Secular Illusions

by Rebecca Bynum (July 2007)

In a recent episode of The Sopranos, a suicidal and despairing child begs of his parents,

         “What’s the point?”

“Point o’ what?” came the reply.

And so it is in our modern culture: the meaning of life is so far buried beneath the generalized pursuit of material well-being, that the “point of it all” is no longer seriously considered by the average person. Those who think along these lines are likely judged mentally disturbed and are often medicated for depression as was the boy in the television series. “Don’t think those thoughts, take this medication and then you’ll feel better,” seems to be the most common response to modern existential angst.

The reasons for this lack of societal response to the basic most human questions are deeper than a simple fear of the answer provided by scientific materialism; namely that there is no point to life. Rather, the methodology of science has actually usurped the places formerly held by philosophy, poetry, art and religion in human experience. The result is a secularism which verges into materialism and denies both the meaning and value of life and of the individual.

Secularism began as a justified revolt against the religious authoritarianism of the Middle Ages and has resulted in a great flowering of human thought and unparalleled technological progress. The United States Constitution, for example, in disallowing the merging of religious and state institutions, effectively ignores the existence of God, but has nonetheless allowed religion to flourish in America for over two hundred years.

Recently, however, secularism has adopted an openly hostile attitude toward religion, even seeking its abolition in favor of deterministic materialism, which upon examination, is found to be no less an ideology. Paul Belien reports on the intemperate tone this attitude has taken in Europe:

According to a report of the CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly, creationists are dangerous “religious fundamentalists” who propagate “forms of religious extremism” and “could become a threat to human rights.” The report adds that the acceptance of the science of evolutionism “is crucial to the future of our societies and our democracies.”

“Creationism, born of the denial of the evolution of species through natural selection, was for a long time an almost exclusively American phenomenon,” the report says.

“Today creationist theories are tending to find their way into Europe and their spread is affecting quite a few Council of Europe member states. […] [T]his is liable to encourage the development of all manner of fundamentalism and extremism, synonymous with attacks of utmost virulence on human rights. The total rejection of science is definitely one of the most serious threats to human rights and civic rights. […] The war on the theory of evolution and on its proponents most often originates in forms of religious extremism which are closely allied to extreme right-wing political movements. The creationist movements possess real political power. The fact of the matter, and this has been exposed on several occasions, is that the advocates of strict creationism are out to replace democracy by theocracy. [...] If we are not careful, the values that are the very essence of the Council of Europe will be under direct threat from creationist fundamentalists.”

 

According to the CoE report, America and Australia are already on their way towards becoming such undemocratic theocracies where human and civic rights are endangered. Creationism is “well-developed in the English-speaking countries, especially the United States and Australia,” the report states.

 

“While most curricula in Europe today unashamedly teach evolution as a recognised scientific theory, the same does not apply to the United States. In July 2005, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll that showed that 64% of Americans favoured the teaching of intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution and that 38% would support the total abandonment of the teaching of evolution in publicly owned schools. The American President George W. Bush supports the principle of teaching both intelligent design and the theory of evolution. At the moment, 20 of the 50 American states are facing potential adjustments of their school curricula in favour of intelligent design. Many people think that this phenomenon only affects the United States and that, even if it is not possible to be indifferent to what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, it is not the Council of Europe’s role to deal with this issue. That, however, is not the case. On the contrary, it would seem crucial for us to take the appropriate precautions in our 47 member states.” – Paul Belien, The Brussels Journal, June 23, 2007

Essentially, this report is saying that belief in God as the creator of the material world is a threat to the concept of human rights, but as Edmund A. Opitz has pointed out: “The idea of natural rights is not the kind of concept which has legs of its own to stand on; as a deduction from religious premises, it makes sense, otherwise not.” (from “On Setting the Clock Right” by Richard M. Weaver, National Review October 12, 1957)

These are material determinists who have not thought through their determinism. If man is a material machine created by a series of accidents and formed solely by the process of natural selection, then how is it he can determine himself to be so? If mind emerged from matter and is unapart from it, then how can there ever be two differing interpretations of the material world? Can matter evaluate itself? Indeed, how can there be any determination about the truth of reality at all?

Many modern philosophers take this attitude to heart and some even go so far as the late Richard Rorty who enthusiastically adopted the idea that all determinations of truth are merely illusory.

Rorty firmly endorsed the idea that truth is merely a human invention. He wanted us to drop “the notion of truth as correspondence with reality altogether” and realize that there is “no difference that makes a difference” between the statement “it works because it’s true” and “it’s true because it works.” He tells us that “[s]entences like . . . ‘Truth is independent of the human mind’ are simply platitudes used to inculcate . . . the common sense of the West.” (Roger Kimball, “Truth Was Not His Bag” National Review, July 9, 2007)

The concept here, contrary to the “common sense of the west,” is that mind does not transcend matter and value (truth) does not transcend mind, therefore there is no truth. Nothing is inherently right or wrong; there is only what works and what doesn’t. This is utilitarianism in its purest form, and a sure recipe for societal disintegration. Indeed, culture stems from a common agreement about the nature of reality.

To quote again from the EU Parliamentary Assembly report, “[Science] seeks not to explain ‘why things are’ but to understand how they work.” Eventually, secular scientism seeks to abolish the question of “why” altogether as Richard Weaver explained some fifty years ago:

Science exists in the form of a set of methods. That the application of these methods has wrought transformations in the outer world is the most ubiquitous fact of our time. What is not so well understood, however, is the effect of this practical success upon the more general theory of reality and knowledge. Until rather recently it was generally held that subject matter is prior to method. But in the last few decades, this position has reversed, and it is now being said, or assumed, that method is prior to subject matter. This comes from the premise that nothing which cannot be found by the scientific method is real, which is of course the position of modern positivism. What happened in the process of this shift was that methodology became the ontological absolute; things are real in proportion to their capacity for being discovered by the scientific method. Here is a complete victory for instrumentalism whereby, in effect, a methodology makes reality as it proceeds with the act of discovering. So John Dewey could argue that the instruments of inquiry not only inquire, they also determine what can be inquired into. In the old order of knowledge, this latter was a datum provided by God, or at least by the empirical fact of creation.

 

The effect of this on man’s attitude toward the world can be nothing less than revolutionary, and in some quarters it has already been disastrous. For what it does is rule out the given, the contingent, the inscrutable – in sum, all that is greater than or independent of man. The ground for that humility which all the great ethical systems have inculcated is thereby withdrawn. Man, with his Method, leaps into the seat of the Creator, which, in the wisdom of poetry and religion, is the ultimate act of pride.

 

Hence it comes to be believed that there are no problems which cannot be solved by the methods of science because, in terms of the concept itself, such problems cannot exist. A problem to be conceived at all has to be conceived as something which this ontological prior set of methods could solve. From this now widely held assumption comes the Liberal’s complacent belief that all the situations produced by selfishness, ill will, and violence can be removed once science, with its omnicompetent methodology, gets around to them. (Richard Weaver, “Roots of Liberal Complacency” National Review, June 8, 1957)

 

And so, a half century later, we witness the irony of a European parliamentary body trying to preserve “human rights” by abolishing the kind of thought that make the concept of human rights a possibility in the first place. Moral conviction, grounded in spiritual insight and human experience is certainly as real as any scientific experiment, and yet, we cannot come by morality through scientific experiment or through reason alone. But in today’s secular world, the idea that reason, or the scientific method, can’t do everything has become an unthinkable proposition.

 

Indeed, many secularists seek to replace God in human society, even asserting as does Adam Katz that even modern economic concepts can become a replacement for God: “One converts to a liberal, market culture just as dramatically as one converts to Christianity (or, for that matter, to a fervent admirer of the art of Paul Klee; or an inquirer into the intricacies of the DNA molecule; or a new, more “authentic” rock group, etc.)” Eric Gans believes man created God in order to forestall fighting over some object (thereby creating the sacred and hence, created “god” along with the possibility of peace). Here the essential emphasis that real religion places on the individual is shifted to the group and once again we have the origins of still another variation of communalism centered on what is essentially materialism.

 

None of these sophisticated theories can take the place in human thought of a loving God who is supremely concerned with the individual, who gives the individual a reason to live, even to live eternally, through exercising his own moral choices. Too often in today’s secular churches, the emphasis is on doing everything possible to avoid those very decisions and to do nothing that would “create divisions” among people, because once again the emphasis has been shifted from the individual and his soul, to group harmony and societal peace instead. The overriding requirement for the individual is to adjust himself to the society. Becoming “Christ-like” is portrayed as making such adjustments as to be completely in harmony and at peace within a group, which in turn must be dominated by understanding, tolerance and forgiveness. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Moral decision-making requires the sharp discernment of often subtle differences between right and wrong, good and evil; and the life we know Jesus actually lived, consisted of a non-stop clash with a society whose leaders feared and hated him by turns. The secularization of Christianity has had the effect of removing the individuality of Christ.

 

Turning again to Weaver,

 

One of the chief directives of Liberalism is to deny the existence of “either-or” choices. The Liberal insists on substituting the “both-and” choice which keeps him from ever having to accept or reject flatly. This is why he ends up in the “middle of the road.” A desire to squeeze in between two contradictories keeps the Liberal from seeing anything with clarity. As the same time it leads to a breaking down of categories, so that in the final result he has nothing to think with. It leads to political truces, compromises and even sell-outs. There is a difference between saying that there are no clear-cut principles of right and wrong and saying that a principle cannot always be applied to a world that is concrete and various. The latter is the policy of all men of sense and experience, but it is prudence, or what the Greeks called sophrosyne, not “liberalism.”

 

It is the sentimentality of the new Liberal which leaves him incapable of accepting a rigid conclusion. He does not like to think that God and the devil are irreconcilable. He thinks that with a little patient explaining and some of his famous tolerance, each can be brought to see some good in the other. In brief, he does not contemplate a right and a wrong. (Richard M. Weaver, “Roots of Liberal Complacency” National Review June 8, 1957)

 

Substitute the word “secularism” for “liberalism” and we have a clear idea of how morality has been cut from under secular society. Right and wrong have become so confused that we cannot even discern a clearly immoral religion such as Islam in our midst. And secularism alone can in no way make a stand against it.

 

Secular materialists claims to uphold human rights, while simultaneously undercutting the philosophy that makes such a concept even possible. If we are all material robots devoid of transcendent minds or souls, then there is no real argument against the orderly society of Islam. If man’s highest aspiration is to adjust to the group and to seek after comfort, then Islam is the perfect vehicle for it. Islam provides the ultimate well-oiled societal machine. And if there is no right or wrong, no transcendent truth, and no human values that are anything but illusions, we can have no real objection to Islam.

 

But if man lives life, lives his own individual life, in order to comprehend truth, appreciate beauty and cherish goodness; if seeking and finding transcendent value is what gives life meaning, then it becomes clear Islam provides the exact opposite, including the denial of the value of individuality. Not coincidentally, this is also the result of secular material determinism. Why should civilization be defended if everything of value is destined to be destroyed by a pitiless material universe anyway?

 

This brings us to the conclusion that religion, like philosophy, can be true or false, or a combination of both. Let us briefly examine the difference. True religion is supremely concerned with the individual, false religion is concerned with the group. True religion is neither threatened by nor hostile toward science. False religion is very hostile to science and sees it as an existential threat. True religion does not limit the concept of truth to a single doctrine or book. False religion sees all truth as contained within a book or doctrine, and is hostile to all truth found outside it. True religion is primarily concerned with the spiritual world. False religion is primarily concerned with the material world. True religion advances morality and provides for the changing circumstances of advancing civilization. False religion freezes morality and the mores in time, halting civilization’s advance.

 

There is no religion in existence that is completely true or completely false, but we must be free to distinguish truth from falsehood wherever we may find it. That ability is what constitutes spiritual freedom, which is much more than mere political freedom. Modern secularism with its blatant hostility toward all religion, both true and false, will never be able to provide a coherent defense of spiritual freedom and thus does nothing but compromise our society in an unwitting betrayal to totalitarian collectivism of which Islam is but one variation. That secularism can provide a bulwark against religious totalitarianism is secularism’s great illusion.

 

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Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.

 


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