I’ve been a bit preoccupied over the last couple of days, so haven’t had the chance to post anything, but I have had a few thoughts I think might be worth sharing. Yesterday I came across a site called The Immanent Frame, with the subtitle “Secularism, Religion and the Public Sphere.” It’s published by the Social Science Reserach Council out of New York, and, according to the “About” link,
The Immanent Frame publishes interdisciplinary perspectives on secularism, religion, and the public sphere. TIF serves as a forum for ongoing exchanges among leading thinkers across the social sciences and humanities, featuring invited contributions and original essays that have not been previously published in print or online.
But it also, significantly, prides itself on being named a “favorite new religion site, egghead division” by The Revealer (a site which provides a “daily review of religion and the media”). And, while I haven’t read everything on offer, I did read a couple of articles — one by Regina Schwartz (“Secularism, Belief and Truth“), who is also the author of an interesting book on religion and violence — The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism — and an article referred to in Schwartz’s article, “Secularism: Its content and context,” by Akeel Bilgrami.
What is interesting about the two articles is that it gives a little indication of how religious believers are thinking about the role of religion in public space, and what I’ve read so far is disturbing. Of course, it’s no surprise to find that the religious feel that they occupy a central, even dominating role, in public space, but to have it put so bluntly is a bit surprising.
The first thing we need to remember when we’re discussing religion is that religions tend, on the whole, to have their minds already made up. This makes Regina Schwartz’s point a bit strained:
At the extreme edges of secular and religious thought, people deny that they hold beliefs—propositions that they embrace about what is true—and say instead that they have truth.
She adds to this by saying:
This can obtain in any religious thinker who claims that God or scripture or the church hierarchy has given them the truth and they have ready access to it—or in secular thought, where trust in empiricism, in scientific methods, or indeed in secular reason can be so extreme that the notion that we live with beliefs and hypotheses becomes supplanted by the certainty of truth. It seems to me that in the public sphere certainty is especially dangerous.
There’s a fundamental problem here. It may be true that non-religious thinkers — scientists, for example — basing themselves on empirical evidence, claim to know what is true. It is quite another thing for religious believers to claim to know the truth. Schwartz claims, a bit oddly, that `the values that prevailed in a dominantly religious world were not lost during the secularization processes.” But when she says this, she has in mind,
[f]or example, in Judaism, tzedekah (justice) embodies the biblical and rabbinic idea that Jews are obligated to pursue social and economic justice.
Is this a religious or a secular virtue?, she asks. And it is values like this that she has in mind when she speaks of values being preserved during the secularisation process. And while it is true that there is biblical witness for the pursuit of justice, there is also a strain of brutality and injustice that pervades the scriptures of Christians, Jews and Muslims, to go no further.
Schwartz obviously has in mind a fairly common contemporary characterisation of atheists when she speaks of the fringes of religious and secular movements. No one needs to search far to find an oversure religious extremist. But secular extremists are much harder to find. It takes a critical tradition to identify secular extremists. So, of course, Dawkins springs immediately to mind. And Harris, Hitchens and Dennett. Each of them has been accused of a kind of secular monomania. Even the titles of their books seems to bear out the accusation, Harris’s The End of Faith, Hitchens’ god is not Great. Even Jerry Coyne, if it comes to that, who entitled his book Why Evolution is True. And Dawkins calls his most recent book The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true. Often critics of the new atheists refer to Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, as though there is some resemblance between a these dictators and professors like Dennett, Coyne or Dawkins, or journalists and public intellectuals like Hitchens.
The more troubling thing is that Schwartz takes liberal freedoms as valuing diversity, as though there is something of special value in fostering and preserving diversity of belief for its own sake. Secularism, she says, where it has failed, has failed precisely to achieve secularism’s goal “of genuinely respecting diversity of belief, of values, of practices … among the people who hold them.” Indeed, she claims that it is “the goal of secularism to respect diversity.” She quotes from Milton’s Areopagitica, and she recognises that, while it begins as a tract against censorship, it “becomes a tract on liberty and in turn a rumination on the best process of truth-seeking.” But she doesn’t seem to recognise that the best process for achieving truth might in fact achieve it. Milton says that “opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making,” and Schwartz then adds:
I need not remind you that this eloquent spokesman for liberty of conscience, diversity, and free speech, was a deeply religious thinker.
As though this should privilege religious ways of thinking, even if they seem obviously no longer a credible way of achieving truth about the world, as well as providing seriously conflicting ideas of how human beings should live and relate to each other.
The problem with this is that it leads her to suggest that the process itself represents a mystery, the mystery of how to live together, which is, shes says, “not fully graspable, knowable, manipulable, after all, [and] that we need to approach the dialogue with the other with full respect — to listen, learn, and evaluate.” But if this is true, then Milton was wrong. Diversity is not, in itself, the best process for truth-seeking, for there is, she says, no truth to be found here, only mystery.
And that’s why the article by Akeel Bilgrami is extremely distressing, but not for the reasons that Schwartz finds it troubling. She says she is “uncomfortable when Bilgrami defines secularism over against religion.” However, she seems to misunderstand the difference between religion and secularism as world-views, as Weltanshauungen. Speaking of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, she says:
… I agree with Taylor’s assessment that we are in an era of reflexivity regarding religion in which belief is always questionable and there are many different positions, that this is a good, the outcome of the Enlightenment and the romantic counter-Enlightenment, and surely, we need the same reflexivity in our secular beliefs.
The problem with this is that secular beliefs just are reflexive in this way, in so far as they use science and critical reason, but religious beliefs are not typically reflexive at all. The assumption that they are is clearly shown to be simply wrong by Bilgrami’s article, where he assumes, from the start, that it is impossible to look at human relationships dispassionately, without assuming a total world-view.
For instance, Bilgrami simply cannot understand John Rawls’ famous idea of the “original position”, where people make decisions about justice from the standpoint of not knowing what their actual social location or other beliefs might be. That of course does not mean that in a living society there would not be different beliefs and different values, so that, in fact, even a society constructed on the basis of the original position, while it would not be homogeneous, could be accurately described as having an overlapping consensus; and it would be overlapping because the principles by which relationships would be governed would have been chosen dispassionately, without consideration as to social standing or belief.
This, however, is simply something that Bilgrami cannot see, because he can only see the world from a religious standpoint, supposing that the only possible arrangement is one in which there is a diversity of non-overlapping world-views, each with as much right to express itself as any other, and each deserving as much respect as any other as well. Whereas Rawls, and, I think, even Schwartz, can see that such an arrangement would doom some people to live in unjust and even intolerable circumstances, Bilgrami thinks that there is no possibility of achieving even reasonable limits as to what can be considered just or unjust, morally right or wrong, good or bad, without the internal reasoning of a traditional (religious) community.
It seems to me that this is precisely what is so very dangerous about religion, and why it is so important that we retain some confidence in being able to reach the truth about what are better and what are worse ways for human beings to live together. And while they must always be subject to review and reconsideration, these are things which can be known, with a reasonable degree of certainty, to be true, or at least true within tolerable limits, and always subject to change. This is something, however, for which religion gives no ground at all.