcendent realm. “The yearning for eternity is not the trivial and childish thing it is painted as,” Taylor writes.
It's doubtless true that most people yearn for something more than the nihilism and emptiness to which materialism leads. Most people want more than to be told that their lives are pointless and absurd, but, on materialism, why should they want this? If we're just a swirl of atoms, the product of eons of accidental mutations and selection pressure that fit us to the environment we're in, why should we yearn for a fulfillment or satisfaction that doesn't exist? Why would we not have evolved to be content with the world as it is?

Secularism does offer one undoubted potential benefit. In some of it's political manifestations it keeps adherents of competing metaphysical views from killing each other, but to the extent that it attempts to answer ultimate questions, neither it nor the naturalism that often underwrites it have anything to offer that anyone would want, except, perhaps, a license for hedonism.