Friday, 6 November 2009

A couple of quotes on humanism and secularism

First, Austin Dacey (via B&W) on the futility of seeing secular humanism as a replacement for religion:

Humanists are right to think that there is more to life than atheism, but wrong to think that they are the ones to provide it. It is not the job of religion’s critics to organize a replacement.

Just to show you how serious I am, I’ve christened a new fallacy to give a name to this mistake in thinking: I call it the fallacy of decomposition. The fallacy of decomposition is the mistake of supposing that as the estate of religion collapses, there must be a single new institution that to arises to serve the same social functions it served—that the social space vacated by religion must be filled by a religion-shaped object. Instead, it could be that in the lot once occupied by faith there springs up a variegated garden, a patchwork of independent institutions, each of which fulfills one of those functions. Out of one, many.

Thus, for our education, we attend the university; for cosmological clarity, we visit the planetarium; for therapy, the therapist; for beauty, the museum, the concert hall. Good stories? We read the Good Book, sure, but also the good books.

After all, it was something like this phenomenon that characterized the secularization of Western Europe. The dramatic drop in regular church attendance in Europe was not accompanied by a dramatic spike in the membership of organized atheism or humanism, which remains marginal. For post-religious Europeans, the point was to not show up anywhere once a week to seek absolution, but to stay out late on Saturday nights and sleep in late on Sunday mornings.

When you think about it, organized humanism is a hard sell. Do you like paying dues and making forced pleasantries over post-service coffee cake, but can’t stand beautiful architecture and professionally trained musicians? If so, organized humanism may be for you. Greg Epstein (the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard and the author of Good Without God) is a lovely person, but I’ve heard him sing, and I think I’ll stick to Bach, Arvo Pärt, and Kirk Franklin for my spiritual uplift. Do we really need an institution for people who find Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalism too rigid? Yes. It’s called the weekend.

Dacey concludes:

The promise and the peril of the open, liberal democratic society lies precisely in the possibility of a civility and a solidarity untethered from any unitary philosophy or community—it doesn’t all have to hang together. The secular house has many mansions.

Second (and I missed this when it appeared earlier this year), Thierry Chervel on the canard of 'Enlightenment fundamentalism'. Responding to the pessimistic fulminations of John Gray, Chervel asks:

Is there such thing as Enlightenment fundamentalism, a mirror image of Islamic fundamentalism? Is there a danger that these fundamentalisms will drive one another into a spiral of violence until a clash of cultures ensues?

He takes on on the argument that utopian political movements of the twentieth century were as fundamentalist as some religions:

But if real existing socialism was a fundamentalism, it certainly wasn't Enlightenment fundamentalism. It practised dogmatic exegesis like religious fundamentalism. It just used a different book. Fundamentalisms try to model reality according to a truth pronounced in a text. Anything that doesn't fit the model is lopped off. They promise a return to original purity, redemption from the corruption of alienating market developments, proximity to God, care in the community instead of the sad, isolated recognition of one's own mortality. No responsibility is accepted for collateral damage on the path back to this blessed state. Some want to reach it through terrorism, others content themselves with isolating a particular community and directing the terror inwards.

There is nothing in the reaction of Western societies to Islam or Islamism which bears any resemblance to such discourse or behaviour. There is intolerance, certainly, and indifference, racism, discrimination and a whole repertoire of grievances which not only Muslims are forced to endure every day. These cannot be called enlightened.

How is it possible to equate the Enlightenment with fundamentalism? Its principles are aimed precisely against the belief in fundamentals. It is only by "thinking for oneself" that one emerges from self-imposed immaturity. By thinking for oneself one frees oneself of dogmas and seemingly eternal truths which are imposed by the clergy. Thinking for oneself also means thinking about oneself, self-reflection, self-relativisation in relation to others. This is why the motto of the Enlightenment is often paradoxical: "Freedom is the freedom of dissenters." The Enlightenment does not believe in any automatism on this path to self-awareness. That would make it a progressive philosophy which turns people into marionettes of some externally-steered process.

As for the cultural-relativist argument that Enlightenment values are simply a 'western' imposition:

The ideas of the Enlightenment are [...] not meant as "Western values" that stand in opposition to Islam. For a start they presuppose a distance from one's own religions and traditions. Paradoxically, the democracy that was born out of the Enlightenment became the only regime which allows a coexistence of religions. Of course the Enlightenment throws doubt on beliefs of every kind, but it also allows them as a freedom of the dissenter. Belief becomes a personal avowal, quite separate from tradition or priestly compulsion. It is the freedom to lapse that makes belief real.

This freedom to practise religion – rather than "Enlightenment fundamentalism" – is what really attracts the hatred of the fundamentalists. They are not interested in religion but in the control of the individual. In the case of Islamism, the most powerful symbol of this will to power is the headscarf. Of course women are free to submit, as long as they do so of their own volition.

1 comment:

sarah correia said...

I have attended a humanist replacement of the christian baptism, here in Norway (I was there by chance)

It was the strangest thing I've ever seen... a religion without god... a celebration fo the community, in which many couples were dressed in the national Norwegian clothing... all without the 'special ingredient' that one can find in religious cerimonies. What's the point, I asked myself then? it looked totally comformist and it smelled a lot like nationalism, in which the community was so important that god was no loner necessary...