4/28/2008--The Sunday New York Times on 4/27 is a reminder that the intellectual world in America and some of the rest of the West can be divided, almost neatly, into three categories: anti-religion, progressive religion and religion.
The anti-religion position was represented by Martin Amis, whose book, The Second Plane, is reviewed in the Book Review section, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose relationship with the Muslim reformer Irshad Manji is described in Ideas and Trends. Anti-religion people are atheists and see no reason why anyone should be anything else. Amis says “there are no good excuses for religious belief—unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses… .” Ali wants Muslims to adopt “secular humanism” and I am sure she would say the same about Christians, Jews and all other religious people—[unless their religions already were secular humanism, see below].
The Progressive religious side is represented by Manji, who calls for an “Islamic Reformation” after which there would be “no need to choose between Islam and the West.” This can happen because “the Koran has the raw materials to be thoughtful and humane.” Manji is similar to Christians and Jews who, for example, support gay marriage despite what the Bible says about homosexuality.
The problem for progressive religion is that the values underlying this position do not come from the religion the person is practicing, but instead come from the Establishment tradition. Manji, for example, is holding the Koran up to the standards of “thoughtful and humane” and seeing how the Koran stacks up. She is not holding the norms “thoughtful and humane” up to the Koran to see how they stack up. Thoughtful and humane are self-evidently good.
Despite Manji’s reference to the Reformation, Luther did not do this. Luther held the Catholic Church up to his understanding of the Bible. Luther was not a progressive believer. Luther was a religious believer.
The religious side was not represented in yesterday’s New York Times, except by negative inference. The values of the religious believer come from his or her religion rather than from some other source.
The hallowed secularist does not fit these three categories very well. He or she is not anti-religion because religion has so much to teach us. Not a progressive believer either, despite also being between worlds, as the progressive believer is.
The hallowed secularist is in a sense religious--willing to measure modernity according to the standard of religion, rather than the other way around. The hallowed secularist, in this sense at least, is a religious believer, for whom some of the truths of Our Religions entirely surpass the so-called truths of the modern world.