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Challenging the Secularist Narrative

Monday, 6 February 2017  | Scott Buchanan

In former times, secularism meant the state’s neutrality in the face of competing worldviews and comprehensive claims about reality. Ideas could be freely trafficked in a pluralistic environment, whilst no one religion or creedal system could claim official establishment. To be sure, political and social discourse was grounded in a basic set of shared values - for example, tolerance of other ideas, or an assumption of the rationality of one's opponent. This ensured a modicum of agreement among those entering the public square, which in turn facilitated civil debate and open enquiry. Nevertheless, all were permitted to enter that space according to their own lights and their own convictions.

More recently, however, a new conception of secularism has arisen. Unlike its intellectual forebear, the contemporary model is neither neutral nor passive in regard to contrasting worldviews. Quite the contrary - it is largely built upon a fundamental antipathy towards what it sees as the unwarranted public influence of ‘belief’. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse exemplify this view, whilst Australia is also home to its own tribe of new secularists. Proponents of this view devote themselves to a vision of the public square expunged of anything allegedly lacking in scientific objectivity. Much of this ire has been directed, of course, at religion.

The new secular project rests on two, complementary claims: that certain value-systems – particularly those codified in religious traditions – are hobbled by a corrosive irrationality; and that secularists enjoy the benefit of an objective, unmediated view of reality. For the new secularists, there exists an irreconcilable division between these two realms – between a grounded, life-giving realism and an enervating superstition. However, despite their increasingly widespread popularity, these assertions are quite unfounded.

Let’s examine the first claim: namely, that religion is irrational. Dawkins encapsulates this view well when he condemns (religious) faith as ‘blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence’ (The Selfish Gene, 1989, 198). For him and those of his ilk, religion is bereft of rational and evidential justification. This isn’t merely the claim that this religious adherent is irrational or that doctrinal formulation is without foundation; it is, rather, the much stronger assertion that religion as such is rationally deficient – the product of delusion, wishful thinking or a stultified intellect. But this claim flattens out the diversity of religious belief and experience, in both nature and origin. It’s impossibly broad, ignoring the rich intellectual traditions of some of the world’s major religions, and the sophisticated arguments that have been developed to substantiate them.

For example, the medieval Catholic monk, Thomas Aquinas, was a skilled exponent of rational demonstrations of theism. In his ‘First Way’ (a type of cosmological argument), Aquinas argues that the everyday objects of our experience and their causal interactions with each other furnish a base from which a person might reason, via metaphysical principles, to a sustaining cause of the very structures of reality. He saw that finite things are possessed of latent properties that can only be ‘actualised’ (that is, brought from the realm of the potential into the realm of the actual) by external forces; change within an object is the result of those forces acting upon it, whatever they may be. To take a simple example, a red rubber ball left in the sun will eventually turn a lighter shade of pink; place it near a hot flame, and it will, over time, change into a puddle of viscous goo.

According to Aquinas, these changes are part of larger and more complex chains of causation. Each member within that chain has only secondary causal power, simultaneously depending on earlier members for whatever potency it exercises. Delving down into ever-deeper layers of reality, the First Way takes one to its basic structures. Simultaneously, the First Way also argues against an infinite regress – that is, an infinite ribbon of casual activity, stretching downwards ad infinitum. For Aquinas, this would be metaphysically ‘groundless’, having nothing upon which to become extant. And, if so, then it must terminate in a fundamental cause, sustaining all else and actualising all secondary causes. Sitting at the foundational strata of reality means that this fundamental cause could not, in principle, be a part of it – as if it were merely some finite feature of our world. Rather, it would have to be the very source and ground of all being, the metaphysical basis upon which the world exists in the first place. And, for Aquinas, it would have to correspond to what people traditionally know as God.

Of course, new secularists might retort that most religious folk don’t think this way, but rather construct their beliefs in a more unreflective manner. However true this rejoinder may be, it fails to realise that many arguments for, say, God’s existence – no matter how intellectually demanding – actually build upon the quotidian experiences and intuitive impulses of ordinary people. Aquinas’ own explorations depend on everyday observations in order get off the ground. Other arguments of this kind are partly based on a person’s ordinary (yet reasonable) reflections concerning causal principles, a sense of the transcendent, and a belief in the world’s rational intelligibility and even its apparent contingency. As theologian Keith Ward notes, belief in the kind of God Aquinas sought to substantiate plausibly fulfils many of these longings – ‘for God’, he writes, ‘is ultimate reason…[and] the only belief which gives reason a fundamental place in reality’ (Is Religion Irrational?, 2011, 61). Such arguments may distil, challenge or stretch certain aspects of a layperson’s unfocused understanding of theism. Nonetheless, they are not fundamentally at odds, and imply that the basic drives people possess towards the divine may be quite consistent with rational theistic accounts.

New secularists might still contend that such arguments simply fail to supply evidence for God’s existence – and, therefore, lack any rational warrant for religious belief. For them, a reasonable belief is largely synonymous with what is empirically demonstrable. But as philosopher Edward Feser has perceptively suggested, this criticism founders for the very reason that it adopts an a priori (i.e., non-empirical) assumption about what counts as ‘rational’, ‘evidence’ or ‘warranted belief’. The scientific enterprise is merely one avenue towards knowledge and truth; other methods of rational inquiry exist, including mathematics and philosophy, which do not rely fundamentally on empirical observation. Moreover, the very assumptions scientific study takes for granted – the existence of the external world, its rational intelligibility, the reality of causation or the general reliability of one’s senses – suggest that such a project cannot even get off the ground without implicitly appealing beyond itself.

What, then, of the new secularists’ other assertion: that they alone, as people free from the encumbrances of bias (both religious and otherwise), enjoy a transparent view of reality? How should one respond, say, when a Neil de Grasse Tyson argues we need a new ‘country’ – Rationalia – whose constitution stipulates that public policy should be stripped of all value-statements and formed on the basis of pure facticity?

Irony abounds, for De Grasse’s own position represents as clear a value statement as one would want. To be liberated from all prior values and assumptions is intrinsically impossible, since no one makes enquiries about the world in a vacuum. As missiologist and theologian Lesslie Newbigin has noted, human beings are inescapably bound by their finite vantage points and are conditioned by prior plausibility structures that reinforce or screen out certain patterns of thinking. Similarly, sociologist and political theorist Barrington Moore, Jr. wrote that,

…Human beings…do not react to an “objective” situation…There is always an intervening variable, a filter…between people and an “objective” [event], made up of all sorts of wants, expectations, and other ideas… (See Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 1966, 485).

I’ve already noted that even those who prize empirical observation above all else must still begin with a received picture of the world. Secularists who tout the predominance of ‘facts’, and who try to ground their views in an exclusive kind of empiricism, are unwittingly committed to their own set of plausibility structures – in this case, presupposing that reality can only be captured by the methods and processes of modern science. Again, the new secularist, just as much as the religious devotee, is inherently incapable of adopting a completely value-free position.

Additionally, facts by themselves can’t do all that much; they need to be held together coherently, according to an overarching narrative or interpretive framework, if they are to mean anything beyond their own referents. The debate over abortion is a good example. Modern science might be able to determine in great detail when a foetus begins to develop vital organs, when it is able to feel pain and so forth. But how can it tell us if abortion is, under any circumstances, morally justified? How can it determine when, if ever, a baby with a developmental disability should be terminated? Even framing the questions in such terms is a category mistake: thanks to Hume’s observation that one cannot derive an ought from an is (at least without further argumentation), it’s clear that simplistically trying to read prescriptive truths off descriptive data cannot be done.

Some, like Dawkins, think that one of the crucial questions regarding the morality of abortion is that of foetal suffering. Though important, such consequentialism is simply not the logical product of scientific enquiry. He proceeds to argue that the moment of birth forms a ‘natural Rubicon’ between permissible and impermissible acts of killing. But again, how does the scientific enterprise lead to such a distinction? What essential difference is there between a child who has been in its mother’s womb for eight months, and a child just born? Dawkins’ line-drawing is arbitrary, having little to do with a pure, empirical appraisal of the situation. One might equally argue that conception marks the basic ontological transition from non-being to being, and is therefore the ‘natural Rubicon’ one ought to use; indeed, everything subsequent to that epochal moment simply represents its unfolding. The point, however, is that these issues – the nature of personhood and the value one should ascribe to it – are fundamentally philosophical and metaphysical. Scientific enquiry alone cannot provide complete answers. Consequently, the secularist’s much-vaunted neutrality dissipates and she once again finds herself in the same boat as the religious adherent – compelled, that is, to rely on a basic array of presuppositions to guide her ethical analyses and prescriptions.

As much as the new generation of secularists would have us believe their claims regarding religion, truth and reality, it’s clear those arguments are deeply unsound. It’s therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that attempts to squeeze religious and other value-laden convictions out of the public sphere do not proceed from innocent scientific or rational enquiry. Rather, those methods have been pressed into service to help prosecute an agenda possessing quite different origins. If this article has succeeded in anything, then it has at least shown that the self-styled opponents of myth and superstition have been shrewdly peddling a few myths of their own.

Scott Buchanan is currently studying theology at Ridley College, Melbourne, and is a social worker in community mental health. He has a blog at scottlbuchanan.wordpress.com

An earlier version of this article first appeared at
scottlbuchanan.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/challenging-the-secularist-narrative/. Reproduced and edited with permission.


janice newham
February 6, 2017, 10:07PM
Very helpful article from Scott.

Most of the intelligentsia of old, including academics in universities across the ages and cultures, were people of faith. Were their IQs lower than the IQs of the current secularists? Does today's secularism imply a belief in the progressive evolution of the brain?
Ken Rolph
February 14, 2017, 6:40PM
I once heard Christopher Hitchens talking to Philip Adams on the radio. Hitchens was pushing the line that religion was responsible for all the violence in the world. Adams asked what he thought about Stalin. Hitchens harrumphed for a few seconds and then said, "Of course Stalin trained as a priest".

Of course all the good things in life are done by our side and all the bad things are done by the other side. How could it be otherwise? If anyone on our side does something bad it is easily explained. They must secretly belong to the other side.

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