Is Secularism Thin?

I just read Michael Walzer’s “The Paradox of Liberation”.  The paradox of the title is that national liberation movements that were secular in character found themselves challenged and subverted by fundamentalist religious movements in three instances Walzer discusses: Algeria, Israel and India.  In each case the European-educated elite who threw off colonialism were motivated by secular ideals of justice, equal rights, and emancipation but thirty years into the project they found themselves threatened by tribal, orthodox religious parties: the ultra-orthodox in Israel, the Islamists in Algeria and the BJP in India.

Walzer is himself a man of the enlightenment left so he is troubled and thinks that the issue may be that secularism is too thin, so the fundamentalists step into the breach.  You can imagine what he means: that secularism ducks the big questions, that it doesn’t sacralize fundamental relationships, that nobody is willing to die for it.  In a fight between a movement whose members are willing to die for it and one whose members are not willing to die for it, you would be wise to put your money on the former. (Unless the latter have much, much more money in which case it’s anybody’s game.)


On the other hand do we really know what a religion is?   Sure we all have a sense of the family resemblance of the big Abrahamic faiths — if there’s a man in a beard or an unusual hat talking about a creator deity and giving rules for how to keep that deity happy and promising a reward after death for making him happy, and it is all linked to books purporting to tell amazing stories of the ancient middle east, then it’s a religion.  But surely that’s a shallow and essentialist way of looking at things — especially the hat part.   Essentialist because it assumes what’s worth arguing about, which is whether you can motivate people without appeal to forged ancient books and anthropomorphic creators.  Shallow because it avoids the personal question.  If religion is anything it is how each of us answers the question “How should I live?”  “Given that I must die what is important?”  “What do I owe to my fellow?”  If religion is whatever answers these questions, then it’s at least an open question whether the Abrahamic faiths as they currently stand are even religions, much less whether they are the only religions (compare Marxism, nationalism, consumerism, progress, art, the family etc. etc.)

If that is the case then how do we understand Walzer’s paradox — a thin secularism unable to do battle with a robust orthodoxy?

A step towards understanding the paradox is imagining how it would be to solve it.  One attempt to solve it would be to deck out secularism with its substitute for religious culture.  Have ceremonies of commitment to reason perhaps or gather in the Temple of Understanding to celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin.  Whenever people try this it seems to fail though and to feel (Walzer’s apt word) like kitsch.

What does the failure teach us?  There is something wrong with reifying “culture”.  Secularists look at the vibrant faith of the orthodox and want to know what they have to fight it. It looks like — nothing.  It looks like secularists have no culture, at least not the kind that enchants the heart and draws people together into a communal embrace.  It looks like there is no reformed Jewish substitute for the Hasidic rebbe’s table, and no story from secular India as captivating as the Ramayana.

But this is a mistake.

Culture is easy to spot far away and long ago — but the culture we are making right now is invisible.  Every decision we make, every thing we say in an effort to be memorable, or persuasive, or beautiful — the way we make love to our lovers and kiss our children — that is our culture.

Is it thin?  God forbid that it should be thin.  Every second we are are enacting our culture.   If our children love us, if our fellow citizens trust us, if anything we say is worth listening to or worth repeating then we have a culture.

Is it secular?

Walzer says memorably that the only thing it makes sense to call “secular” is a government.  If it doesn’t make sense to call an individual or a marriage or a family or a corporation secular it doesn’t make sense to call it religious either.  Surely each of these institutions that we secrete by living — much as a caterpillar builds its cocoon — is a mixture of an axis of faith and an axis of reason.  Yet “faith” and “reason” are loaded terms.  To be even clearer we could say: there are things we are in a position to explain to our fellows, things we are in a position to explain to ourselves, and things we are not (yet) in a position to explain to anybody, but we live by them all the same.

The enlightenment fantasy may be said then to be that there is nothing about us we cannot explain to everybody.  This is clearly false.  Yet the idea that there is a shadow side to ourselves and our relationships — call if faith or myth — can be frightening.  It can make us feel vulnerable.

If secularism — whatever that is — is able to look at its own vulnerability squarely there is nothing thin about it.

The only thing thin about it is its fear of being thin.


6 thoughts on “Is Secularism Thin?

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    Wow. You covered a lot. Where to start?

    How about this: “it is at least an open question whether the Abrahamic faiths currently satisfy our religious needs, and whether there is some transformation under which they could do so.”

    Isn’t that what’s happening now, as we reinterpret our faith to make it more inclusive, give equal rights to women, and so forth? Everyone but the Haredi Orthodox seems to agree on that goal.

    I agree that “you can motivate people without appeal to bearded creators” — but not all people, and very few by appeal to abstract principles. Motivation is emotion, and most of us are motivated most of the time by our emotions. That’s why fundamentalist movements have such appeal. It’s not a matter of intelligence or education: it’s just how we’re built. I can know all the facts about some tasty new computer that I really, really want, but the facts can’t tell me if I should buy it or not. Ultimately, it’s how I feel about it versus the alternatives (the opportunity cost of buying it).

    That human life can be ordered by rationality alone is an example of what LSE psychologist (and bete noir) Satoshi Kanazawa calls “the intelligence paradox” in his book of the same title. Highly-educated people tend to evaluate beliefs and practices by the standard of abstract reasoning. As a result, they simply don’t perceive the beliefs’ and practices’ covert, unplanned, non-rational social functions.

    It seems to me that religion includes beliefs, but is also how people in a community share ways of feeling and acting toward the universe. The sharing itself is important: along with ritual and various kinds of “sensory pageantry,” it reassures believers and evokes a sense of reverence. It gives them more than just verbal answers to “big questions.” It makes them feel that they personally are safe and significant, that they have a place in the world and that they know what it is. Whether their feeling is true or even logically meaningful is irrelevant: it’s still helpful.

    I was raised “Jewnitarian” and learned science from the crib onward, but ultimately found that worldview unsatisfying. Science is great, but it’s the experience of lived faith that answers my own ineffable questions.

      • N.S. Palmer says:

        We’re on the same page, which doesn’t surprise me. If the secular are happy, moral people who find what they need in their way of seeing the world, then good for them. It would astonish me if the Creator of the universe sat up nights worrying about who believed what. Kind of more important to keep the laws of nature running properly. 🙂

  2. Perhaps it’s not secularism at all – it’s just another religion in itself? And perhaps faith wavers in the face of violence – certainly a opposing, weaponised religion isn’t going to suffer any change if some of their guys die. Heck, they’ll probably celebrate it in some valhallarish way. And your side when your family is killed or in chains and beaten? Faith wavers in the face of violence, maybe – maybe goes to adopt the others religion (hello politicians cutting liberties in the name of protecting against terrorists, eh?)

    But having beauty (some kind, anyway) always makes you more vulnerable than weaponised religions are. Then again what are they safe from – the blackness inside being somehow made more black?

  3. Mikey says:

    If the Enlightenment fantasy is that there is nothing about us we can’t explain, then the modern secularist must move on from there. The unexplainable stuff needs addressing though, if not explaining. If the stories and poems which we come up with to address the unexplainable are a success then they will build into a thick culture, but when that happens a new religion is created. In the thickening, the stories calcify and embrittle. This is when they need to be protected by an angry god. If they are not that successful then they are thin and will give way to more religious style stories when in conflict.

    I’m not as hopeful as you are for the thickness of secularism. But I think developing good stories must be part of it. Stories that secular people can recite to their children without feeling hypocritical, but which aren’t just science lessons.

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