In former times, secularism denoted the state’s neutrality in the face of competing worldviews and comprehensive claims about reality. Ideas could be freely trafficked in a pluralistic environment, whilst no one religion or creedal system could claim official establishment. Although people adhered to a minimum set of shared values – the better to preserve social and political harmony – all were permitted to enter the public square according to their own lights and their own convictions.
More recently, however, a new conception of secularism has arisen. Unlike its intellectual forebear, the contemporary model is neither neutral nor passive in regards to contrasting worldviews. Quite the contrary. In fact, it is largely built upon a fundamental antipathy towards what it sees as the unwarranted encroachments of mere “belief”. Much of this ire has been directed, of course, at religion. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse exemplify this view, whilst Australia is also home to its own tribe of new secularists. Via various means, proponents of this view devote themselves to a vision of the public square expunged of the apparently baleful effects of anything allegedly lacking scientific objectivity.
The new secular project rests on two, complementary claims: that certain value-systems – particularly those codified in religious traditions – are hobbled by a corrosive irrationality; and that secularists enjoy the benefit of an objective, unmediated view of reality. For the new secularists, there exists an irreconcilable division between these two realms; between a grounded, life-giving realism, and an enervating superstition. However, despite their increasingly widespread popularity, these assertions are, I think, quite unfounded.
Let’s examine the first claim – namely, that religion is irrational. Dawkins encapsulates this view well when he condemns (religious) faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”. For him and those of his ilk, religion is bereft of rational justification and evidentiary grounding. This isn’t merely the claim that this religious adherent is irrational or that doctrinal formulation is without foundation; it is, rather, the much stronger assertion that religion as such is rationally deficient – the product of delusion, wishful thinking or a stultified intellect. Unfortunately, it illegitimately flattens out the diversity of religious belief and religious experience, in both nature and origin. An impossibly broad claim, it ignores the rich intellectual traditions of some of the world’s major religions, and the sophisticated arguments that have been developed to substantiate such beliefs.
For instance, I myself am rather partial to Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for that most fundamental of religious questions, God’s existence. In his First Way, a type of cosmological argument, Thomas argues that the everyday objects our experience, and their causal interactions with each other, furnish a base from which a person might reason, via metaphysical principles, to a sustaining cause of the structures of reality. He saw that finite things are possessed of latent properties that can only be “actualised” (that is, brought from the realm of the potential to the realm of the actual) by external forces; change within an object is the result of those forces acting upon it, whatever they may be. To take a simple example, a red rubber ball left in the sun will eventually turn a lighter shade of pink; place it near a hot flame, and it will, over time, change into a puddle of viscous goo.
According to Aquinas, these apparently trivial changes are part of larger, and more complex, chains of causation. Each member within that chain has only secondary causal power, simultaneously depending on earlier members for whatever potency it exercises. Delving down into ever deeper layers of reality, the First Way takes one to its basic structures. Simultaneously, it also argues against an infinite regress – that is, an infinite ribbon of casual activity, stretching downwards ad infinitum. According to Thomas, it would be metaphysically “groundless”, having nothing upon which to become extant. And if so, then it must terminate in a fundamental cause, sustaining all else and actualising all secondary causes. Sitting at the foundational strata of reality means that it could not, in principle, be a part of it – as if it were merely some finite feature of our world. Rather, it would have to be the very ground of all being, the metaphysical basis upon which the world exists in the first place. And for Aquinas, it would have to correspond to what people traditionally know as God.
Of course, new secularists might retort that most religious folk don’t think this way, but rather construct their beliefs in a more unreflective manner. However, this fails to realize that many arguments for, say, God’s existence – no matter how intellectually demanding – actually build upon the quotidian experiences and intuitive impulses of ordinary people. Aquinas’ own explorations depend on empirical observation in order get off the ground. Other arguments of this kind are partly based on a person’s ordinary (yet reasonable) reflections concerning causal principles, a sense of the transcendent, a belief in the world’s rational intelligibility, and even its apparent contingency. As the theologian Keith Ward notes, belief in the kind of God Aquinas sought to substantiate plausibly fulfils many of these longings – “for God”, he writes, “is ultimate reason…[and] the only belief which gives reason a fundamental place in reality”. Such arguments may distil, challenge or stretch certain aspects of a layperson’s unfocused understanding of theism. Nonetheless, they are not fundamentally at odds, and imply that the basic drives people possess towards the divine may be quite consistent with rational theistic accounts.
New secularists might still contend that such arguments simply fail to supply evidence for God’s existence – and therefore, lack any rational warrant for religious belief. For them, a reasonable belief is largely synonymous with what is empirically demonstrable. But as the philosopher Edward Feser has perceptively argued, this criticism founders for the very reason that it adopts an a priori (i.e., non-empirical) assumption about what counts as “rational”, “evidence”, or “warranted belief”. The scientific enterprise is merely one avenue towards knowledge and truth; other methods of rational inquiry exist, including mathematics and philosophy, which do not rely fundamentally on empirical observation. Moreover, the very assumptions scientific study takes for granted – the existence of the external world, its rational intelligibility, the reality of causation, or the general reliability of one’s senses – suggest that such a project cannot even get off the ground without implicitly appealing beyond itself.
What, then, of the new secularists’ other assertion: that they alone, as people free from the encumbrances of bias (both religious and otherwise), enjoy an unadulterated understanding of reality? How should one respond, say, when a Neil de Grasse Tyson argues we need a new “country” – Rationalia – whose constitution stipulates that public policy should be stripped of all value-statements, and formed on the basis of pure (scientific) facticity?
One might point out that such an epistemological position is intrinsically impossible, for no one makes enquiries about the world in a vacuum. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out, human beings are inescapably bound by their finite vantage-points, and are invariably conditioned by prior plausibility structures that legitimise, reinforce or screen out certain patterns of thinking. Similarly, the sociologist and political theorist, Barrington Moore, Jr., wrote that,
…Human beings…do not react to an “objective” situation…There is always an intervening variable, a filter…between people and an “objective” [event], made up of all sorts of wants, expectations, and other ideas…”.
I’ve already noted that even those who prize empirical observation above all else must still begin with a received picture of the world. Moreover, secularists who tout the predominance of “facts,” and who ground their view of the world in an exclusive kind of empiricism, have unwittingly committed themselves to their own set of plausibility structures – in this case, presupposing that reality can only be captured by the methods and processes of modern science. The new secularist, just as much as the religious devotee, is inherently incapable of adopting a completely value-free position.
Additionally, facts by themselves can’t do all that much; they need to be strung together coherently, according to an overarching narrative or interpretive framework, if they are to mean anything beyond their own referents. The debate over abortion is a good example of this dilemma. Modern science might be able to determine in great detail when a foetus begins to develop vital organs, when it is able to feel pain, and so forth. But how can it tell us whether or not abortion is, under any circumstances, morally right? How can it determine when, if ever, a baby with developmental disabilities should be terminated? Even framing the questions in such terms is a category mistake: thanks to Hume’s observation that one cannot derive an ought from an is, it’s clear that simplistically trying to read prescriptive truths off descriptive data cannot be done.
Some, like Dawkins, think that one of the crucial questions regarding the morality of abortion is that of foetal suffering. Though important, such consequentialism is simply not the logical product of scientific enquiry. He proceeds to argue that the moment of birth forms a “natural Rubicon” between permissible and impermissible acts of killing. But again, how does the scientific enterprise lead to such a distinction? What essential difference is there between a child who has been in its mother’s womb for eight months, and a child just born? Dawkins’ line-drawing is arbitrary, having little to do with a pure, empirical appraisal of the situation. One might equally argue that conception marks the basic ontological transition from non-being to being, and is therefore the “natural Rubicon” one ought to use; indeed, everything subsequent to that epochal moment simply represents its unfolding. The point, however, is that these issues – the nature of personhood and the value one should ascribe to it – are fundamentally philosophical and metaphysical. Scientific enquiry alone cannot provide complete answers. Consequently, the secularist’s much-vaunted neutrality dissipates, and she once again finds herself in the same boat as the religious adherent – compelled, that is, to rely on a basic array of presuppositions to guide her ethical analyses and prescriptions.
As much as the new generation of secularists would have us believe their claims regarding religion, truth and reality, it is clear that those arguments are deeply unsound. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that attempts to squeeze religious and other value-laden convictions out of the public sphere do not proceed from innocent scientific or rational enquiry. Rather, those methods have been pressed into service to help prosecute an agenda possessing quite different origins. If this essay has succeeded in anything, then it has at least shown that the self-styled opponents of myth and superstition have been shrewdly peddling a few myths of their own.