The problem with secularism
By PHILLIP BLOND AND ADRIAN PABST, IHT.COM
Added: Fri, 22 Dec 2006 00:00:00 UTC
Thanks to George Hyde for the link.
LONDON: Geopolitically, the resurgence of religion is dangerous and spreading. From Islamic fundamentalism, American evangelism to Hindu nationalism, each creed demands total conformity and absolute submission to their own particular variant of God's revelation.
Common to virtually all versions of contemporary religious fanaticism is a claim to know divine intention directly, absolutely and unquestionably. As a result, many people demand a fresh liberal resistance to religious totalitarianism.
But it is important to realize that this reduction of a transcendent religion to confirmation of one's own personal beliefs represents an ersatz copy of liberal humanism. Long before religious fundamentalism, secular humanists reduced all objective codes to subjective assertion by making man the measure of all things and erasing God from nature.
This was a profoundly secular move: It simply denied natural knowledge of God and thereby eliminated theology from the sciences. Religion, stripped of rationality, became associated with a blind unmediated faith — precisely the mark of fanaticism. Thus religious fundamentalism constitutes an absence of religion that only true religion can correct.
Although the cultured despisers of religion are once again making strident appeal to secular values and unmediated reason, they do not realize that the religious absolutism they denounce is but a variant of their own fundamentalism returned in a different guise.
Richard Dawkins's barely literate polemic "The God Delusion" declares that religion is irrational without ever explaining the foundations of reason itself. Sam Harris's diatribe "The End of Faith" has to falsify history by claiming that Hitler and Stalin were religious in order to make its case for the malign influence of faith. The attacks on religion are becoming ever more shrill and desperate — a clear sign of atheist anxiety about the status of their own first principles and explanatory frameworks.
This atheist apprehension is well founded, as the latest developments in biology, physics and philosophy all open the door to a revivified theology and a religious metaphysics.
Darwinism is close to being completely rewritten. Hitherto, it had been assumed that forms of life are the product of essentially arbitrary processes, such that (as Stephen Jay Gould put it) if we ran evolution again life would look very different. However, evolution shows biological convergence. As Simon Conway Morris, a professor of biology at Cambridge University, has argued, evolution is not arbitrary: If it ran again, the world would look much as it already does.
Nor is natural selection now thought to be the main driver of biological change. Rather, life displays certain inherency, such that the beings that come about are a product of their own integral insistence. All of which means that there is no necessary conflict between evolution and theology. Indeed, evolution is no more arbitrary than God is deterministic. Similarly, in cosmology and physics the idea that the world was produced by chance has long been dismissed. The extreme precision of the gravitational constant that allows a universe like ours to exist requires an explanation. Rather than envisioning the world as an intended creation, secular physics posits infinite numbers of multiverses existing alongside our own. Thus, the sheer uniqueness of our universe is qualified by the existence of all other possible universes.
The trouble is that this supposition sounds more bizarre than religion. Moreover, to posit this paradigm leads to the Matrix hypothesis that we are actually only a virtual simulation run by other universes more powerful and real. So religion finds itself in the strange position of defending the real world against those who would make us merely virtual phenomena.
Philosophically, if one wants to defend the idea of objective moral truths, it appears ineluctably to require some sort of engagement with theology. For if there are universals out there, we need to explain why they care about us or indeed how we can know them at all. And if human beings do not make these truths, then it seems an account of the relationship between ultimate truths and human life can only be religious.
Thus we are witnessing a real intellectual return to religion that cannot be reduced to the spread of fanaticism. It is also becoming clear that secularism reinforces rather than overcomes both religious fundamentalism and militant atheism.
In the new, post-secular world, religion cannot be eliminated and, properly figured, is in fact our best hope for a genuine alternative to the prevailing extremes.
Phillip Blond is a senior lecturer in religion and philosophy at St. Martin's College, Lancaster. Adrian Pabst is a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies.
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