bookmark_borderAfter Secularism?

I like to keep religious interference in my life to a minimum. I count myself lucky that I Iive in a social and work environment where there’s no expectation that I should attend any kind of religious service. And in politics as well, one of my leading concerns is to preserve church-state separation and to promote an environment where public matters are debated without reference to faith-based commitments.

As far as I can tell, most nonbelievers also have similar attitudes toward religion and public life: let religion be a private matter, let it not intrude upon the common public space we all must share. Fortunately, many religious people share such attitudes, as liberal and individualistic forms of spirituality can also flourish in a secular environment. More communally-oriented faiths, however, such as conservative Catholicism and most varieties of Islam, are genuinely disadvantaged in a secular public realm, and so they tend to resist secularism as an anti-religious imposition rather than a stance of enforced religious neutrality.

Fine — so this means nonbelievers such as myself will probably remain staunch defenders of political secularism, regardless of sharp political disagreements that we may otherwise have among ourselves. Our activists focus on church-state separation; our political thinkers argue for the virtues of a secularized public realm. But I don’t see much discussion of other possibilities. In particular, a question that bothers me is what, as nonbelievers, we can do if social circumstances change in a way that overtakes secularism.

Predicting the social future is very difficult, but I don’t think this is an idle worry. In many parts of the world, such as Islamic cultures, attempts at secularism have been failures; secularism is now irremediably associated with authoritarian government, elitist impositions, and inauthentic westernizing tendencies. In other parts of the world, existing secularism is constantly under strain, such as in India, or even the United States. So it is at least possible to think of a future where the fortunes of secularism have declined significantly, and a more conservative religious populism dominates the public sphere of many more countries. In that case, what can we hope for? What is our Plan B?

Now, I don’t quite know. I teach physics, not political science; I wouldn’t call myself an especially astute political thinker. But I think I am familiar enough with the subculture of religious skepticism in the United States to have a decent impression of what we are preoccupied with. And other than the common worries about “encroaching theocracy,” I don’t see much discussion of what might happen after secularism. Furthermore, I’m not sure that our worries about theocracy are all that well-founded; by spinning scenarios of clerical rule, we miss the democratic, populist nature of much anti-secular politics today. If we continue moving toward a post-secular world, this is more likely a world where religious symbols have much more prominent roles in public tasks of legitimation, but not some crazy extremist fantasy where a holy text serves as a national constitution.

So, what would happen — for example, if religiously defined communities were to become more prominent political units and rights-holders as opposed to individuals? How much of what is precious to nonbelievers could we preserve and keep flourishing? Would it be possible (though much against the grain) to define ourselves as one among many communities? Would it then be possible to have art and literature that might be considered blasphemous still circulating freely as long as they are confined to the “skeptical community” and subject to more restrictions when made available more generally? How would science be affected by a loss of its privileged position in public education in matters such as evolution?

I’d like to see more answers to such questions that are more subtle than “back to the Dark Ages” fears. Anti-secular populism and religious fundamentalism are thoroughly modern social phenomena: they are not atavisms, they are not echoes of theocratic political visions our Enlightement forebears struggled against. And if they end up more successful than our rather tired-looking secularism, I expect we will have to respond in new ways. So, here’s a call to secular people better equipped for original political thought than myself. If you know of work that fits what I’m interested in, please point me to it. (I’m aware of a lot that goes on but not everything; it’s quite possible that I’m woefully ignorant of a lot of good work.) I’ll buy the recommended books, and I’ll do my best to publicize them. And if my impression is correct, that we nonbelievers have not paid as much attention to possibilities after secularism as we should, well, I hope someone does this work. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’d be intensely interested in what comes out.

bookmark_borderGlobal warming and evangelicals

Normally, I don’t buy the sentiment expressed by Voltaire, that “as long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.” Someone with accurate views about the nature of the universe can still be a complete and utter bastard; some of the most gentle, most pacifist people in the world link their behavior with supernatural beliefs as dubious as anything connected to Inquisitions.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that occasionally I’m tempted to think otherwise. After all, faith-based weirdness too often spills over into some really dangerous craziness. One example is the tendency among US evangelical Christians to deny anthropogenic global warming. Lately, actually, there had been some positive developments: some evangelicals had come out starting to say that they had to help deal with global warming and other environmental crises. This task, actually, was part of their stewardship responsibility and so forth. But the Big Guns I often listen to on Christian radio (yes, I have weird hobbies) were inclined to think climate change was a conspiracy by godless liberals, and they’re now starting to bring their influence to bear. It’s one think to have your little intellectual perversions; another to harm everyone else outside your own community due to your faith-based way of thinking.

Now, environmental lunacy is hardly a excluively monotheist preserve. The Enlightenment tradition, which I identify with, has plenty to answer for here as well. It’s not hard to come across very secular forms of environmentally ignorant thinking. Visit just about any economics department, especially one that harbors people infected with that very Enlightenment-based perverted optimism, that no matter what, human ingenuity will always eventually save the day. Still, there’s something more to evangelical Christianity in the US—especially due to its alliance with free-market fundamentalism and a particularly brainless variety of populist nationalism. There’s a very strong anti-science streak in American popular religion, masked by an equally common worship of technology.

So creationists, for example, tend to be global warming “skeptics” as well. After all, they know that mainstream science is thoroughly corrupt. Why trust a bunch of godless commie scientists, who are deep down concerned only to erect an idol of Mother Nature in place of the One True God? Some push evolution, some prattle about climate change, it’s all the same. I’m not surprised to see some intelligent design web sites also preoccupied with denying mainstream scientific positions about global warming—for example, Uncommon Descent.

Beh. All things come to an end; so be it and all that. But I’ll be pissed if we end up destroying civilization and one of the major contributors is lunatic religious beliefs that encourage environmental pillage, nuclear war, or some similar suicidal impulse.

bookmark_borderNice declaration, but…

The Secular Islam Summit earlier this month appears to have produced “The St Petersburg Declaration,” which expresses some very agreeable sentiments.

Normally I’d endorse it, and encourage others to endorse it as well. But I find it hard to support an event organized by some thoroughly vile neocon figures such as Michael Leeden, is dripping with hard-right US and Israeli nationalist connections, and so far seems to be celebrated by the right-wing press who are not generally allies of secularism but miss no opportunity to bash Muslims. This isn’t good. I don’t know if this is a case of Muslim reformists trying to use the neocons, the neocons trying to use the critics of Islam, or something nastier. But as far as I’m concerned, the whole event and its results are tainted, regardless of the superficially attractive rhetoric produced in the declaration.

It’s also disturbing that the Center For Inquiry, normally a relatively sane outfit and a reliable supporter of secularism and religious skepticism, is in bed with all these neocons where Islam is concerned. Just because someone presents themselves as “bravely” criticizing Islam, that doesn’t mean that they do a good job of it! CFI risks being suckered in by some unscholarly people with some ugly political agendas that have little to do with urging reform and freedom of inquiry in Muslim lands.

bookmark_borderWe live in the land of biblical idiots

That’s the headline of an opinion piece in today’s Los Angeles Times by Stephen Prothero.

Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, is author of a new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t. Part of his book is based on a “religious literacy quiz” he has given to his undergraduate students for the last two years, the results of which show that the majority consider themselves to be religious Christians, but are profoundly ignorant of Christianity and the Bible.

He argues that there should be mandatory Bible courses in public high schools, presumably based on the curriculum from the Bible Literacy Project (which he mentions in his opinion piece), rather than the abysmally bad, biased, and unconstitutional curriculum which is actually being widely taught in U.S. public schools, from the National Council on Bible Curriculum.

I agree with Prothero’s idea in principle (though I don’t think it should be mandatory, and I think a world religions course is a better idea), but I’m not sure how well it would work in practice. Even with the Bible Literacy Project’s book as the basis for the curriculum, I think there’d likely be many teachers turning it into one like the NCBC’s–like David Paszkiewicz at Kearny High School. P.Z. Myers suggests that this problem be resolved by having a world religions course taught where each religion is only be taught by someone who is not an adherent of that religion.

There’s also the problem that those teachers who did teach objectively could find themselves involved in lawsuits from parents who don’t think anyone should teach their children that there are other worldviews–though presumably once a precedent was set that problem might fade.

(Also see Wonkette’s “Jesus-Loving Americans Totally Ignorant of Jesus, Religion.”)

bookmark_border13th District of California: holy smiting imminent?

The Secular Coalition of America reports that Rep. Pete Stark of the 13th Congressional District of California has acknowledged his nontheism in response to their inquiries. A Los Angeles Times article carries a little more detail:

"When the Secular Coalition asked me to complete a survey on my religious beliefs, I indicated I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being," Stark said. "Like our nation’s founders, I strongly support the separation of church and state. I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social services."

It will be interesting to see whether this might inspire others to step forward, or whether it might cost Stark re-election instead. It also raises some travel concerns for me, since I have to fly to Oakland Airport later this month, and will hardly be able to do so if God wipes the East Bay out of existence.

bookmark_borderGood week for infidels in the book world

The 11 March New York Times bestseller list for hardcover books includes five that should be of interest and possible encouragement to infidels: The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation are still there, of course, at #12 and #24 respectively; Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel is on for its third week, at #7; and they are newly joined by Chris Hedges’ American Fascists, at #13, and Victor J. Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis at #21. Not altogether bad.

Of course, we are all expecting An Illusion of Harmony to go to #1 on the next list, so maybe that will make it six…