9/5/2011—Labor Day is the perfect time to reflect on American secularism’s greatest failure—it’s lack of interest in economics. Our religions, especially Christianity and Islam, have consistently critiqued the vices of greed and the pursuit of material gain at the expense of others. They have spoken on behalf of the needs of the poor and for justice on behalf of workers. Jurgen Habermas has noted this capacity of religion, to speak a vocabulary of need on behalf of the vulnerable.
In contrast, secularism has shown no interest in the poor or in issues of justice. Ironically, it’s interests tend to be spiritual—whether people believe in God and what attitude they take toward scientific inquiry. I can’t claim to know the entire literature, but I am familiar with a lot of what the New Atheists have written and I cannot remember anything about economic organization.
In a time of ruthless exploitation of the Earth leading to economic gain for many but outsize gains for a very few, along with the growing power of money to distort political life, we desperately need a new understanding of the market. It is mind boggling that the American response to the financial crisis caused by a failure to regulate private greed and dishonesty has been a new round of distrust of government. It is disheartening that powerful corporations have succeeded in confusing the public about the threat of global warming. (It is not conservative religious leaders by and large who are leading that effort, but purely secular CEO’s). It is discouraging that public policy ignores the growing share of wealth owned by the wealthiest and the absence of growth by up to 80% of the public. What ever happened to the American dream, not of hitting it rich, but of growing prosperity of a working and middle class?
It’s time for secularism to reconsider its head games and get its hands dirty with the material needs of ordinary people. Secularism needs to take a lesson from Pope Benedict—the greatest critic of capitalism among all the leaders of the planet. Where is Marx when you need him?