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An ‘Enchanted Secularism’? No Thanks

RealityWriting in the New York Times, David Brooks frets about what non-believers, um, believe:

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.

As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed.

Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College sociologist, makes this case as fluidly and pleasurably as anybody in his book, “Living the Secular Life.”

Oh good grief…

Secularism has “spokesmen”?

Now it’s true that most people do want to have faith in something. That’s why so many supposedly secular philosophies are anything but (step forward, Karl Marx).

But if there is anything that non-belief should not be it is a creed. In essence non-belief ‘says’ one of two things: Either that there is no God, or (in essence, I know it’s more complicated than this) that the existence of God is highly unlikely. That’s it. Move along, there’s (literally) nothing to see here. What’s on television tonight?

From what Brooks says, Zuckerman’s “creed” appears to be some variant of the usual soft-left secular humanist mush. That’s for those who like that sort of thing, but only for those who like that sort of thing. I’ll pass, thanks.

Brooks then worries about how hard it must be “to live secularism well”, claiming that secularists have to build their own moral philosophies (not really, accumulated traditions, societal and familial, often work out just fine – and they come with the plus of not needing too much thought), and that secularists have to build their own “communities” and “covenantal rituals”. They do? Why?

And then:

Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

No they don’t “have” to. Quite a few secular individuals doubtless do feel a ‘God-shaped hole’, or some need for the transcendent, but, judging by my own experience, I suspect that there are plenty of others who do not.

The amount of time I need “to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters”: zero. It’s easy, Mr. Brooks.

If anything, what Brooks’s article shows is how difficult it is for some religious folk (particularly, I suspect, the more intellectual among them) to ‘get’ the fact that for some secularists at least, “spiritual matters” are not something they are too bothered about.

Towards the end of the piece Brooks argues:

It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.

In a way Brooks is right. If secularism (which he appears to use as a synonym for atheism/agnosticism rather than, anything more specifically political or philosophical) is to be a ‘creed’, it would have to appeal to the irrational as well as the rational. That’s how creeds work (take another bow, Karl Marx!) but, to repeat myself, there is no reason why secularism in the sense that Brooks uses it has to be a creed. It can be a simple matter of observation (or, some might say, failure to observe), complete in itself.


The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

“Enchanted secularism,” “the spiritual urge in each of us”?

I’ll leave that sort of thing to the likes of Professor Dawkins and, my spiritual urges thankfully non-existent, revert to spending my time on something more fruitful.

What’s on television tonight?




The Great Agnostic

RobertIngersollWriting in the Weekly Standard, here’s Katherine Mangu-Ward with an entertaining review of a new biography of Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic:

While today’s GOP is associated with public displays of faith, the Republican party of Ingersoll’s day was more likely to be the home of freethinkers, such as the churchless Abraham Lincoln. The American public wasn’t ready for overt atheism in elected or appointed office, but Ingersoll’s talent on the stump made his endorsement valuable. Jacoby persuasively argues that Ingersoll fits into the classical liberal tradition, a thread that remains visible, if controversial, in the fabric of the modern Republican party…

His speeches were studded with jokes that played to American sensibilities: While explaining Charles Darwin’s still-controversial theory of evolution, he speculated how tough it would be for blood-proud European aristocrats to learn they were descended from “the duke Orang Outang, or the princess Chimpanzee.” Far from finding the prospect of a godless universe depressing, Ingersoll considered the theory of evolution a desirable replacement for the story of the Fall.

“I would rather belong to that race that commenced a skull-less vertebrate and produced Shakespeare, a race that has before it an infinite future, with an angel of progress leaning from the far horizon, beckoning men forward, upward, and onward forever—I had rather belong to such a race .  .  . than to have sprung from a perfect pair upon which the Lord has lost money every moment from that day to this.”


Read the whole thing.

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A Skeptic

Nigel Farage, Birmingham (Sept 2012 ) (AS)From a Guardian interview with Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s neo-Thatcherite, euroskeptic UKIP:

He won a lot of Tory support by opposing gay marriage, chiefly because it was an affront to religious values. “Tolerance is a two-way street, and the whole equality rights agenda has come to the point of head-on conflict with religious faith,” he declares, as if such a conflict must de facto discredit the equality agenda. It takes some nerve to oppose gay marriage on religious grounds – while adding, “I know the Anglican church isn’t much good, but mind you, with that idiot having run the show for the last 10 years that’s hardly surprising. Couldn’t even clip his beard for the royal wedding!” – when, on closer questioning, it transpires Farage isn’t even really a Christian. He claims never to have thought about whether he will go to heaven, or even if such a place exists. “Never.” He goes to church four or five times a year, and thinks it plays “an important role in our society”, but as for believing in God, “I think there is something there, but that’s as far as it goes.” It sounds to me as if he’s agnostic. “Well you’ll have to draw your own conclusion,” he says, looking slightly embarrassed.

While I don’t agree with Farage on same sex marriage (live and let live, say I), the rest of this section of the interview is worth noting for the (presumably leftish) interviewer’s failure to understand that it’s quite possible to oppose something as being an affront to religious faith without sharing that particular set of beliefs. Farage quite clearly sees the Church of England (however flawed) as part of the tradition that makes the country what it is, an essential element in the glue that holds it together. Whether the rather wild claims on which it was originally based—first made in some foreign country two thousand years ago—were true is, of course, an irrelevance.

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The Pope Presumes (But Means Well, I Think)

These comments by the Pope seem to be intended as a friendly gesture towards agnostics, and so that’s how they should be taken. Nevertheless, he presumes a little too much:

In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: “There is no God”. They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”.

Well, some may be, but, speaking solely for myself, I don’t spend much time thinking about such matters. These questions are unanswerable, so why worry?

What to have for lunch, on the other hand…




An Agnostic Manifesto

Judging by this entertaining new piece in Slate, I suspect that Ron Rosenbaum may have been spending a little too much time thinking about this whole God-or-not thing (a fruitless debate, if ever I saw one), and his idea of a “new agnosticism” doesn’t delight, but there’s still plenty in Rosenbaum’s “manifesto” to enjoy.

This was a good start:

Let’s get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

And then there’s this, half a sentence written by an agnostic which proves that Hell does indeed exist:

Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship, being lectured to by believers and nonbelievers…

Read the whole thing.

Thomas Huxley


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