Secularism is good for religion

I mean “good” in two ways:

  • It helps reduce the tendency of religions to become cults with teachings and ideology more and more divorced from reality;
  • It helps reduce the tendency to define “outsiders” as dangerous, maybe even deserving of death for their “sins.”

Sam Fleischaker makes these points in an article Religion v. Secularism? Let’s Skip This Fight recently posted on the South Jerusalem blog. As a religious Jew, Sam is in favour of religious people of different “faiths” uniting on common issues. However, he deplores the current calls for unity emanating from the Madrid Interfaith Conference and Saudi King Abdullah. “Religious people should unite with one another, but will only continue to wreak havoc if they take secular people as their enemy. They will also harm themselves: the secular world is good for religion.”

[I question the very basis of “interfaith” activity as it is exclusive, limited to only religious people, and therefore has the danger of ignoring basic human rights. But clearly “interfaith” unity aimed at opposing or eliminating atheism (as in King Abdullah’s appeal) is downright dangerous. But that’s an aside].

Secularism enables freedom and choice

Sam goes on to point out the real advantages a secular society, which includes non-religious beliefs, provides for religion:

What can religious people gain from living in a secular world? Well, for one thing, the fact that we have a community around us that is not dominated by our co-religionists allows us, if we ever decide that our religion is wrong or confused, to change it or become secular. The existence of a realm to which we don’t need to bring our religious commitments allows us to examine those commitments freely, and alter them if we think necessary. The secular world provides a break from religion, a place in which one can, if only metaphorically, stop and catch one’s breath from one’s religious passions, and assess them in a cooler fashion.

This break will enable some to stop being religious, or become a more liberal member of their religion, or convert from one religion to another. Others will at most allow consider doing these things, and then return to the religious commitment they had with renewed fervor. But the mere fact that this opportunity is available, the mere fact that one can, if one wants, drop one’s religious commitments or alter them or convert, reassures us that the commitments we have, when we are not dropping or changing them, are freely chosen. The secular world thus guarantees the freedom of my own religious beliefs – which makes them more truly religious, less a product of fear or ignorance or habit.

Secularism enables knowledge

Our knowledge about reality has developed in spite of religion (and often is opposed by some religious trends). Consequently secular society provides an important advantage to religious people which is not provided by religion itself. As Sam points out:

There are also a number of cognitive advantages, for the religious project, of living among secular people. Just as it is always helpful to get the advice of an uninvolved outsider when trying to figure out what to do in a charged personal situation, so it can be helpful to get factual information, even on matters relevant to one’s religious beliefs, from people who are not caught up in one’s religious passions. I want to learn about the physics and chemistry and biology of our world, and about human history, from people who are not committed to a religion (at least in their work on those subjects); I trust them to be more objective than I or my co-religionists would be about such matters. On subjects other than metaphysics, and the question of what, overall, our lives are for, religious people seek information in ways that we share with all other human beings, whether or not they share our religious commitments, and in ways that are best pursued by abstracting from ethical commitments, by striving for objectivity.

I like these comments, as far as they go. I think they should be kept in mind by those in New Zealand who enthusiastically promote “interfaith” activity and organisations. However, I think that to really take advantage of the opportunities secularism provides for religion these people should also do more to promote an inclusiveness. They should widen their horizons to include the non-religious in the organisations and activities. They should avoid situations and activities where they attempt to impose their own ideas and customs on people who don’t accept them (for example Parliamentary prayers). And they should give up any idea that religion and religious ideas are deserving of a special place, a special respect and a special protection from criticism.

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24 responses to “Secularism is good for religion

  1. Again the problem Ken. Which secular society are you speaking of? Stalin’s? Pol Pot’s? China’s? North Korea’s? Castro’s? The one that was born out of the Christian west?

    Is there an objectivereason to prefer one over the other?

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  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    There’s too much here to respond to it all; but “secularism enables knowledge”? What Sam says basically sounds like the standard “science is more objective” line, which is just naive at best. Everyone has presuppositions which color their interpretations of reality. Scientists no less so. Atheism is as much a presupposition as theism. If Sam wants to strive for objectivity, then he should strive to discover which presuppositions can be justified (or at least warranted), and which cannot. Adopting some particular set of presuppositions because you have assumed in advance that they’re likely to result in a more “objective” assessment of data is just ignorant.

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  3. @ James:

    I imagine that even under Stalin theist religions would have had less tendency to be cultish and therefore divorced from reality. However, I think that in most of the societies you mention the “state religion” of “Marxism/Leninism” “Mao Tse Tung thought” etc. certainly became more cultish for the very reason that Sam mentioned.

    We can see the same effect today in the clerical societies of Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. These do indicate the sort of future that the Wedge Document envisaged with their “theistic science” and attacks on modern enlightenment.

    Obviously I prefer a society where there is respect for human rights and is secular in the sense that it doesn’t attempt to impose any ideology – theistic or non-theistic. I think most people do. And I think such societies are less likely to breed extremism and cults.

    Which society would you prefer??

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  4. @ Dominic Bnonn Tennant:

    You are “science bashing” again. Science is obviously more objective (because it’s theories are mapped against reality rather than the subjective mind) but really you should try to be more objective about science, get away from your current naive position. (just repeating your charges).

    However, what do you think? Is religion healthier in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia than it is here? Would you like a similar non-secular environment to practice your religion in? Would you be happier to have an environment where there was no opportunity for religion to be informed by scientific discovery (perhaps because we burnt heretics at the stake)?

    I know what sort of environment I prefer.

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  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Ken, if all you’re going to do is beg the question and make assertions without argumentation, that’s all I need to do as well:

    Christianity is objective because it maps against reality, rather than against the subjective mind.

    See? It’s easy to assert; but where is your argument? Without having some knowledge of what reality is in the first place, how can you know that science maps against it? How do scientists know that their subjective perceptions correspond in a meaningful way to an objective actuality? When you say that science “maps against reality”, as you so often do, you seem to be saying that science reflects more than just our subjective perceptions. On what basis?

    You appear to believe that science is agnostic toward, and indeed does not require, some kind of prior theory of reality (metaphysic). Yet even just by merit of the fact that you reject the Christian metaphysic as appropriate in scientific inquiry, this is obviously disproved. What you are actually doing is implicitly assuming a certain theory of reality, with its correlating epistemology, while pretending either that you aren’t doing this, or that your assumptions are somehow “objective” rather than mere subjective and unjustified beliefs.

    Indeed, you seem to be so blind to the subjective faith-claims which underwrite all secular scientific endeavor that you’ll go so far as to claim that one of science’s great strengths is that it does not rely on any particular worldview. You’d be appalled, for example, at the idea of presupposing the truth of the Bible and correcting scientific inquiry according to it. You’d argue that this is to twist science beyond any usefulness by completely reversing the order of knowledge-acquisition. And of course you think this, because you mistakenly believe that science, in and of itself, is a valid method for learning the truth about reality. In fact, in line with the materialistic epistemology you hold to, you will probably think that it is the only method. You therefore naturally suppose that it ought to be used as the benchmark for determining any other claim to truth; say, the accuracy of Genesis. But this simply betrays your ignorance of what knowledge is, and what is needed to acquire it. You assume the validity of empiricism without justification—in fact, without even realizing that justification is required.

    I take the view that to presuppose the truth of Christianity is not to twist science, but to put it in its correct place. How can you even justify the basic assumptions of scientific inquiry, such as uniformity or the reliability of our faculties, without objective revelation to underwrite them? It is self-defeating and false to claim that agnosticism in science is a strength. On the contrary, agnosticism renders science impotent, and makes it incapable of guaranteeing any accuracy in its conclusions. It is impossible to use science to judge Christianity; quite the opposite is in fact true.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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  6. I imagine that even under Stalin theist religions would have had less tendency to be cultish and therefore divorced from reality. However, I think that in most of the societies you mention the “state religion” of “Marxism/Leninism” “Mao Tse Tung thought” etc. certainly became more cultish for the very reason that Sam mentioned.

    We can see the same effect today in the clerical societies of Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. These do indicate the sort of future that the Wedge Document envisaged with their “theistic science” and attacks on modern enlightenment.

    Obviously I prefer a society where there is respect for human rights and is secular in the sense that it doesn’t attempt to impose any ideology – theistic or non-theistic. I think most people do. And I think such societies are less likely to breed extremism and cults.

    Which society would you prefer??

    Well, like you Ken, I prefer the secular society born from the Christian west. Of course my society bases it’s human rights on God. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    And that is my point. Without the this objective grounding in God no society is morally better or more correct. Like I said, if it’s all relative then it’s all relative.

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  7. @ James:

    “Well, like you Ken, I prefer the secular society born from the Christian west.” Agreement – and a commitment! (Although I recognise deeper and more varied influences on our society than you do).

    And, of course we disagree on the basis and source of our concepts of human rights. But that is one of the great features provided by secularism. A clerical society would insist on a dogma – it wouldn’t allow us to have different concepts. And that is what helps to prevent religion in our society from being as dangerous as it is in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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  8. @ Dominic Bnonn Tennant:

    You misunderstand me. When I say we map our theories against reality I do not claim that we know reality. Not at all – that would be ‘revelation’ and delusional. I am pointing out that humanity’s scientific knowledge is reliable (science is kept honest) because it is checked, tested against objectively existing reality – by practical interaction with it.

    I think there is a problem here in you making subjective, personal decisions about my scientific outlook. You could map those ideas of yours against reality – by actually checking with me. Instead you are making subjective ‘inferences’ which leads you into false assertions. Because you have not check, tested you ‘inference’. (A bit like ID).

    Fortunately, our secular society – because it is pluralist and democratic – gives you an opportunity to interact with people like me, rather than just getting by on ‘inference’. Surely that is a good thing – for you as well as me.

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  9. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Ken, dude, you can’t admit in one breath that we don’t know objective reality, and then in the next breath claim that we interact with objective reality. If we don’t know objective reality, we don’t know that science is “mapping” against it.

    I also don’t think you know what “inference” is…you seem to be using it as a synonym for “belief” or “guess” or something, which is just wrong. An inference is a logical process: either deductive, inductive, or abductive.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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  10. @ Dominic Bnonn Tennant:

    “inference is a logical process” – you forgot the word “untested” just before logical. Without testing it’s just like superstition.

    We interact with things (objective reality) all the time without knowing (or completely knowing) that reality. Very often that’s the whole point of the interaction.

    Still – tell me that my whole professional career has been pointless. That humanity’s whole body of scientific knowledge is wrong. It’s all wasted because you could have told us (via your “revelation”) all about reality.

    If only it were all that simple. We wouldn’t have bothered about the LHC to start off with. No, we wouldn’t bother with that horribly wasteful and demeaning science. We just wouldn’t need to test. All we needed were a few priests who could “reveal” (or “infer”) it all to us – just like that.

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  11. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Ken, what are you talking about? Even if you haven’t done Logic 101, you could at least look up the word

    1: the act or process of inferring: as a: the act of passing from one proposition, statement, or judgment considered as true to another whose truth is believed to follow from that of the former b: the act of passing from statistical sample data to generalizations (as of the value of population parameters) usually with calculated degrees of certainty

    2: something that is inferred ; especially : a proposition arrived at by inference

    3: the premises and conclusion of a process of inferring

    What kind of “testing” do I need to do when I infer that, since Socrates is a man, and all men are mortal, Socrates is therefore mortal? It’s analytically true. Or, if you mean that testing is only required for inductive inference, then what kind of testing do you propose is necessary in order to validate the inference, critical to all scientific inquiry, that the future will be like the past? Are you saying that scientific inquiry is based on superstition?

    Maybe you should define exactly what you think inference is.

    Still – tell me that my whole professional career has been pointless. That humanity’s whole body of scientific knowledge is wrong. It’s all wasted because you could have told us (via your “revelation”) all about reality.

    You know very well, as all good scientists do, that scientific knowledge is wrong. By definition, scientific knowledge is false. It may increasingly approach the truth, but it is always false. The history of science is a long string of false theories being replaced by other false theories.

    Does that make your life’s work pointless? I don’t think so…but I guess I’m not the one whose judgment in that regard is important.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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  12. And, of course we disagree on the basis and source of our concepts of human rights. But that is one of the great features provided by secularism. A clerical society would insist on a dogma – it wouldn’t allow us to have different concepts. And that is what helps to prevent religion in our society from being as dangerous as it is in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

    Ken I will keep hitting this point. If there is no God then there is no objective source for human rights. What the Muslim countries do is no more right or wrong than what the western nations do. Now perhaps we can someday force our moral theories on these Muslim nations (like we are trying to do in Afghanistan and Iraq) but since they are reproducing 3-1 as compared to us in the west, and since they seem to be much more agressive – I suspect that within three generations Europe will be theirs. By then they might even have the world – it looks like, with their population rate, that they are being selected for.

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  13. @ James:

    “If there is no God then there is no objective source for human rights.” - You might believe that (many if not most people don’t). However, it is only a belief (no verification is offered by you).

    We are all entitled to beliefs and humanity considers this a fundamental human right.

    However, the best guarantee so far for this human right appears to be a democratic, pluralist secular society.

    Show me one theocracy (non-secular) society which offers these human rights.

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  14. @ Dominic Bnonn Tennant:

    “By definition, scientific knowledge is false” – a rather pessimistic way of expressing the fact that our knowledge “increasingly approach(s) the truth.”

    Of course we know that our knowledge is imperfect, we are able to find which parts are wrong and we can take steps to correct those parts because we interact with reality – we test!

    We don’t stop with an ‘inference’ – that sort of ‘knowledge’ is not scientific and of course would be false (except we don’t know that because we don’t allow interaction with reality – testing). It’s a safe bet that ‘knowledge’ which avoids testing is likely to be far more false (less like the truth) than scientific knowledge.

    But isn’t it great that we have the ability to discuss this – perhaps make assertions that the other may find offensive. Isn’t it great that this process enables us to (eventually perhaps) understand each other and (perhaps) modify or improve our ideas (always ‘false’ ideas of course but capable of approaching the truth – by this process of interaction).

    I think that is Sam’s point about the advantages of secularism.

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  15. “If there is no God then there is no objective source for human rights.” – You might believe that (many if not most people don’t). However, it is only a belief (no verification is offered by you).

    No Ken, it is a logical point. If there is no God then there is no objective source for human rights. Are you suggesting that there is a objective source for human rights? If so present your case. If not the all so called rights are relative and your view of rights is no more correct or valid than the Muslims.

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  16. @ James:

    You would say that, wouldn’t you. I guess it just shows the point you ‘infer’ elsewhere that one’s subjective views can determine one’s ‘logical’ conclusions. However – I’m willing to consider the evidence – if any. Without that your ‘inference’ is no better than a superstition. In other words – it doesn’t convince me and shouldn’t convince anyone who relies on evidence.

    However, you are free to have those beliefs, prejudices or superstitions. A democratic, pluralistic and secular society makes that possible.

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  17. You would say that, wouldn’t you. I guess it just shows the point you ‘infer’ elsewhere that one’s subjective views can determine one’s ‘logical’ conclusions. However – I’m willing to consider the evidence – if any. Without that your ‘inference’ is no better than a superstition. In other words – it doesn’t convince me and shouldn’t convince anyone who relies on evidence.

    However, you are free to have those beliefs, prejudices or superstitions. A democratic, pluralistic and secular society makes that possible.

    Ken, this is simple. My argument is deductive. If there is no God then there is no objective basis for either human rights or human diginity. I’m not making an argument for or against God, I’m just presenting a logical point.

    If there is no objective source for human diginity or human rights then it’s all relative. The radical Muslim’s view of these things is no more correct or incorrect than yours or mine. If you think my logic is off, then show me where: How are human diginity or human rights NOT relative in a godless universe?

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  18. Ken said:

    However – I’m willing to consider the evidence – if any.

    Now this is interesting Ken. What “evidence” would you need before you would consider something true?

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  19. @ James:

    I have presented some unrehearsed and preliminary thoughts on the origin of morals at Where do our morals come from?.

    What evidence would I need?? That can only be defined in an hypothesis. I’m actually interested in any evidence (Your argument may or may not be ‘deductive’ – it’s certainly subjective).

    But what about you presenting an hypothesis – this would enable some sort of testing of your “deduction”.

    Isn’t it great that our secular society enables us to discuss this question.

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  20. What evidence would I need?? That can only be defined in an hypothesis. I’m actually interested in any evidence (Your argument may or may not be ‘deductive’ – it’s certainly subjective).

    1. Ken as far as human rights/diginity goes, it’s a either or question/point. Either there is an objective source for them or they are relative. If you can present a third option I would listen.

    2. Are you really suggesting that you would only consider something as true if it was first defined by a hypothesis? Ken is that belief of yours defined first in an hypothesis? In other words do you believe something is true that is not open to your hypothesis theory?

    3. And yes I enjoy my freedoms that are grounded on God: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

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  21. @ James:

    1: I have already said that I believe there is an objective morality or moral logic – like arithmetic. This doesn’t, in my view (and in the view of many others) require any god. I am happy with my position – can’t see any reason to change. But I am prepared to consider evidence which would contradict that position or support your position. Your ‘logic’ argument as you have presented here doesn’t convince me.

    2: This doesn’t make sense so I can’t respond to it.

    3: You choose to define freedoms as “grounded on god.” Does this mean that if you change your mind about the existence of your current god (many people do) – will you then not value the freedoms you have? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness we can all value – theist and no-theist alike. And a secular, democratic and pluralist society does a good job of enabling these. I have yet to see any evidence that a theocracy would (or does).

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  22. I have already said that I believe there is an objective morality or moral logic – like arithmetic. This doesn’t, in my view (and in the view of many others) require any god. I am happy with my position – can’t see any reason to change. But I am prepared to consider evidence which would contradict that position or support your position. Your ‘logic’ argument as you have presented here doesn’t convince me.

    Ok, then your next problem – how can the laws of math, logic or morality exist apart from a mind? Where do the exist? Are they hiding behind Mars? Can you show me a bucket of logic? A yard of morality? This is important Ken, how can these things exist apart from a mind or minds?

    You choose to define freedoms as “grounded on god.” Does this mean that if you change your mind about the existence of your current god (many people do) – will you then not value the freedoms you have? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness we can all value – theist and no-theist alike. And a secular, democratic and pluralist society does a good job of enabling these. I have yet to see any evidence that a theocracy would (or does).

    Since our rights are based on God, and since most of our laws were originally grounded in scripture I would say that we were theocracy light. But Ken, I’m sorry I just don’t believe you would support my freedoms. After all you claimed that teaching our children 6 day creationism was child abuse. Of course if it was it would be the duty of the state to remove said children from the home. I just don’t trust your rhetoric on these matters…

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  23. @ James:

    “how can the laws of math, logic or morality exist apart from a mind?” – they can’t, obviously. That would be confusing logical conclusions based on external objective aspects of reality with reality itself.

    But is that the way you think about the objective morality you talk about???

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  24. how can the laws of math, logic or morality exist apart from a mind?” – they can’t, obviously. That would be confusing logical conclusions based on external objective aspects of reality with reality itself.

    Ken you said that morality and the laws of logic were objective. You now agree that they can only exist in minds. If that is the case (and there is no objective mind to humankind i.e. God) then they are subjective. Subjective to the individual. You have to show how these concepts can exist independently of humankind to make your argument. Where do they exist? If you can’t you must drop the objective claim.

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