Sunday, August 5, 2007

Secularism Needs to Become a Way of Life

8/5/2007--The greatest failing of secularism today is its failure to be a way of life. Secularists do not even understand the need for secularism to be a way of life. They do not realize that they are missing anything. This is why, though we don’t believe, we drift back to Church and Synagogue, our kids are confirmed, baptized and bar mitzvahed, and ministers, priests and rabbis end up at our funerals. The most courageous among us do without these things, but have nothing to put in its place. We just do without.

Because secularism is not a way of life, we cannot even say for certain what it means to be secular and who is secular and who is not. This is actually not a new situation. Glenn Olsen says that it was Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century who started the process of secularization that led to the rise of commerce and science as domains separate from Church control. But because this is so early in European history and so odd a source from today’s perspective, “[t]he entire process raises…the question of what a proper secularization looks like.”

This question of what is secular and what is not is elusive. American society, for example, is clearly secular. Yet, the Catholic Church tried to force Senator John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential campaign to change his position on abortion by threatening the loss of communion. How different is this from Pope Gregory’s pronouncement of excommunication against the German king Henry IV in 1076? Certainly President George W. Bush owed his reelection at least in part to the clear, if not express, support of much of the Catholic hierarchy. This mix of religion and politics is partly what my book, American Religious Democracy, chronicles.

Not only that, but the culture in America is still interwoven with a religious calendar. Sunday is still more or less a day of rest from business, for many people anyway. Halloween, Christmas and Easter still dominate the seasons of life. Thanksgiving resonates with religious history and themes. Even the Jewish High Holy Days change daily life where large concentrations of Jews live. And as other religious groups gain in numbers, their calendars will contribute to American religious consciousness.

Yet consider also how different the religious situation is today from the past. The Pope has no power here. If Senator Kerry had made the matter of foreign interference with an American election a major issue, he doubtless would have gained political support. And, of course, President Bush is a Protestant. He literally owes the Pope nothing in an institutional religious sense.

The Pope’s power in America is dependent on ordinary democratic forces. The question is the same whether it is the Pope’s desire for change on abortion or that of the Sierra Club seeking a change on global warming. It is a question of how many votes are at stake if the candidate moves one way or another. The Church in other words, though very powerful, is powerful only as another interest group.

Furthermore, our religious calendar lacks the feel of religious time, of eternity. Often, Sunday is spent at the mall and the baseball game. Christmas is a time of Charlie Brown and buying presents. Easter is losing the cultural sense of the risen Christ.

To see the degree of secularism present in our society, you must ask to what extent Christianity in particular or religion in general is the “ordering principle of human life,” as Olsen puts it. Whether the world stands under the dominion of Christ or is proudly autonomous. Put in these terms, even the most paranoid secularist must see how secular we are.

What then is the ordering principle in America and in the West? Upon what are we dependent? Where is our center of gravity?

The answer seems to me to be political, scientific and economic. Our lives are really organized around human self-determination—democracy collectively and self-help individually; instrumental rationality—science in its many guises; and commerce—the world market. These are our sources of meaning—you can substitute self-understanding if “meaning” is too religious for you. And of the three, which do you think is dominant? Is it not the market? Do you doubt that money makes our world go round? This is secularism today.

This is no way of life. It is a world without worship, without gratitude, without mystery and without love. Perhaps I should say, instead, that I don’t think it is a way of life. Maybe it is. I do know that secularists have no idea whether this is a way of life or not because it is also a world without thought. Secularism has drifted into this situation.

I think secularism needs a very different kind of life. This is what I mean by Hallowed Secularism. It is not clear to me yet what its features would be. The first step though must be collective engagement. Secular society must begin a deep, democratic reevaluation of our way of life. In other words we must come to grips with our secularism as a people. Obviously I do not mean “politics” when I say democratic. Politics is narrowly divisive. This process must be broadly inclusive. That is why the politicized religion of activist liberal churches seems to me a dead end. We need collective study and thought, and finally decision, as to who and what we are to be in this secular age.

To put this another way, since our sources are political, scientific and economic, we must give a new and deeper meaning to human self-determination. Without impoverishing ourselves economically and without disdaining human reason scientifically, we must come to see democratic self-examination as the new center of society. Only in that way, can we come back to the deeper sources of meaning in the universe that are outside human control. Only by taking control of our destiny can we move beyond human control. This book is meant to be a marker on the way to that undertaking.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! This is awesome!!!! This is something I can really get behind. And I think your determining forces are right on the money. Literally, money, especially. Money does make the world go round and it absolutely determines what an American experiences in daily life.

    The way this is presented is also secular-friendly. You know who I'm talking about. It sounds welcoming, and inclusive.

    keep going. This is really neat stuff. What about religion do we gravitate towards - the sense that there's something bigger than we are, the sense that chaos is too overwhelming for us.