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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Scattered Speculations on Secularism, Atheism, and Anticlericalism

The noisier advocates of organized authoritarian religiosity -- and especially troubling to pervy atheistical folks like me, Christianism in America -- seem enormously eager to collapse the notion of secularism with that of atheism, and I worry somewhat that some of the more careless advocates of the "new militant atheism" (so called) are abetting the theocrats in this facile identification.

In my view, it is crucial to distinguish secularism, atheism, and anticlericalism as stances -- all three of which I happen myself to advocate, but separately and each for different reasons -- else real mischief can result. This is especially so in a fraught era when, on the one hand, there is conspicuous contestation around issues of the proper relations of public citizenship and private faithfulness, as well as, on the other hand, at once reductive and expansive attitudes toward scientific rationality are apt to take on some of the historical coloration of organized religiosity (and no doubt the latter contributes to the former, and vice versa).

First off, for me the essence of secularity is the demarcation of private from public life as represented not by the ancient separation of oikos and polis (a problematically feminized and subordinated household economy as against a masculinized and valorized civic sphere), but by the more modern separation of Church and State. As it happens, I actually have a much more elaborated and idiosyncratic view of secularity (I'm a theoryhead, you have to expect these sorts of things from me) involving the demarcation of scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political practices of warranted belief, but one doesn't have to follow me down that path to get the substance of my argument here.

Be all that as it may, the iconic scene that captures secularity most essentially for me is the one in which the practitioner of some marginal religious practice or an atheist testifies in a court of law without calling the scene of civic adjudication into question.

The secular is sometimes taken as synonymous with the worldly and distinguished from the otherworldly, and on this basis some describe as secular only those societies in which there is no prominent role for religious belief or practice -- but it seems to me that the substantial content of religious belief and practice is in fact perfectly worldly and so this does not seem to me to be a useful characterization.

Now, atheism, for me, is a matter -- and quite true to what one should rightly expect from the term itself, actually, a-theist -- of doing "without god" in my personal life. I can't honestly say that I think there is much that is particularly positive or substantial entailed by this doing without god that I seem to have been doing cheerfully for a quarter century now, any more than there would be in pointing out that I do without phlogiston or heroin in my personal life.

Since the various characterizations and proofs of the existence of god I have stumbled on in my philosophical travels have never seemed to me particularly coherent, and certainly not to pass muster in the face of the standards of warranted assertability that apply in other circumstances when a person is offering up a candidate description as more useful than others in the way of prediction and control of the my environment, I must admit I have for the most part come to assume that people making what appear to be such assertions are really testifying to profound aesthetic experiences of the sublime and beautiful of a kind that make much more sense to me, whether from hikers recounting their encounters in wilderness, sensualists recounting their encounters in orgies, English majors recounting their encounters with Burroughs or Blake, esoteric mystics recounting their encounters in meditation or whirling, cognitive dissidents recounting their encounters with acid or mushrooms, and so on.

I will say that it seems to me to do equal disservice to the varieties of both mystical and magickal lifeways as well as to the variety of lifeways that do without god to shoehorn them into bland idiotic generalities like "people of faith" or "atheists" neither of which capture any of the worldly differences in practices or perspectives that constitute the substance of whatever is likely to matter most in the lives of all these variously believing folks.

As you can see, I'll admit that I think most of the attention atheism gets both from those who vilify and valorize "it" is wildly overwrought. Now, anticlericalism is another matter altogether.

It seems to me if the militant atheists were clearer about what really bothers them about organized religiosity they would shunt aside all the self-serving generalities about epistemology and irrationality and focus on the priestly patriarchal hierarchies that have captured especially the judeochrislamic monotheisms of the Book. I get especially annoyed when so-called "Champions of Science" (so much of whose "championing of science" seems to involve anti-intellectual diatribes by social scientists and culture warriors against effete elite humanities scholars in a sad and doomed effort to consolidate their own credibility as solid stolid He Men of Hard Science) claim to be carrying the torch of what they monolithically oversimplify as "the" Enlightenment Project.

For one thing, although it is clearly true that there were some atheists (or at any rate, close enough) among many of the key figures in especially the French and Scottish moments of the Enlightenment, the truth is that the overabundant majority of those figures were not, and indeed no small part of the various movements of European Enlightenment consisted of ferocious anticlerical interventions organized to faciliate more personal understandings of proper Christian faithfulness. Pesky facts like these should presumably matter to so-called "champions of science," especially given their endless harping on how devoted to truth they are compared to the rampant relativists and irrationalists they seem all too eager to dismiss everybody else as.

It is especially troubling to notice how often those who would claim to take up the torch of Enlightenment in historically insensitive ways coupled to militant enthusiasm go on to use this rhetoric to demand deference to authoritative would be elites and incumbent interests, precisely to the contrary of the anti-incumbency, anti-authoritarianism, anti-literalism that seem to me more properly to characterize the ethos of Enlightenment if one really must try to distill its complexities into a useful generalization.

This weirdly authoritarian commandeering of Enlightenment discourse seems to me to be afoot when militant would-be champions of Enlightenment mobilize racist construals of a hysterically monolithic Clash of Civilizations demanding we all do what the nice reasonable grown up executives and experts of white racist patriarchal capitalism tell us to do else be bulldozed by skeery highly sexed brown skinned irrationalists with guns who hate our freedom. (It is of course easily possible to criticize fundamentalist social formations without making recourse to such pathologizing and racist overgeneralizatoins and such are the criticisms I personally strongly prefer.)

This commandeering of Enlightenment also seems to me too often to be happening when militant would-be champions of Enlightenment mobilize anti-intellectual construals of a Fashionably Nonsensical Relativist Menace in the Elite Effete Humanities Academy among what are in fact mostly just sensible scholarly advocates of pragmatist, pluralist, social constructivist accounts of prevailing factual and normative descriptions soliciting belief, and propose instead that we defer to expert pronouncements (often by self-appointed "experts" without recognized qualifications in the actual fields under discussion) concerning vital technoscience questions rather than demanding a say in public decisions about the distributions of technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits that conspicuously affect us.

In such cases, it seems to me that these militant atheists, especially in their anti-political or presumably neutrally apolitical scientistic reductionist moods end up endorsing dangerously error-prone and parochially-minded authoritarian forms of technocratic clericalism in ways that endanger indispensable secular commitments. And despite the fact that I share their atheism (and am therefore very likely able enjoy a good joke and a drink at the bar with them whenever their talk turns to Festivus Poles, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or similar trivia), I must say that my own anti-authoritarian anti-clericalism and pluralist secularism in many cases seems to trump my capacity to endorse much in the way of their programmatic attitudes and commitments when all is said and done.

3 comments:

jfehlinger said...

Dale wrote:

> [T]he various characterizations and proofs of the existence of god
> I have stumbled on in my philosophical travels have never seemed
> to me particularly coherent, and certainly not to pass muster
> in the face of the standards of warranted assertability that apply
> in other circumstances when a person is offering up a candidate
> description as more useful than others in the way of prediction and
> control of the my environment. . .

"As for God, well, there are a great many arguments in favor of the
existence of God, and I thought then, and still think, that they're
invalid, and that nobody would've accepted such arguments if they
hadn't wanted to believe the conclusion."

-- Bertrand Russell,
Woodrow Wyatt interviews, 1959

> This weirdly authoritarian commandeering of Enlightenment discourse
> seems to me to be afoot when militant would-be champions of Enlightenment
> mobilize racist construals of a hysterically monolithic Clash of Civilizations
> demanding we all do what the nice reasonable grown up executives and
> experts of white racist patriarchal capitalism tell us to do else be
> bulldozed by skeery highly sexed brown skinned irrationalists. . .

"On a main road at the week-end, you will see men and women, all comfortably
off, and some very rich, engaged in the pursuit of pleasure. This pursuit
is conducted by all at a uniform pace, that of the slowest car in the
procession; it is impossible to see the road for the cars, or the
scenery since looking aside would cause an accident; all the occupants
of all the cars are absorbed in the desire to pass other cars,
which they cannot do on account of the crowd; if their minds wander
from this preoccupation, as will happen occasionally to those who
are not driving, unutterable boredom seizes upon them and stamps their
features with trivial discontent. Once in a way a carload of colored
people will show genuine enjoyment, but will cause indignation
by erratic behavior, and ultimately get into the hands of the
police owing to an accident: enjoyment in holiday time is illegal."

-- Bertrand Russell, _The Conquest of Happiness_

> I share their atheism (and am therefore very likely able enjoy a
> good joke and a drink at the bar with them whenever their talk turns
> to Festivus Poles, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or similar trivia. . .)

Great Pumpkin Pie in the sky. Yum, yum!

De Thezier said...

Dale, you're the best!

I woke up this morning thinking that I would like to better know your views on the new militant atheism. And what do I find on your blog today? Your insightful speculations on secularism, atheism and anticlericalism.

So thank you. :)

De Thezier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.