Demi-Sec(ular)

Secularism is a worthy notion, even if it does end up surrounded in slightly odd perceptions. It is quite common to read accounts of secularist atheists which mention the valuable support and accord of secularist theists but, while I have no doubt there exist such, I expect it is a far less common convergence of commitments. This is one of the oddest perceptions: that secularism is somehow a threat to religious belief. Considering that in general secularism is not just about holding religious belief separate to any political power, but also about enshrining freedoms to believe and practice and religion, or no religion, ‘odd’ barely covers it. Why object to anything that protects your own freedom?

As usual, though, that is not what is going on. Evangelism (or the nagging fear that people elsewhere might not believe what you do) has a much higher incidence among theists than atheists. I was once told by a pair of evangelists at my door that they were as happy as any non-evangelist atheist such as myself to live and let live, to let people be. This seriously invited the question of why they were waving their Bronze Age documents in my face. The point here is that there is a tendency among people who believe in absolutist notions (which is inextricably linked with most religion) not just to want their own freedom to carry on such belief, but freedom to diminish and outlaw any dissent. It has been said that wherever religion acquires political power, atrocity, or at least oppression, follows.

Very few, if any, theists would accept this. But thankfully there is a less disputable reason to mock general religious attitudes towards secularism. In most cases wherever secular systems end up holding sway either formally or informally, religious observance tends to decline noticeably. A superficial reading of that sort of statistical conclusion is that secularism is therefore some kind of attack on religious belief, and this is why it must be opposed. But there is a much better interpretation of why this happens. And, possibly, why it does not happen in the few anomalous cases. When religion loses its mandate to inveigle its way into all aspects of life, to indoctrinate at all stages, and alternatives are allowed, that section of the population who observe religion out of indifference, or peer pressure, outright fear, or any other reason aside from actual faith, fall away from it. The anomalies presumably occur where one or more of these other reasons still possesses enough force to coerce the agnostic middle into identifying as a theist.

So secularism is a problem for the theist, not because it undermines any of an individual’s beliefs or (within legality) right to practice. It explicitly protects that. It is a problem because it detracts from religion’s own inherent need to proselytise its own rectitude. Or, rather, its natural desire to impose its own structure on others and not to tolerate difference, dissent or criticism.

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In my capacity as a practising smartarse I often get drawn into debates with evangelical types. Which is, of course, pointless: arguments don’t sway faith, and evangelists have no arguments to sway infidels such as myself. Nevertheless, it can be useful to a) prove that a secular outlook means wildly different belief sets can co-exist and b) remind oneself that religiosity is certainly not the result of reasoning.

In a recent encounter I opened with a reliable shocker on the theme of not only do I not believe, but I would be horrified to find out there was a god. Atheists tend to be viewed as actually lacking something (‘atheist’, however, is just a word, and one that would have been unnecessary if god-concepts hadn’t been brought up in the first place) and I often find the assumption in theists that most of us would welcome a divine presence if only we could open up our minds (which is, I assume, to crack open our skulls and reap the rewards that lavishes on our intelligence levels).

There are many reasons to be horrified by god, but I went with the divine tyranny option. I value being able to choose (whatever that means) and create values. I value using my own brain and experience to make sense of the world and its inhabitants. If there is a divine provenance to the universe, it typically is characterised as a moral one as well as a physical creation one. Which means there is a correct answer. And judging by holy texts and the behaviour of adherents to them, the correct answer would not be mine. It is tempting to say therefore there is no god, to paraphrase someone I always paraphrase. But it is not so much the being rendered Wrong that I dislike so much, it is the very meanness of there being a single correct way. As with the dismal paucity of the answer ‘god did it’ when talking about the intricacies and wonders of the physical universe, this impoverishes the experience of being human.

It is also slavery and compulsion. And a bizarrely unfair halfway house: we are not free to choose what is right, but we are allowed to choose whether we do what is right. And if we do not, we are punished to an insane degree (eternity is a lot longer than most people seem to think). The response I received to that was that god is a benevolent guide, we are free to follow his guidance or not, and his Christian holy book does not threaten punishment. No argument needed there, it simply does so threaten. A lot. Also, god is evidently not much of a guide. If one went to a tourist information desk and their one pamphlet was a collection of millennia-old places and events, and the person on that desk said they were not actually the guide pamphlet source, nor had they ever met, seen or heard anything from that source, but nevertheless following the pamphlet to the letter was the only guaranteed way of navigating the city, one might think of at least raising an eyebrow.

Which is the point. Religiosity is not about reason. It can be about ignorance. But often it is about whether it satisfies a psychological or social need. But in either of those cases, to lower all standards of evidence and to blindly hold to what one wants to be the case are very poor endorsements of that mode of being. The evangelists at my door wanted a Father. I’d say he would be found wanting, for absenteeism at the very least.

Reflections on a Sixpence

Anyone who may have read any posts written by me might have detected a hint of… antipathy towards religion and theistic thought (for example, to me that is an oxymoron). This is for many reasons, many of which have been covered or at least broached. The one I am addressing here relates to standards of evidence, or more broadly the modes of rationality allowed or employed. Religion frustrates me because as a deeply rational empiricist the haphazard, tissue-thin, rarely even internally consistent modes of thought or standards of evidence employed in theistic traditions both galls and frightens me.

Partly this is because the standards of reasoning are typically so bad I cannot help but worry that it opens the door to all poor standards in all areas of thought. To subvert a famous sentiment: ‘with God, anything is permitted’. And I would maintain that there is some truth in this. Although many religious traditions officially reject what they think of as superstitions (you know, crazy ideas such as breaking mirrors being bad luck, not sensible ideas such as virgin birth) once you have lowered your standards of evidence and reasoning, especially for classic religion-centred reasons such as believing what you want to believe, deluding yourself into believing you matter more than you do etc., there will be some cognitive creep.

However, more broadly the utter deluge of cognitive crap actually does not occur to the degree that I sometimes fear it will. Otherwise, the general mass of theists would not actually manage to function at all. In the general run of life, even theists expect demonstrable evidence to accept things are the case. Hopefully, if I maintained that there was a lovely sandwich in the fridge, but it couldn’t be seen, felt or tasted, but would definitely nourish them if they had faith it was there, they would feel they were being treated like an idiot. The terrible standards of evidence and reasoning seem largely confined to matters pertaining to religion.

On the one hand this is a relief. The world would be even worse if people reasoned in the theistic mode in general (or perhaps, briefly, a lot funnier, before becoming far less densely populated, and then by only the rational). But for me this brings an additional frustration. Because it indicates that the people concerned are not incapable of being rational, and yet there is almost blanket refusal to apply a consistent level of intellectual integrity.

But, evidently, to theists they feel the same standards of reasoning and evidence are not to be used in such different magisteria as the phenomenal and the noumenal. My final thought, then, is to wonder why, in what is supposedly the realm of actual Truth and meaning, the ordinary hugely successful methods of science and general empiricism are anathema, and blind faith, refusal to acknowledge evidence and non-questioning of authority are so highly prized. I suppose we all worry the ropes we cling to will unravel. But empirical industry tends to provide gradually better ropes as the old ones fray.

A State

In one passage in Zarathustra there is a comparison between the state (modern nation type state) and a sort of monster with unending hunger for its own aggrandisement. A monster which, in its desire for that glory-bedecking, effectively devours the people. A good comparison considering the way nation-states appropriate the very blood of people to further its causes, as well as laying claim to the achievements of its cultural and scientific geniuses, actions which are both monstrous and in bad taste. However, as I shall come to, a monster might be more palatable.

For those of us who are baffled by the idea that the achievements of someone else who may have been born in or at least associated with roughly the same geo-political entity and expanse are in any sense ours, this is in especially bad taste. This is not least because, should we achieve any such cultural or scientific zenith, then it too would be taken to further glorify the nation-state. This is compounded by the fact that membership of a nation-state is not a choice. I do not speak there of membership of an individual nation-state, since clearly people can choose to transfer from one to another, I speak of the complete lack of choice as to whether you belong to one or not.

For some reason the idea that some people might not wish to be part of the currently ubiquitous nationalist system is largely absent from the memetic environment, and to try and broach it brings little but immediate censure. Not wishing to work for a nation-state is laziness. Not wishing to contribute to a nation-state is selfishness. Not wishing to die for a nation-state is cowardice. That this comes from the nation-state, its mouthpieces or its indoctrinated, also does not seem to make many suspicious.

A monster might understand that there may be some who do not wish to participate in the monster/monster-slayer dynamic. The nation-state does not.

It is not terribly clear in Zarathustra if there is any solution to this, though there is more in Nietzsche’s wider writings. And it would simply be a world where there could be a separation. Not a physical separation, but a politico-conceptual one. No one wishing this separation would care if the mean and lacking could never lift their eyes and thoughts above the immediately phenomenal, such that the pointless and bloody business of the nation-state continued for the vast majority.

Nietzsche conceived that the few who could and would stand apart would be the geniuses, and the cultural productive excess arising from their being allowed to stand apart would be the recompense from having to depend on the material production of the… non-geniuses. Well, actually he referred to them as slaves. Property-owning, wealthier than the geniuses/masters, vastly larger in number and greater in material power (essentially your normal citizen body of today), but slaves nonetheless, being as they would be culturally inferior and necessarily so.

I have no hope for this. Some monsters can be reasoned with or overcome: the main point where the comparison fails.