The Challenge of Secularism
Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting follow-up of sorts (Times Select link here) to Mark Lilla’s more extensive analysis of the relationship between religion and politics from a few weeks ago. Stanley Fish reiterates the deep divide that exists between secular liberalism and those who subscribe to some more “ultimate” explanation of what is (or will be) really true about the world.
According to Fish, liberalism is not, despite its own self-understanding and presentation, the default position of all reasonable people, nor is what is “reasonable” defined or shared by all in the same way. Like Lilla, Fish sees a fundamental incompatibility between “religious” and “secular” understandings of reality. As long as people have such profound disagreements regarding what counts as “reasonable” or worth pursuing, prospects of a fruitful, shared future seem bleak indeed.
To be honest, I think that Fish overstates things a bit. One gets the impression from him that religious folks and those committed to secular liberalism have literally nothing in common—that all they can do is blankly stare at one another across a chasm of hopeless incomprehension. Important differences do exist at the margins of both worldviews, of course, but I don’t think I share Fish’s conviction that religious people are operating with fundamentally different understandings of reality than those committed to secularism. People may disagree about what, ultimately, supports the ends of our political activity, or the means best suited to get there, but I have to believe that human beings are created to long for similar kinds of things—things such as peace, justice, harmony, and wholeness.
Having said that, I, like Fish, find secular liberalism’s tendency to only “tolerate” religious belief to the extent that it reinforces or reflects their own view of ultimate reality problematic. Liberalism’s relegation of religion to the realm of private beliefs where it is expected to exercise no influence on one’s political beliefs and actions is, I think, insulting and unrealistic. If people subscribe to a belief about what is, ultimately, true about the world, it is absurd to expect that this could be confined within the boundaries of private needs or moral preferences. More to the point, secular liberalism does not itself do this. The fact that a particular worldview is more vague and benign than others, does not change its status as an interpretation of reality that informs all areas of one’s life.
Any “official” view which claims to bracket meta-concerns in the pursuit of political peace is itself an interpretation of reality. In a sense, it says “nothing important hangs on what we decide about, for example, the ultimate ends toward which our political activity is directed (or if such ends even exist).” This interpretation may turn out to be true, but in the meantime those who favour it ought to at least acknowledge it for what it is. Assuming that one’s position is the (singular) “reasonable” one, and characterizing all who do not share this view as “extremists,” or “intellectual inferiors” doesn’t do much to help relations in the fragile political situation that these writers so helpfully describe. I do agree with Fish about at least this much.
The question I am left with after reading this article (and the previous piece by Lilla) is “where to from here?” Both writers are fairly pessimistic about our prospects given current political and religious realities. Coping seems to be the order of the day, with both Fish and Lilla implying that about the best we can hope for, given the fundamentally different interpretations of reality subscribed to by proponents of secular liberalism and those with a religious interpretation of reality, is a minimal level of grudging toleration, always in the full knowledge that wildly different (and contradictory) understandings of reality lurk beneath the surface, threatening to erupt at any time.
As a Christian, I think that our current political climate, and the influence being exercised by religion within it, could require a renewed emphasis upon the Sermon on the Mount as our way of being in the world. In a highly pluralistic context where many people believe many different things, and where people have unprecedented access to and understanding of the worldviews of others, it seems that a good place to start would be for Christ’s followers to interact with those they come into contact with in a manner which reflects the one we claim to follow.
Our context does not seem conducive to ideological unanimity, and it is naive to demand this—especially as a foundation for our political system. But rather than just gloomily lamenting the present state of affairs, I think that Christians (at least in the West) can use our unique context, with its many and diverse worldviews, as a chance to try something different: to achieve the ends of Christ via the means of Christ; to be salt and light, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to have our influence in society more closely resemble the redemptive, non-coercive character of Christ.