Sunday, March 20, 2011

The New Secularism

3/20/2011—I hope Garry Wills never reviews something I have written. He reviewed All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly in the New York Review of Books in the April 7, 2011 edition. The review is entitled, ominously, Superficial & Sublime? Here is the opening:

“This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it.”

According to Wills, the authors, professors of Philosophy at Berkeley and Harvard respectively, set out to solve the problem of modern secular culture, which is primarily that we lack a shared frame of reference and so must forge our own view of the universe. This is beyond the capacity of most people and is also beset by creeping nihilism, which teaches that “there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other.” (quote from the book).

In order to solve this problem, the authors endorse “what they think is a wise and accepting superficiality” that does not try to get to the bottom of things but seeks a glimpse of the sacred from the surface of what they call “whoosh” moments—moments of what Karen Armstrong calls (and not only she) ekstasis, “a ‘stepping outside’ the norm”. (from The Case for God)(the reference to Armstrong is me, not Wills).

Dreyfus and Kelly think one can get this experience even from sporting events: “There is no essential difference, really, in how it feels to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Lord, or to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Hail Mary pass, the Immaculate Reception, the Angels, the Saints, the Friars, or the Demon Deacons.”

Clearly Wills thinks everything about this set up is inept and shallow, but mostly he is upset by the loose and incompetent interpretations of the Western classic in the book. He is critical of the authors’ suggestion that Augustine invented interiority, for example.

But as to sports and ekstasis, which also bothers Wills, Karen Armstrong, who Wills would admit is not inept and shallow, makes a point similar to that of the authors: “Today people who no longer find [ekstasis] in a religious setting resort to other outlets: music, dance, art, sex, drugs, or sports. We make a point of seeking out these experiences that touch us deeply within and lift us momentarily beyond ourselves. At such times, we feel that we inhabit our humanity more fully than usual and experience an enhancement of being.” (page 10 of The Case for God).

Of course, hallowed secularism is also an attempt to find a deeper way of life outside the religious traditions. But my point in this post is that apparently it is now understood that secularism must find sources of depth. This is a new insight for secularism—wouldn’t Christopher Hitchens make fun of this notion?—and justifies referring to a “New Secularism".


  1. I think it was Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind that suggested rock music could provide ecstasy without the prerequisite ascetic discipline associated with the religious quest.

  2. Correct on Alan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind

  3. Correct on Alan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind