2/7/2015—Some kind of watershed in the growth of secularism passed this week. Four days ago, David Brooks wrote Building Better Secularists, which was a column about what secularism needs to be healthy—obviously of great interest to a hallowedsecularism blog. Last Sunday, in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, two secularism stories appeared: Re-Creation, about the godless Sunday Assembly movement, and Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Sherman’s op-ed, Morality on the March, about how great the non-religious Enlightenment was.
OK. So secularism continues to grow. I’m glad I got in on the ground floor.
But all three instances demonstrated the same nihilism in secularism. Brooks was mildly criticizing, while it was unconscious in the Sunday Assembly and Sherman.
For Brooks, Phil Zuckerman’s book, Living the Secular Life, is the model of growing secularism: “Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.”
Now, of course, this is nuts. There is no reason to think that people who don’t go to church reason at all, just as there is no reason to think that people who go to church employ reason. Choice is usually an illusion, as much of psychology teaches us. Secularists are as prone to groupthink as anyone else—actually more, as you will see if you try to be pro-life in a Unitarian Church. Brooks makes this point and calls for “an enchanted secularism.” [holiness, Brooks, not magic—hallowed secularism].
The nihilism is implicit here. One builds one’s own moral code because the only standard is to thine own self be true.
The nihilism is also a little hidden in Sherman, who believes he is celebrating morality. But he give away the game by his reference to “human natural rights.” This is Sherman’s weak spot, because the point of natural rights was that they are independent of human choice. That is why majorities cannot take them away from us. Natural rights might be grounded in reason, of course, but it is the kind of reason employed by the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis—rights are what is proper to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of thing we humans are. Efforts to ground rights outside traditional religion have proved impossible—have proved impossible within religions also, as Nietzsche saw.
Finally, the nihilism is explicit in the Sunday Assembly movement. These are people who feel they cannot go to church or synagogue, but who crave community. They are the people that Zuckerman and Sherman are writing about.
But, listen to how one such member described her spiritual journey—“it made more sense to be agnostic, to be open-minded, not believing any one thing is right or wrong.”
Now, thank God, (if you’ll pardon the expression) this person does not believe that. She believes plenty of things are right and wrong. But once you are in this habit of speech, you are lost. Reason is impossible. Reason requires the burning determination to understand the way things actually are. Thinking is only possible in an ordered universe. And an ordered universe is one in which, though we see darkly, as St. Paul said, we know it is crucial to reality that we believe what is true.