Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Burden of Secularism

David Brooks has been reading about secular people, and he offered some interesting observations in today's column about burdens secular people take on themselves:
Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.
As we have discussed here, some secular people feel this as a great lack, and others (David) don't. Because of a conversation I had the other day I have been thinking about funerals, and it strikes me that they create a particular problem for secular people. Religious funeral services have a traditional dignity that is hard for secular people to recreate. But not impossible; the wake for my father-in-law was a beautiful and moving experience, and it consisted only of a roomful of his friends taking turns telling stories about him.
Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.
I think this is a red herring, because I don't know any modern people who really follow traditional moral creeds. Indeed to many Christians the point of Jesus' moral teaching seems to be that it is all but impossible to follow -- give away all that ye own? turn the other cheek? -- which has a certain philosophical beauty but makes Christianity little use in  figuring out how to live day to day. In practice all the Christians, Jews, and Muslims I know decide for themselves, autonomously, which religious rules to follow and which to disregard. To me this makes their moral situation pretty much identical to that of secular people. Belief in god may serve to underpin, in some sense, the existence and importance of morality, but it doesn't tell you whether to use birth control. Anyway as Brooks admits there is no evidence religious people are more ethical than secular people, or vice versa, which says to me that morality ultimately rests on something quite different from faith.
One other burden: Past secular creeds were built on the 18th-century enlightenment view of man as an autonomous, rational creature who could reason his way to virtue. The past half-century of cognitive science has shown that that creature doesn’t exist. We are not really rational animals; emotions play a central role in decision-making, the vast majority of thought is unconscious, and our minds are riddled with biases. We are not really autonomous; our actions are powerfully shaped by others in ways we are not even aware of.
This is true, but I am not sure how it is relevant. Yes, 18th-century rationalism had an inadequate psychology focused too much on reason; but except for Ayn Randians, who thinks that way now? What is most appealing to me about Christianity is its psychology of original sin and redemption, so I simply plunder that and use it in my own thinking.

One of the stereotypes of our age is that we regularly come up against the question, is this all there is? Tedious job, rebellious children, mortgage payments, car repairs, watching television, complaining about Wall Street and Washington? Religion certainly offers an answer to this conundrum. But, really, I have never felt this as much of a problem. I have no trouble imagining the universe as a place of marvels, and human life as an astonishing and beautiful journey. When my own life seems small and boring I reach beyond it to art, history, anthropology, science, the whole vast apparatus of  human knowledge and creativity. This, to me, is the great reward of modernity, the thing we have to make up for losing the identity, community, certainty and faith that were the treasured possessions of traditional peoples. We have free access to all the world's traditions and knowledge, to all of its art, and can pick and choose from this vast banquet the things that delight us most, and the things that most help us through the troubles and tragedies of our lives.


Thomas said...

We did a memorial for my secular dad, improvised in nature. He had a big community around him of community activists and singers, so there was plenty to talk about, plenty to sing.

it's not clear "dignity" is required at a funeral, but I wouldn't say my dad's memorial was undignified.

Susi said...

Please! Keep on writing! We, out here, take your ideas and ponder them. They widen our views and give us another point from which to triangulate on the truths. Thank You.