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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, February 20, 2012

Hutton and Dawkins on secularism - Hutton gets himself confused

This is important, so I'm going to harp on it a bit. At one point in the discussion, Hutton says the following:
I also think your distinction between atheism and secularism is sleight of hand. Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical. The reason why a secularist objects so strongly about the extension of religion into the public sphere – and even its private practice – is because its adherents are delusional, and, using your own words, imposing a delusional set of values and practices on others.

Nor do I understand what you mean by religious secularists: it sounds like "expansionary fiscal contraction" – a contradiction in terms. Martin Luther King and Gandhi certainly had secular ambitions, but their inspiration and inner strength came from religious conviction. You've made your reputation by being one of the country's most articulate atheists. Don't muddy the waters!
I actually find this quite extraordinary. Hutton seems like an intelligent and well-educated man, but here he is utterly confused - and it's not Dawkins' fault but his own.

No, there is nothing at all that is "sleight of hand" about distinguishing between atheism and secularism. Atheism is an informed absence of belief in any gods (or, if you are thinking of a stronger kind of atheism, a denial that any gods exist). Secularism is the view that the state, or the government, should not be enacting laws and making decisions on religious grounds.

You can be an atheist without being a secularist (you might not personally believe in God, but you might think that it is good for society if the state imposes traditional religious beliefs). There may not be many people like that, but there are some.

You can also be a secularist without being an atheist, and indeed while believing in some religion or other. There are many such people; in fact they are probably the majority of secularists in many countries.

It's going to depend on your theological standpoint, but many theologies allow the view that it is not the business of their religion to try to get the state to impose true religious views on non-believers. If that is your position, you can certainly accept the secularist coin view that it is not the business of the state to be identifying the true (or most beneficial) religion and then imposing its standards on everyone,including non-believers.

Hutton says: "The reason why a secularist objects so strongly about the extension of religion into the public sphere – and even its private practice – is because its adherents are delusional, and, using your own words, imposing a delusional set of values and practices on others."

Well, not really. I don't want someone else's values and practices imposed on me whether these values and practices are "delusional" or not. I don't want them imposed on me because they are not my values and practices. All religious believers, as well as atheists, have a stake in living under a political system that allows each person a great deal of latitude to live in accordance with her own beliefs and values, and engage in her own practices. It is better all round if the state does not get too far into this, and most of us could agree that the state does not do a good job of it. For a start, it should not be identifying and imposing the "correct" religion.

I said "a great deal of latitude" because the state does, in fact, require some things, such as that we not murder each other, that we look after our children, and that we pay our taxes. But modern secular states do not impose comprehensive systems of thought on their citizens, and they do not impose specifically religious standards of morality (or at least they have tended to move away from imposing such standards). If these states have a legitimate interest in imposing a morality at all, it is a rather minimal one related to avoidance of worldly harms and requiring some basic mutual cooperation. That leaves all sorts of other decisions to the individuals concerned. Hence such catchphrases as, "Don't like abortion. Don't have one!"

Indeed, early secularists such as John Locke tended to be Protestant Christians rather than atheists. Secularists these days can belong to almost any religion, though it's true that Muslims and Catholics (at least the higher clergy, not necessarily ordinary Catholics) can have a problem with secularism. Those religions have, historically, been particularly unwilling to draw even a conceptual line between religious and political authority.

Getting back to the Hutton/Dawkins debate, Dawkins is not muddying the waters at all. What he has to say is clear and accurate, while Hutton seems to have a bizarre, incorrect, and ahistorical idea of what secularism is all about. If someone like him can be this confused, we clearly have a lot of work to do.

Finally, I do realise that there are some grey areas, puzzles, etc., here for philosophers to discuss. But that's not what Hutton is talking about. He misunderstands the nature of secularism at a very basic level.


MH said...

This is the third text I've read just recently that discusses both Dawkins and secularism, and each one has had an entirely different conception of secularism. An article in the saturday Telegraph argued thusly: "Secularism as understood, for example, in the United States – the most famously successful secular society in history – is no enemy of religious belief. The separation of church and state enshrined in the American Constitution is designed to guarantee the freedom of worship: to protect the observance of all faiths from oppression or interference by the state. It is the ultimate acknowledgement of the importance – in effect, of the sacrosanct nature – of religious belief and practice, regarding it as one of the “unalienable” human rights. -- Dawkins -- is certainly not a secularist in this pro-religious sense."

And in the Guardian, Andrew Brown says that militant secularists "don't understand the rules of secular debate. -- A secularist, [Julian Baggini] says, is someone who appeals to natural reason, and not to divine law. And this kind of reason is by definition something shared by both sides in the argument. But the militant secularist takes for granted that "the religious" have no access to reason. There can be no reasoning with his opponents. All he can do is to repeat himself more loudly until the idiots understand."

Russell Blackford said...

The Telegraph quote sounds about right until halfway through. By the end it has gone badly wrong - it's not necessarily pro-religious or anti-religious, although religious people can find good reasons to support it ... as can Richard. It's an idea that helps almost everyone.

Brown's piece is just weird, don't you think?

Svlad Cjelli said...

You can be a theocrat and a secularist, competing religions provided.

James Sweet said...

I do think that Hutton is correct that the reason atheists tend to be such rabid proponents of secularism is because of our belief that all this garbage is a delusion. The "sleight of hand" comment is far off the mark -- surely he is not trying to say MLK was not a secularist? Really??? MLK said stuff that was staunchly secular.

But in terms of us atheists being so unapologetically in favor of secularism... well yes, I think that has something to do with it. I was thinking about this recently, trying to think how to articulate it to some theist friends on Facebook. A liberal theist and I might be equally outraged at the recent Republican attacks on contraception, for example, but for me it's doubly frustrating because I don't even except the basic premise. No, not even that; I find the basic premise to be stupid and infantile.

For a liberal theist, the premise that a magical sky daddy wants you to act in a certain way is perfectly fine. They may disagree on the particulars of what said sky daddy actually wants from us, and even if they think sky daddy hates the pill, a secularist theist might still believe it is not the government's business. And these are all good principles. But for me, the idea that a magical sky daddy wants us to behave a certain way is just so outrageously silly that it adds a whole other level of insult to it.

A liberal theist and myself might agree on the principled reasons for secularism. But there is a certain "You've got to be fucking kidding me" edge which I experience and the theist, it would seem, does not.

ColinGavaghan said...

As usual, you're right. But I think some on the secular side of the debate have to bear a bit of the blame for the line-blurring between anti-religious and secular positions. Some of the comments from, e.g. the (UK) NSS's Terry Sanderson have been less than helpful in this regard, including his recent insults directed at 'most muslims'. And a fair portion of Paul Cliteur's The Secular Outlook was really an argument in favour of atheism; fair enough, as far as it goes, but not really what it said on the label.

While I don't agree with Hutton's position, he does raise a question that it falls to us to answer: why should religious views be kept out of state affairs when other moral and political views can presumably be included?

There are, of course, answers to that question - Russell offers a few in the new book - but I can see why it isn't obvious to the casual observer, especially when, at the same time, we are arguing that religious views should be treated just like other political/philosophical views when it comes to debating & critiquing them.

Dan said...

You're all wrong!