Princeton University Press recently published a collection of essays titled, The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, which is edited by George Levine. The book, according to its blurb, promises the moon and more:
Bringing together distinguished historians, philosophers, scientists, and writers, this book shows that secularism is not a mere denial of religion. Rather, this positive and necessary condition presents a vision of a natural and difficult world--without miracles or supernatural interventions--that is far richer and more satisfying than the religious one beyond.
From various perspectives--philosophy, evolutionary biology, primate study, Darwinian thinking, poetry, and even bird-watching--the essays in this collection examine the wealth of possibilities that secularism offers for achieving a condition of fullness. Factoring in historical contexts, and ethical and emotional challenges, the contributors make an honest and heartfelt yet rigorous case for the secular view by focusing attention on aspects of ordinary life normally associated with religion, such as the desire for meaning, justice, spirituality, and wonder. Demonstrating that a world of secular enchantment is a place worth living in, The Joy of Secularism takes a new and liberating look at a valuable and complex subject.
Literary critic and Marx apologist (and former Catholic) Terry Eagleton reviews the book in The New Statesman and points out, among other things, that a completely secular world would have a very hard time establishing the sort of virtues—true responsibility, tolerance, peacefullness, hope, love—that are rooted in the West's Judeo-Christian heritage:
None of these writers points out that if Christianity is true, then it is all up with us. We would then have to face the deeply disagreeable truth that the only authentic life is one that springs from a self-dispossession so extreme that it is probably beyond our power. Instead, the volume chatters away about spirits and Darwinian earthworms, animal empathy and the sources of morality.
Kitcher asks himself why people should need to be united by a belief in some "transcendental entity" (his use of both terms is inaccurate) rather than by their mutual sympathies. "What exactly," he enquires, "does the invocation of some supernatural being add?" A Christian might reply that it adds the obligations to give up everything one has, including one's life, if necessary, for the sake of others. And this, to say the least, is highly inconvenient. Anyone, even a mildly intelligent badger, can entertain "mutual sympathies". The Christian paradigm of love, by contrast, is the love of strangers and enemies, not of those we find agreeable. Civilised notions such as mutual sympathy, more's the pity, won't deliver us the world we need.
Secularisation is a lot harder than people tend to imagine. The history of modernity is, among other things, the history of substitutes for God. Art, culture, nation, Geist, humanity, society: all these, along with a clutch of other hopeful aspirants, have been tried from time to time. The most successful candidate currently on offer is sport, which, short of providing funeral rites for its spectators, fulfils almost every religious function in the book.
If Friedrich Nietzsche was the first sincere atheist, it is because he saw that the Almighty is exceedingly good at disguising Himself as something else, and that much so-called secularisation is accordingly bogus. Secular thinking, too, had to be demythified. "God had in fact gone into hiding," Robbins observes, "and now had to be smoked out of various secular terms, from morals and nature and history to man and even grammar." Even Nietzsche's will to power has a suspiciously metaphysical ring to it.
Postmodernism is perhaps best seen as Nietzsche shorn of the metaphysical baggage. Whereas modernism is still haunted by a God-shaped absence, postmodern culture is too young to remember a time when men and women were anguished by the fading spectres of truth, reality, nature, value, meaning, foundations and the like. For postmodern theory, there never was any truth or meaning in the first place, and so mourning its disappearance would be like lamenting that a rabbit can't recite Paradise Lost.
Postmodernism is properly secular, but it pays an immense price for this coming of age - if coming of age it is. It means shelving all the other big questions, too, as hopelessly passé. It also involves the grave error of imagining that all faith or passionate conviction is incipiently dogmatic. It is not only religious belief to which postmodernism is allergic, but belief as such. Advanced capitalism sees no need for the stuff. It is both politically divisive and commercially unnecessary.
Read the entire review.
• "Can atheists be grateful?" (August 22, 2006)
• Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | by Carl E. Olson
• The Old Age and the New | Thomas Howard | From "The Old Myth and the New," Chapter One of Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism
• Dawkins' Delusions | An interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P.
• Professor Dawkins and the Origins of Religion | Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P. | From God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins
• Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
• A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
• C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
• Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
• Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
• The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker
• The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with Dr. Stephen Barr
• The Source of Certitude | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.