About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, November 08, 2010

John Wilkins on secularism

A smallish sample of an essay (from here) that is worth reading in full:

What can be done when people are unable to see things other than in absolute terms, and so decide that their religion, being True, is entitled to do anything it can to bring about the Proper Society? All I can say is that we should all stand against such absolutism, with arms if necessary, to protect freedoms, ours and others', and the Open Society. No principle of reasoning can prevent this.

All of this relies on there being only rational actors in the consideration of how to set up society and the law. Of course, there are not. There are those who think God will come down in the End Times next week and smite all the unbelievers. Millenarian views like this come and go, and are, I suspect, correlated with social rates of change - the greater the society is changing, especially as it is modernising, the more millenarianism is about. Much religious opposition in society is, I think, opposition to modernism itself, not the specific aspects. For example, opposition to abortion is more about having some control over who may mate with whom and how in a permissive society, than it is about theological issues. ... There are always those who think it only right that they control society, because they are God's agents, or at least the agents of Providence or History.

I like the frank acknowledgment that there can come a time when revolutionary violence is needed to oppose theocracy. Thankfully we're not in that position in the West, but the situation of our friends in places like Iran may well be another story.

Wilkins is not a Gnu Atheist, but this is pretty feisty secularism.


Arizona said...

I am often dismayed at the inability of secularists to see the absolutism in their own stands.

Brian said...

Care to elaborate Arizona?

Russell Blackford said...

Anti-slavery advocates were pretty absolutist as well - they weren't big on just freeing half the slaves as a compromise.

Arizona said...

Absolutism has a tendency to lead to intense and unquestioned righteousness and therefore to exclude discussion and compromise. Perhaps the bloody US civil war might have been avoided if abolitionists had taken a softer approach, for example, by planning for change to happen in smaller stages.

Also, I don't think that slavery has been fully eradicated and perhaps it never can be. There will always be some who have power over others, who limit their freedom, and exploit their forced labour.

Arizona said...

@ Brian: I like to imagine a post-secular society in which secularists and religionists converse meaningfully together to build something that can accommodate both. It would take open-mindedness and a genuine desire to listen - on both sides.

I know that fundamentalists and absolutists are not big on listening. I just don't see these features exclusively on the one side of the discussion.

In the realm of philosophy, the German Habermas supports this kind of thing and the French Comte-Sponville has a sensitive ear for the religious point of view. People like that show that it can be done.

Brian said...

in which secularists and religionists converse meaningfully

How do we parse that? Don't some secularists and religionists converse meaningfully now? Should we enforce meaningful conversation?

together to build something that can accommodate both.

But don't we have that now? I mean, we can group-hug or group-sneer, but we are all accomodated in something aren't we? I might get all angry about the Pope lying that the Nazis were atheists, for example, but I will let him say the lie and won't try to manhandle him for it. He's accomodated. What more do you want? We pretend he's not a liar? We pretend that things we find abhorent, to change tack, are not abhorent to us to make people comfortable? No. (I hope I wasn't using the royal we there, but it has more rhetorical force to use plural!)

You have shown that you stand for something, if obliquely, so should we all. However, I'm sure it (whatever we are part of) can be improved, what are your suggestions?

If we can't test ideas, disagree, we're no more than dogmatists. We should be able to disagree, test ideas, with words, in whatever accomodates us, I think. I'm sure John Stuart Mill said it better than I.

Sorry if the post comes off strident. I'm in that kind of mood at the moment. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

Eamon Knight said...

Arizona: you are confused. Secularism (and I know from previous writings that this is the way Wilkins means it) is not the opposite of religion, rather it is the opposite of religious privilege and preferential treatment in the political and/or social sphere. One can be religious (and many are) and secularist at the same time.

Exactly what secularist "absolutes" are you opposing?

Arizona said...

@ Brian
I don't quite get you, sorry. I can't tell whether you understand what "converse meaningfully" means and whether it matters that you cut the "together" off the end of it. Yes, you do come off strident: defensive, scared, offended, confused.

Have a read of the Habermas article I linked to, then count slowly and carefully to ten, then respond again hopefully less stridently.

Arizona said...

@ Eamon
I don't think I've opposed secularism with religion ... unless I goofed somewhere and left the "ism" off the end of religionism. The precise secularist absolute that I am questioning is an absolute insistence on secularism that cannot envision any post-secularist future (aside from a civilisation ending disaster).

Simple secularism is threatened by the rise of religionism, initially carried by Islam but now growing within Christianity (as well as other religions). Israel is a good test case: it is struggling to retain its secularism against rising pressures from Islamism and from a fast growing religionism within Judaism itself. The religionists worldwide are many times more fertile than secularists and their voting power will soon be overwhelming. Simply to denounce them all as deluded or unenlightened is not helpful, not in the longer term.

I know this is hard to do but it's about time secularists understood that they currently hold precisely the privilege and preferential treatment that they are withholding from the religionists. It's time to find ways to share power and the first step in that is finding ways to talk together properly, in ways that are meaningful to both sides and sensitive to the values of both sides.

Christian Munthe said...

There's one thing here (in the quote as well as the subsequent discussion) I find a bit simplistic, namely the implied identity sign between "religion/religious believer/religious belief" and "dogmatism/absolutism". Russell's example of the anti-slavery movement is an aberration to that, but only slightly, since what is discussed in the quote is dogmatism/absolutism of a sort implying claims to political power (that does not apply to the anti-slavery movement, they just wanted slavery to be abolished, no matter who was in power). However, surely, there are many religious people who do not harbor any such claims, in spite of perhaps being absolutist in their conviction about some religious idea. There are also many examples of non-religious (even anti-religious) believers/beliefs who are absolutists/dogmatists in the sense implied in the quote, e.g. followers of marxist-leninism and most variants of fascism. So, it's a bit strange to hold out criticism of absolutism/dogmatism in the sense talked about in the quote as being about what secularism is about.... Or, do I miss something here, Russell?