Secular Right | Reality & Reason



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?



  • Author comment by Steve Cardon · February 15, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    It’s another great journalistic attempt to draw broad assumptions about a Venn grouping of people with respect to a descriptor that is itself not universally agreed upon. Webster’s Dictionary may define Atheists as being those who believe there is no god, but plenty of self-described Atheists would say that in their case it means they do not believe in a god, which isn’t necessarily the same thing at all. Since the religious can’t even agree on exactly what a god is, does, or wants, the attempt to pigeon-hole “non-believers” as some homogenous monolith needing to fill holes/vacuums/whatever is made all the more ridiculous.

    One might almost suspect this was meant as a left-handed slam, in the smug guise of an attempt to be understanding/engaging/pandering, if Mr. Brooks were religiously devout. It certainly comes off as rather insulting; the same old insult of “where do you find your moral compass if you don’t believe in a (rule giving, judgemental, punishing, omniscient) god?”

    Mr. Brooks needs an “enchanted” clue, because religion certainly does not necessarily motivate any of its professed adherents to moral motivation, and the action religion often impels is anything but moral. It is a prime example of those inside a bubble, being unable to view that bubble from the outside however hard they may try.

    Richard Dawkins has famously declared himself an “Anti-Theist”, to make clear that Atheism itself is neither a movement, nor an organization of any kind. He does not claim to be any kind of “spokesman” for the disparate atheists of the world, that claim is made on his behalf by presumptuous pundits amongst the “believers”. Atheists are not a group requiring a “Vatican 2”… thank Dawkins (my personal pantheon).

    I myself would say Atheism is merely an unwillingness to be conned by a syndicate of storytelling salesmen.

  • BehindTheLines · February 16, 2015 at 2:05 am

    For those who want some beneficial passions to drive the people, how about some more good, old, fashioned American patriotism? I’d rather people be telling stories about George Washington and Jimmy Doolittle than about Noah or Mohammed.

    Then there are those of us who do think reason and observation are the only legitimate tests of truth, including moral truth. I guess people like us don’t exist in Brooksworld.



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