Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Apr/09

27

A non-secular past, present and future

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In the comments below I engaged in a little bit of glib dismissal in regards to the contention that a secular society is not sustainable. The issue though need some elaboration. I agree with John Derbyshire when he says:

Mark: “Can humanity survive over the long term without religion?” To my way of thinking, that’s like asking “Can humanity survive over the long term without music?” Religion, like musical appreciation, is just a feature of the general human personality, arising from the structure of the human nervous system. The religious impulse is more developed in some of us than in others, and a few of us are completely tone deaf (though that’s no reason to exclude us from non-musical discussions); but most human beings enjoy a good tune at some level. It’s human nature.

Religion, broadly construed as acceptance of supernatural agents, gods, and the powers associated with such beings, is universal, and has a high degree of penetration in most societies.  In some societies, such the Middle East or Africa, acceptance of supernatural agents is universal in a literal sense (the World Values Survey shows that of 2,000 respondents in Pakistan not a one admitted to being an atheist!). But even in avowedly secular societies, such as in Europe or East Asia, the majority do not deny the reality of the supernatural.

On the other hand, intellectual historians are prone to noting that East Asian societies give less pride of place to religion than those of South or West Asia, or Europe. What’s going on here?  Religion, narrowly construed as a prescribed set of behaviors & beliefs, an elaborated and robust collection of institutions, as well as a deep philosophical tradition, integrated together into an organized whole, is much less a pervasive feature of East Asian society (in early Tang China, Fujiwara Japan and Silla Korea a form of Buddhism came close to taking a central role within the society analogous to that of Christian and Islam, but it did not “take”). Terms like “folk Christianity” or “folk Islam,” as well as the philosophical schools within these religious traditions, are witness to the reality that religious expression is very diverse.  But in what was Christendom, what is the Dar-al-Islam, these diverse traditions have been tied together by a catchall framework. The elites of the pre-modern West, and the contemporary Islamic world, may have espoused, or do espouse, personal religious beliefs which are alien to the masses in terms of their sophistication, but notionally the elites and the masses are of the same religious tradition or stream. In contrast the Confucian bureaucrats who administered the polities of pre-modern China and Korea, as well as Tokugawa Japan, self-consciously understood the distinction between their own attenuated beliefs in the supernatural, which might have gone no further than ceremonial deism, and the baroque folk religions which were dominant among the masses. In this way they likely resembled the cultural framework dominant during the Greco-Roman period, when a multiplicity of folk traditions divided the loyalties of the populace while the elites dabbled in abstruse philosophy and obscure mystery cults.

So far this has been purely descriptive. That is, I’m describing what seems to be the reality across human history. A substrate of normal supernatural belief, reshaped and organized in some locales around the aegis of a monopolistic cult. What is the future? The secularization of Europe obviously does exhibit some level of rejection of the supernatural; after all, 33% of the French adhere to the atheistic position. But there are data that show that the decline of Christianity in Europe, the loss of its public monopoly, has been met not by the rise of a godless monopoly, but the resurgence of supernatural pluralism. In other words, the future of Europe may resemble the situation in many East Asian nations, where a large fraction of the population are rejectors of the supernatural, but an even larger proportion operate as freelance subscribers to a hodgepodge of supernatural beliefs and practices, and another fraction adhere to one of the world religions.

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23 comments

  • Paul · April 27, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Those who argue that society cannot survive without religion, must necessarily concede that society can survive without God (or without religion based in truth), since it would be impossible for all of the diverse–and mutually exclusive–religions to be correct about their God/s.

    The question then becomes whether we need to persist in “believing” for the sake of itself, without regarding for the truth of our beliefs or for the actual existence of a supernatural powers.

    It seems kind of silly to argue that our societies need to preserve false beliefs in a non-existence supernatural power in order to survive.

  • Author comment by David Hume · April 27, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    It seems kind of silly to argue that our societies need to preserve false beliefs in a non-existence supernatural power in order to survive.

    i think that the positivist position here has problems. i mean, is there a “right” or “wrong” reason to have children? is having children true or false? the argument that society needs religion isn’t about whether religion describes reality with a high level of fidelity; that’s secondary. rather, it’s a functional model whereby common gods foster prosocial tendencies, and supernatural agents serve as moral exemplars. etc.

    for atheists obviously religion is about truth or falsity. and most religious people will claim that it is about truth or falsity too. but i think the social science arguments about the utility of religion are totally orthogonal to this.

  • Tim Kowal · April 27, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    I responded to Derbyshire’s post at my blog here, and which response is included below:

    Religion is not “just a feature of the general human personality.” On the list of qualities that make up our humanity, I would put religion closer to language. Thus, imagine that all known languages were obliterated. Humans, so long as they remain such, will forge ahead with some new way of communicating, i.e., through language. Similarly, even were we to reject every known systematic method of organizing metaphysical premises in order to make sense of the observable world (i.e., religion), we will forge some new one. This is because, of course, the pursuit of knowing things is essential to being human. That is to say, without music, we might say we would be “less” human. But without language or a method of knowing stuff, it is fair to say we would cease to be human at all. Featherless bipeds, more like.

    At its root, religion is really little different from metaphysics. And humans need metaphysics for important things like, well, knowledge and morality and justice and so forth. Every religion takes on a culture of its own, and adopts a fair number of silly and nasty habits. These idiosyncrasies really seem to get atheists and secular humanists and “brights” and what-have-yous all bustling with agitation. But to deny metaphysical truth, which is the kernel of religion, is to yank out the whole foundation of human knowledge.

  • Author comment by David Hume · April 27, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    But to deny metaphysical truth, which is the kernel of religion, is to yank out the whole foundation of human knowledge.

    that’s not the “kernel” of religion. that’s plenty of anthropological and historical data on this. also, they don’t need metaphysics for morality. that’s a false claim empirically.

  • Tim Kowal · April 27, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    I don’t see how morality is not based in metaphysics. Unless you refer to the idea that people can be “moral” while simultaneously denying to subscribe to metaphysical beliefs. But that is not to say that they have engaged in any meaningful attempt to otherwise account for such acts. It is that quintessentially human endeavor that ultimately and inexorably requires metaphysical inquiry.

  • Author comment by David Hume · April 27, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    It is that quintessentially human endeavor that ultimately and inexorably requires metaphysical inquiry.

    no, it doesn’t require metaphysical inquiry. see moral minds.

  • Joshua · April 27, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Religion does not create or define morality; religion merely reinforces morality, by providing a set of incentives so great (indeed, literally eternal) in scope – namely eternity in heaven as the metaphysical carrot, and eternity in hell as the stick – that at least in theory*, it cannot be overridden by anything the real world has to offer.

    * “Temptation” could be defined as anything that challenges this theory; i.e. any real-world stimulus great enough to temporarily overcome the über-incentives of eternal salvation or damnation.

  • D · April 27, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    “In other words, the future of Europe may resemble the situation in many East Asian nations, where a large fraction of the population are rejectors of the supernatural, but an even larger proportion operate as freelance subscribers to a hodgepodge of supernatural beliefs and practices, and another fraction adhere to one of the world religions.”

    This seems like a good thing, indeed the bulk of what I care about – much better lots of people believing different unaccountable things than all of them believing the same unaccountable things. That way any loopiness has a chance to cancel out (as with the various alternative medicines for example)

  • Tim Kowal · April 27, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    @David Hume
    I’m familiar with the argument: what we call “morality” is nothing more than reactions to acts failing to comport to preconceived notions of appropriate behavior. It never seems to do more than attempt to redefine “morality” as “the sort of behavior to which we have a particular sort of mental response.” That is, it does not get so far as to the concepts of “right” and “wrong” as more than merely personal. To extend morality beyond the self, we would have to accept, among other things, that all people are built in such a way, which necessitates reliance on induction, which necessitates metaphysics.

  • Author comment by David Hume · April 27, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    To extend morality beyond the self, we would have to accept, among other things, that all people are built in such a way, which necessitates reliance on induction, which necessitates metaphysics.

    if you define it that way, yes, it does rely on metaphysics. but that also means the intel x86 architecture relies on metaphysics (through science as generalized induction); true but trivial.

  • Tim Kowal · April 27, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    @David Hume
    That you find it trivial strikes me as autobiographical. At any rate, I suspect what you mean by “trivial” is that it does not directly advance science and technology. That much must be granted. But the necessity of metaphysics in the human endeavor to “know” stuff, and to know what we can know, is certainly not trivial.

  • Gotchaye · April 27, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Tim, you’re right that you have to appeal to metaphysics if you want to argue for a moral claim in any reasonable way, but that doesn’t mean that morality is based on metaphysics. You probably have your causation backwards, as best I can tell from what psych I’ve read – our metaphysical notions are often based on our natural mental responses to certain behaviors. No one is good because they believe in some Platonic Form of Goodness. People assume the existence of metaphysical Goodness because they have different kinds of mental responses to certain things, and they come up with particular notions of what exactly metaphysical Good is by inferring from how their own minds work. Metaphysics is an explanatory structure that people find useful as a way of masking the subjectivity of experience, but our commitment to objectivity is pre-rational and is the cause of our metaphysics.

    You don’t need a metaphysics to feel things as right and wrong (psychologically, our experience of rightness and wrongness is prior to a rational understanding of morality) – you only need a metaphysics in order to meaningfully argue about right and wrong with other people.

  • Tim Kowal · April 27, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    @Gotchaye
    Yes, I believe that is what I said, or was trying to say–that “knowing” things in an objective context (as opposed to personal, subjective experience), whether moral, natural, or conceptual, is a sine qua non of humanity. And to do that we need a metaphysics.

  • Ploni Almoni · April 27, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    This blog seems devoted largely to refuting the claim that without religion, particularly Christianity, we’ll all be running wild in the streets. Agreed, that’s not going to happen. People will behave “morally” without religion. The serious question, which people here such as Heather Mac Donald are infuriatingly determined to ignore, is: Which morality?

    Secular Right preaches an essentially bourgeois Christian moral code: the Church Without Christ. How will your secularized Christian moral code be preserved against external challenges – Muslim, and especially pagan – without Christianity as a basis? And why should it even be preserved at all? Is secularized Christianity the only moral code supported by natural reason?

    There’s one person whom no one at Secular Right has ever even heard of (apparently), someone by the name of Friedrich Nietzsche, who had the courage to ask these questions and the malice to attack those who were too afraid or too complacent to ask them. His attacks were mainly directed not against believing Christians, but against exactly the John Derbyshires and the Heather Mac Donalds of his time. I humbly recommend that some of you check out this obscure philosopher. The name is N-i-e-t-z-s-c-h-e. Who knows, you might even want to reply to his challenges on your blog.

  • Author comment by David Hume · April 27, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    what are the particularities of the moral code you allude to which are christian?

  • Andrew Stevens · April 28, 2009 at 2:43 am

    You don’t need a metaphysics to feel things as right and wrong (psychologically, our experience of rightness and wrongness is prior to a rational understanding of morality) – you only need a metaphysics in order to meaningfully argue about right and wrong with other people.

    This claim could always use more nuance than it usually gets. It is certainly true that some experiences of rightness and wrongness are pre-rational. (In fact, as a W.D. Ross-style moral intuitionist, I insist on it.) We don’t need a moral philosophy to have certain moral beliefs about certain things. However, it’s important to realize that this isn’t the way all morality works, not for anyone, nevertheless for everyone. E.g. in the familiar trolley problem, where one pushes a switch so the trolley switches from the track where it’s en route to kill five people to a different track where it will only kill one, it’s the reasoning centers of the brain which light up an MRI. On the other hand, it’s the emotional and social cognition centers which light up when the problem is changed to the “footbridge” variant where you have to push a large man off a footbridge in front of the trolley, killing him, in order to save the five people who will otherwise die. By the way, some people have wrongly concluded from this that this proves utilitarianism right after all. Because, of course, we all know that emotions are always wrong and reasoning is always right. I call this the “Vulcan fallacy.” (For what it’s worth, I very much favor a rational morality, but it’s simply not the case that just because one is reasoning that one is doing so correctly nor is it the case that because one is having an emotional reaction, that it’s therefore wrong. The utilitarian boosters claim that those who favor pushing the man over the bridge light up the reasoning centers of the brain, but this doesn’t make them right. I’d be willing to bet that if they hooked me up to the MRI, my reasoning centers would light up as well and I’d still conclude that they were wrong. If the original experimenters had wanted to test my moral philosophy rather than utilitarianism, they would apparently have also incorrectly concluded that they had proved it correct.)

    As mistaken as I believe utilitarianism is, the philosophy is not the result of utilitarians’ having different subjective reactions to moral dilemmas than I do and inventing an elaborate rationalization for those reactions. On the contrary, they have the same reactions as I do and are guided by their reasoning to override them. It is their reasoning that I believe is flawed. Rationalization of already existing preferences may be the motivation for some moral reasoning, but clearly not all.

  • Gotchaye · April 28, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Andrew, I can agree to that. I’d considered adding another paragraph to my last post adding that some people (mostly philosophers) do try to conform their moral intuitions to a reasoned metaphysical structure. I know I do this, certainly. I still think that there’s an important sense, though, in which even utilitarian philosophers have an experience of rightness and wrongness that prompts them to construct a metaphysical explanation of morality. They’re also committed to consistency and simplicity, and so their metaphysics feeds back into their intuitions (reflective equilibrium).

    And I do think that this is very, very much a minority perspective – most people really don’t care (except in the abstract) about consistency in their moral beliefs and most are perfectly happy to entirely conform their metaphysics to their intuitions.

  • Caledonian · April 28, 2009 at 8:38 am

    @David Hume i think that the positivist position here has problems. i mean, is there a “right” or “wrong” reason to have children? is having children true or false?

    That’s not the right question. Assertions about having children and the choice of whether to have children can be true or false. The action itself cannot be.

  • Caledonian · April 28, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Andrew Stevens :

    Andrew Stevens

    Because, of course, we all know that emotions are always wrong and reasoning is always right.

    ‘Wrong’ and ‘right’ have no meaning unless they refer to some set of standards or evaluation criteria. And since you’re discussing the standards people hold, the only way to discuss the rightness of wrongness of those standards is to refer to some external, objective principles.

    What parts of reality are you referring to when you discuss whether or not an emotional response is ‘wrong’?

  • Ploni Almoni · April 28, 2009 at 9:10 am

    David Hume :

    David Hume

    what are the particularities of the moral code you allude to which are christian?

    Just off the top of my head, and of course none of these are exclusively Christian: noblesse oblige, condemnation of infanticide and involuntary euthanasia, a large measure of universalism and respectful treatment (if not love) of “the Other” (as in The Good Samaritan), greater respect for the individual over the collective (whether or not expressed in terms of rights), sympathy for the weak over the strong…. I could go on. Of course all of these are relative, not absolute. Also, I tried to list general tendencies rather than specific instances. For example, what I call universalism could be instantiated as, if a noncombatant sympathetic with al-Qaida is injured, you give him medical treatment rather than, say, stomping on his face or killing and eating him and then shrinking his head for a souvenir.

    As an exercise, compare with the pagan moral code of Nazi Germany. And yes (to whoever is getting ready to bring this up), I do know about the Inquisition and the Spanish Conquest and all that.

  • Author comment by David Hume · April 28, 2009 at 10:16 am

    and of course none of these are exclusively Christian

    exactly. in any case, christian morality has “evolved” a great deal. you can ask the baltic pagans who were enslaved by christian knights during their crusades, their slavery being explicitly acceptable because they were pagan. as for nietzsche, he’s a powerful thinker, but as my friends know i disagree with many of his empirical claims about the past, and the nature of the human mind. history and psychology have come a long way since the 19th century. ergo, you can see why i don’t quail before your reference nietzsche.

  • MBM · April 28, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    The mention that of 2000 respondents in Pakistan none admitted to being atheistic caught my eye. I don’t doubt that the prevalence would be extremely low in Islamic societies but I wonder if there is another effect at work. It could be that the few who might have admitted atheism had the understandable attitude that canvassers’ promises of confidentiality were unconvincing. It would be an extremely dangerous position to take even with assurances of complete anonymity which would be impossible to 100% guarantee.

  • Ploni Almoni · April 29, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    @David Hume
    I don’t get your “exactly.” Each of the things I listed appears, to a greater or (almost always) lesser degree, in some non-Christian religion. I don’t know of any non-Christian moral code where they all appear to nearly the same degree as in ours. In any case it’s undeniable that they are historically Christian. It’s questionable, at the very least, whether they can survive the death of Christianity.

    The question is how to defend them against challenges. Natural reason, the great white hope of Secular Right, seems obviously inadequate, at least without outside help. It’s inadequate both philosophically and socially. (Do we at least agree on that much?) All I’ve seen here are unsupported claims that the bourgeois Christian moral code which you all profess can in fact be preserved without traditional Christianity. I’ve never seen even a hint as to how this might be done.

    Re Nietzsche, I don’t expect anyone to quail before the mention of his name. I’d be satisfied just to see someone engage his critique of the Secular Right worldview.

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