A new wave of secular books has challenged religion’s claim to supply meaning and morality. Simon Blackburn reflects on the root of human valuesby Simon Blackburn / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for how we live now
Ed George Levine, (Princeton University Press, £24.95)
The Moral Landscape
by Sam Harris, (Bantam Press, £20.00)
When the sociologist Max Weber wrote of the disenchantment of the modern world in the late 19th and early 20th century, he struck a loud and resonant chord. Just look at the dog-eat-dog, bureaucratic, soulless world we live in. Ugh! How pleasant to dream of something better: a magical world unfolding in providential ways: perplexing, perhaps, and sometimes sad, but in the end benign, good and safe. How nice as well to be part of a congregation or church, united in celebrating these venerable enchantments through rituals, poetry and music, all expressing awe and wonder, gratitude, hope and consolation. On the one hand, meaningless bustle, absurdity and despair; on the other, peace, warmth and comfort. If these are the alternatives, the surprise is not that religions refuse to die, but that they ever become sickly.
Let us say religionists are those who consider themselves to owe allegiance to a religion, and a secularist is anyone who isn’t a religionist. Religion is a many-faceted phenomenon, and any definition is bound to be contested. Religions do not require deities (at its purest Buddhism does not) nor even positive beliefs (the apophatic tradition holds that God is unapproachable by description). But it is characteristic of religionists to think their practices and thoughts give lives something valuable that cannot be found any other way.
Secularists, on the other hand, want to show that this is not an either/or, and that nothing of true value is lost when we grow out of reliance on old enchantments. I say true value, because everyone should admit there is a value in music and poetry, perhaps value in ritual, and a kind of value in myth and fiction. Outright falsehoods can be adaptive. Wishful thinking offers many comforts. But in stern secularist eyes this is not something of which to be proud.
George Levine has put together a diverse collection on what it means to be a secularist, with thoughtful essays from philosophers, historians, literary critics, and evolutionary theorists. The result is an effort to get beyond the polarisation between strident religionists and their strident opponents. The publishers describe it as arguing that secularism “presents a vision of a natural and difficult world—without miracles or supernatural interventions—that is far richer and more satisfying than the religious one beyond.” This implies that all religions involve belief in more than one world, which may be true in America, but probably rules out most of the Church of England.