Monday, June 01, 2009

Three challenges to secularism

In his interview with John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, co-authors of God is Back: How the Revival of Religion is Changing the World, journalist Caspar Melville summarizes the authors' three challenges to secularism.
First in line is the secularisation thesis, the argument that religion simply fades away as a natural consequence of modernisation. Not true, argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge. Modernity doesn't usher in secularisation, it actively promotes religious pluralism. They then train their sights on the equally popular notion that religion contaminates all those who subscribe to its bogus myths and stories. Not true, argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge. Religion brings out both the best and worst in man, and secularists need to come to terms with the positive role religions have played in providing meaningful care and support for the oppressed as well as in the nurturing of aspirations for political freedom from Poland to Burma to El Salvador. Secularists should therefore recognise the corollary of these two facts. While it is perfectly appropriate to demand that religionists should accept the separation of church and mosque from state as a guarantee of freedom of conscience for all, secularists should play their part by accepting that religion is here to stay.
There are some problems with these challenges right off the bat.

The first challenge equivocates secularism between the sense of church-state separation on the one hand and atheism or anti-theism on the other hand. The authors endorse the former sense, saying "[I]t is perfectly appropriate to demand that religionists should accept the separation of church and mosque from state as a guarantee of freedom of conscience for all," and the United States "is also a perfect example of how religion can be kept separate from the state."

They instead rebut "the argument that religion simply fades away as a natural consequence of modernisation." I have no idea whether this thesis really is dominant in academia, but it's a stupid idea regardless; its falsity is not just unsurprising, but irrelevant. A much better anti-theist argument is the converse: it is critical to deprecate and marginalize religion in order to further modernization, economic progress, and maximum universal human rights.

They attempt to rebut the notion that "religion contaminates all those who subscribe to its bogus myths and stories" by pointing out that "Religion brings out both the best and worst in man." Again, the better anti-theist argument is not that people do only evil things as a result of religion, but that the same basis — the "bogus myths and stories" believed as facts about the world — underlie both the best and the worst that religion brings out. If we want to eliminate the propensity of religion to bring out the worst in people, then we must necessarily undermine the exact same basis that brings out the best.

This strategy at least not superficially self-defeating: If we can determine the best and worst that religion brings out independently of religious belief, then it should at least be possible to bring out the best without relying on the same basis — "bogus myths and stories" — that also brings out the worst.

Since the preceding two bases are fallacious, the corollary that "secularists should play their part by accepting that religion is here to stay," does not immediately follow. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are furthermore silent on precisely what they demand we secularists and anti-theists accept, and how we should go about accepting it.

The authors realize that simply noting that religion brings out the best and worst in people is not itself a sufficient defense. They first that in the United States, evangelical religion and liberal democracy — are as Wooldridge (an atheist!) mentions in the interview — "comrades in arms," presumably because "in America the evangelical movement advanced alongside democracy and liberal enlightened values." This view is so wildly counter-intuitive that overwhelming evidence would have to be presented. We need to look not just at the best that religion has done, but also explain the worst: The complicity of religious institutions in slavery, against women's rights, against black civil rights, against abortion, against gay rights. I suspect the authors of Cargo Cult Science, of looking only for confirmatory evidence, and ignoring or casually dismissing falsifying evidence and alternative hypotheses. They would have to take special care to eliminate the the theory that instead of advancing "side by side", secularism and rational humanism has dragged religion and religious institutions kicking and screaming into modernity. What are we to make, for example, of the fact that the Catholic Church exonerated Galileo of heresy and officially recognized heliocentrism... in 1992?

But they assert more than just the cozy friendliness of religion and liberal democracy; they assert that religion is necessary to democracy. Wooldridge goes on to assert, "Churches nurture certain civic values, that's why the Chinese government, and all totalitarian governments, have been very suspicious of them and have tried to crush them." [emphasis added] This assertion goes beyond the wildly counter-intuitive to the incompetent or intentionally dishonest. First, it's a matter of near-consensus among historians that the suppression of churches under communist regimes, especially the USSR was incidental, part of the larger struggle against capitalism and internal political conflict, and often subtle. Second, it's incomprehensible to assert that any regime, totalitarian, liberal democratic, or entirely anarchic, would be against civic virtues in general; every government endorses some practices as civic virtues and others as vices. Third, religion and churches has been happily used my many "totalitarian" governments, especially in the Islamic theocracies.

Micklethwait seems to dismiss the last objection, saying, "Religion has a good side and a bad side. Sometimes they can come together in the same organisation, as with Hezbollah [presumably a stand-in, however imperfect, for Islamic illiberalism and totalitarianism]. It's complicated." It's a frequent tactic of Cargo Cult science to dismiss confounding evidence with the "It's complicated" hand-wave. We pay these people to figure out the complicated stuff, not simply dismiss it.

Micklethwait seems to concede that, at least for Islam, it is precisely modernity and secularism that is driving both the choice of religion as well as its content: "Islam has a good deal further to travel... [and] it is losing significant ground to Christianity in the new markets of Asia and Latin America. ... Islam's problems with plurality and individual conscience will drag it back. It has to go through a process – a Reformation or Renaissance or Enlightenment – which will be painful. ... Muslims who live in the West, those with experience of living in a plural society, might start to change Islam from within." Micklethwait and Wooldridge seem to endorse not religion in general but covertly endorse Christianity specifically. Apparently the bogus myths and stories of Christianity have a better sort of bogosity than those of Islam (and the unmentioned but also deeply reactionary Hinduism).

But the most incomprehensible assertions are that the United States is an exemplar for both effective separation of church and state and the role of the church in delivering an effective welfare state. The authors ignore the evidence of Japan, Sweden, Denmark, and indeed most of Western Europe regarding both church-state separation and an effective welfare state. They also ignore the never-ceasing struggle against the encroachment of religion on the state — a separation that has been constitutionally in place regarding state governments only since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. The idea that "Just as American entrepreneurial can-do provides the model for the Economist-approved form of global capitalism, so religion American-style is the exportable model for faith." I cannot comprehend how a professional journalist can write approvingly of American "can-do" as a "model of global capitalism" with a straight face, much less leverage the comparison to the advantage of religion. The only way to understand Micklethwait and Wooldridge's position is as pure American exceptionalism: America is teh roxorz!!1111! therefore whatever it is we do with religion must be The One True Way.

The authors' opinions regarding the welfare state are especially outrageous. According to Wooldridge, "If you look at the world of social services, religion provides two things very well. One is you have people who are willing to make sacrifices and do things that it is hard to believe that secular-minded people would do." To support this assertion, Wooldridge mentions, "Pastor Richard Smith from the Faith Assembly of God in Philadelphia, who would just walk into crack houses where people were pointing guns at him and try and close them down. No rational person, let alone any social services bureaucrat, would do that sort of thing." Well duh. Smith is not courageous, he's completely foolhardy; not just foolhardy but actually delusional, "absolutely convinced that God would protect him." And not just foolhardy and delusional, but completely ineffective: we have to solve issues like crack houses by addressing the deep underlying issues of poverty, alienation, marginalization and racism, not by pulling insanely dangerous stunts.

Wooldridge actually asserts that "Care is actually better if it is provided in a faith context." Forget communism, even the most conventionally bourgeois liberal has to gape at Wooldridge's stated reasons with speechless incomprehension. "If you look at social services you have to fill in forms, people are antagonistic or they do it because they have to, whereas if you go to church for help you know you are talking to another human being who actually cares."

Yes, he actually said that in his out-loud voice: you have to fill in forms to receive assistance from state. Oh! The humanity! The tyranny! The horror! I'll tell you, I'll fill out a damned lot of forms to get the $10,000 to fix my teeth (or the $40,000 to fix them properly) or the $3,000 bill I still owe to get three stitches because I can't get private health insurance for any amount of money.

And bureaucrats — just like everyone else — do their jobs because they have to. Wooldridge blatantly slanders the many terrific people who provide state-funded social services, and gives a bland blanket approval to every faith-based organization as acting entirely altruistically and without any sort of hidden agenda. Never mind that even though American religion is so wonderfully terrific butterflies and ponies no-filling-out-forms happily altruistic, there are still tens of millions of people without health insurance, and the amount of health care provided by those dastardly ve-have-vays-of-making-you-fill-out-forms bureaucrats vastly outweighs the occasional chemo for a cute kid with cancer provided by the religious.

Overall, we have see Micklethwait and Wooldridge as either amazed-they-can-tie-their-own-shoes stupid, intentionally dishonest, or (most probably) in the grip of an irrational faith in American exceptionalism as deeply delusional as the most lunatic religion. Furthermore, despite his lip service to skepticism, we must also see so-called journalist Caspar Melville as the worst sort of fawning Faux-News style lapdog.


  1. I have seen articles that advance something like "the argument that religion simply fades away as a natural consequence of modernization." But they usually focus on the notion that most modern nations in the west provide their citizens with a sufficient safety net that people don't feel a need to cultivate ties with a church for that purpose.

    They then explain how the US is an outlier, being poor on welfare, and having more stratification than most modern democracies. So (according to the thesis), the US's religiosity is a symptom of the government's doing a poor job serving its citizens, and certainly not an example to be implemented elsewhere.

    Oddly enough (or perhaps it's not odd at all), the hardcore religious folk has a lot of overlap with the political group that wants to keep the government from providing the services that might result in religious decline (assuming one believes the above argument). I doubt it's conscious for most of them, but one can't help but wonder when it comes from the mouths of authority figures (I caught a bit of a Catholic priest on a television show the other day going on about how they're instructed to give to the needy, but supporting governmental initiatives to do so was bad because it forces people to help the needy, or something; my head about exploded).

  2. But they usually focus on the notion that most modern nations in the west provide their citizens with a sufficient safety net that people don't feel a need to cultivate ties with a church for that purpose.

    That sounds quite plausible, Dan.

    In complicated situations, it's easy to toss in a confounding factor and "falsify" any attempt to describe one of the factors at work, to dishonestly take a simplification of one factor as a complete theory. In just the same sense, one can observe that a leaf or a feather does not actually accelerate towards the Earth at 10 m/s^2 and declare gravity "falsified".

    Micklethwait and Wooldridge show no evidence at all that they have avoided Cargo Cult Science; no evidence that they have bent over backwards to avoid fooling themselves, investigated alternative hypotheses and disconfirmatory data.


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