bookmark_borderHeadscarves to placate the police

An interesting observation I ran across in an interview with a Turkish journalist: Apparently, many women drivers in Turkey have begun to keep a headscarf in the car. This is just in case they run into a police checkpoint (usually for traffic purposes). In Turkey today, the police are notoriously a stronghold of religious conservatism. So when a woman drives by the police with a headscarf on, she is supposed to be less likely to be stopped for an examination of her license.

Stories like this underscore the difficulty of approaching questions like Islamic garb primarily by asking about whether covering up is a free choice. Few of our choices ever approach a liberal ideal of unconstrained considered choice. In an environment like urban Turkey today, both wearing and not wearing a headscarf are complicated options that are never as simple as an expression of faith or a fashion choice.

bookmark_borderAn Atheist Defends Religion

I recently read Bruce Sheiman’s An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion than without it.

It’s a bit disappointing, so I won’t write a long review. The thesis of the book is interesting enough: that organized religion and supernatural belief has significant social and personal benefits, and that even those who find themselves unable to affirm the reality of a God should recognize how religion improves all our lives. Sheiman, as a nonbeliever who wants to believe, brings an interesting perspective to the perennial debate over religion.

I’m not going to call the book worthless. It’s not a bad read; visiting its web site gives a decent idea of what its all about. Still, at a scholarly level, it is a poor job – Sheiman relies almost entirely on cherry-picking and hack-philosophizing. He regularly ignores research that might support more skeptical conclusions. He indulges in too much Mircea Eliade-style mush and romanticizing of “primitive” religion. And Sheiman’s constant hand-wringing about how religion provides meaning to life and the universe is annoying – particularly for those of us who, contrary to his bald assertions, don’t go through life with any great need for existential meaning of the sort transcendental doctrines purport to provide.

Sheiman even botches the job in areas where some hard evidence supports the social and personal value of religion, for example in the area of health. The social scientific and medical literature is full of studies that affirm the benefits of religion. Indeed, this is a consistent theme, particularly where the United States is concerned. Generalizing beyond that is, however, reckless. Sheiman does not place any of this research in context; for him, all these studies are just data points showing that religion is generically and universally a good thing.

This could have been a good book if it had been done right: I would have liked to have a readable, compact book that puts together a case for the benefits of religion. There is a serious argument for that. An Atheist Defends Religion, unfortunately, is not it.

bookmark_borderThe Sentence “God exists” – Part 6

The first chapter in Part II of The Coherence of Theism (revised edition), is Chapter 7, which focuses on the following sentence:

(3) An omnipresent spirit exists.

Swinburne’s initial clarification of (3) is brief:

By a ‘spirit’ is understood a person without a body, a non-embodied person. By ‘omnipresent’ is meant ‘everywhere present’. That God is a person, yet one without a body, seems the most elementary claim of theism. (COT, p. 101)

In my last post, we saw what Swinburne thinks the word ‘person’ means. The next question he covers is this: What does it mean to say that some person is ‘without a body’ (in this context, where God is the topic)?

Swinburne employs a criterial definition of this idea, just as he did for the word ‘person’. He puts forward five criteria (COT, p.104-105) for determining whether a particular body belongs to a particular person (in this case “me” – the person who is contemplating the body). The five criteria are borrowed from another philosopher named Jonathan Harrison:

(C1) Disturbances in this body cause me pains, aches, tingles, etc.

(C2) I feel the inside of this body (e.g. the emptiness of this stomach).

(C3) I can move directly many parts of this body.

(C4) I look out on the world from where this body is (e.g. I learn about other things in the world by their effects on this body).

(C5) My thoughts and feelings are affected non-rationally by goings-on in this body (e.g. getting alcohol into the body makes me see double).

Here is how Swinburne relates these criteria to the idea of a ‘person without a body’:

…a person has a body if there is a material object to which he is related in all of the above five ways…[and] does not have a body if there is no material object to which he is related in any of the above five ways. (COT, p.105)

As with the concept of a ‘person’, he admits there could be border-line cases, cases in which some but not all of the criteria apply. Thus, there could be cases in which a person is partially embodied, or is embodied only to some degree.

Three of the criteria clearly do not apply to God, as traditionally conceived: (C1), (C4), and (C5). However, if we assume God to be omnipotent, then God can direclty move “many parts of” the universe (all parts of it) at will, just as you and I can directly move our fingers. So the universe satisfies (C3) with respect to God, as he is traditionally conceived (being all powerful).

The status of (C2) is a bit unclear in relation to God. God knows when my stomach is empty, and he knows when I can feel that my stomach is empty, so God is aware of the “inside” of my body. But God is not usually thought to experience physical sensations, so it does not seem correct to say that God can “feel the inside” of my body the way I do.

Only one of the five criteria clearly applies to God (in relation to the universe), while three of the criteria clearly do not apply, and one of the criteria applies only partially, at best. So, Swinburne concludes that God is embodied only to a very limited degree.

It is also important to note that with the one criterion that does apply, God is in control of material objects, and concerning the criteria that don’t apply, that is the case because material objects do not affect God in the way that our bodies affect us. If you punch me in the nose, I feel pain. But God cannot be made to feel pain by hitting or altering any physical thing. If you put drugs in my body, I can get confused or sleepy or even die. But we cannot have such influence over God by making changes to any physical thing. Thus we can reasonably speak of such a person (God as traditionally conceived) as being without a body, given that only one of the five criteria definitely applies, and given that the person retains independence from being influenced or affected by changes to material objects.

To be continued…

bookmark_borderEvolution as a liberal cultural weapon

I spend a good part of each week in the classroom trying to teach college students some physics. I’ve done a lot of work on supernatural and paranormal beliefs, particularly varieties of creationism and intelligent design. So I’m professionally obligated to deplore any inroads creationism makes into education, and to insist that evolution is a vital component of science education.

But then, many others also care about this issue. Creationism reliably comes up as a prominent example of the danger of conservative monotheist influence. And the people who deplore creationism need not have any professional involvement in science or education. They need not even be all that skeptical about supernatural beings. They just have to be, broadly speaking, liberal in their outlook.

So, why evolution is so significant for liberals? It’s especially interesting since the usual arguments for evolution in general education – arguments intended to have appeal beyond committed liberals – are weaker than we think. The deeper reasons we liberals support evolution are, I think, specific to liberal cultural ideals. Most immediately, we want evolution in the classroom for purposes of the culture wars.

Let me start with some of these arguments for teaching evolution.

(1) Economic competitiveness. Science education requires evolution, and in a technological age, both national competitiveness and the earning potential of individuals requires a quality science education.

This could be a powerful argument, if it worked. One of the few candidates for common ground we share these days is the love of money. Education at all levels is under pressure to justify itself in immediate market terms. And when a state tries to water down evolution in education, opposing opinion pieces often ask whether this means biotechnology firms will be less eager to locate in the state.

I am not convinced the argument works. It is, to begin with, unrealistic about what science education can accomplish. Currently, I would guess less than 5% of the population of any technologically advanced country has any significant understanding of the processes or the central theoretical frameworks of modern science – an understanding that goes beyond a list of basic facts or an appreciation of nature programs on TV. Indeed, such an understanding is unrelated to the everyday lives and economic success of the vast majority. A modern economy can run very well by depending on the services of a small segment of well-trained applied scientists who serve the technological needs of an investor class.

Note that even within the small minority whose economic roles are related to science, those who need to have a good understanding of the theories of basic science are a further small minority. Science is not the economic driver of modern economies. Applied specialties such as engineering, computer science, and biomedical disciplines are far more significant. And theories such as evolution have very little immediate potential for application in a market context. Even biomedical scientists can function at a high level while knowing very little about (or even being hostile to) evolution. There is some effort at present to play up the promise of evolutionary medicine, but its market potential is marginal. Indeed, medical schools typically do not teach evolutionary medicine at all. Compare this with the trend of incorporating religion or “spirituality” into medical training. This is both because of the large body of research supporting the health benefits of religiosity, and because spirituality has proven market value in the context of medical practice.

I doubt that knowing about evolution contributes much to the market success of students. I can say the same about most of the physics I teach. Most students will use very little basic science in their lives. And forgetting almost all the science they learned throughout their schooling, as most do, will not hurt their earning potential. If marketability and competitiveness is the goal, knowledge about evolution should be made available mainly, or even only, to those very few who go on to work in basic science fields.

(2) Democratic competence. Citizens in a  democracy are often called on to vote on matters where science is highly relevant: where health and reproductive technologies are involved, for example. A proper democracy requires an informed citizenry able to accurately judge the facts of the matter.

In this argument, science borrows from the humanities. After all, the humanities are also a set of disciplines that are of dubious value in market terms, but a background in the arts and humanities is often justified in terms of a training in critical thinking and contributing to sustaining a democratic culture. The science version of the argument holds that if, for example, stem cell research becomes a mater of political controversy, a citizenry who knows something about genetics and development will be in a better position to make good decisions.

This strikes me as unrealistic. If anything in policy turns on any significant understanding of biology, it seems best to insulate such technical matters from direct political debate. I can’t expect large numbers to understand the relevant science any more than I can be bothered to learn about the details of agricultural export regulations. Most democratic participation other than matters that directly touch on our lives is at the level of broad moral convictions and “facts” such as whether human souls are at stake in stem cell research.

So most often, citizens participate by choosing what set of experts they trust. For many people, the relevant experts include, for example, their preferred clergy. Insisting that on certain matters such as biotechnology or evolution it is the scientists whose views count most is not entirely democratic. People also debate about their choice of authorities, and about what institutions deserve cognitive authority and taxpayer support. Where evolution education is concerned, it is notable that the creationists are typically the democratic populists, while the liberals prefer to confer privilege on the scientific community.

I think (1) and (2) are the main arguments. And I don’t think either have too much chance of succeeding beyond a liberal constituency already inclined to trust scientific institutions and and whose ideal of democracy is balanced by liberal conceptions of good government and secular political debate.

So, why do we really favor evolution in an education most people will be subjected to? I suspect a leading reason has to do with our liberal conception of an “educated person.” Alongside an awareness of artistic and literary landmarks, we also hope an education imparts an appreciation of our place in the universe. If someone enjoys lots of money and power, but has no feel for any music or art, we feel they are missing something, maybe even something vital. Again, one can have power and wealth, but if they have no idea about the vastness of the universe, the strangeness of its basic physics, and the immense history of life on the planet, we often think they are diminished. If not only do they lack such traits of an educated person, but they do not seem even curious (think about George W. Bush), this is particularly disturbing.

So at a most visceral level, I think secular liberals such as myself have an aesthetic commitment to our notions about an educated person. Many conservative populists understandably perceive this as snobbery, elitism, or even contempt.

The politics of evolution education intensifies this divide, I think. Appreciating evolution might not help people make more money or vote more reflectively, but it might disturb their inclinations toward naive creationism, scriptural literalism, and taking clergy as authorities beyond religious matters. Good. That’s exactly the sort of thing I want
happening. Evolution is important for science education for the same reasons that make it divisive and culturally controversial.

In other words, exposure to evolution is an important weapon for the liberal side in our culture wars. Its presence in the classroom, even when it is understood only superficially, helps build trust in secular expertise such as that of scientists and it helps erode traditional monotheistic notions of authority. This is exactly why religious conservatives complain about evolution in public education. And that is, perhaps, exactly why secular liberals support evolution. It’s not because of alleged pragmatic reasons such as (1) and (2); it’s because of our particular ideals about what we want our shared culture and political life to look like.

bookmark_borderThe Sentence “God exists” – Part 5

In Part II of The Coherence of Theism (revised edition,1993), Richard Swinburne discusses the idea of a “contingent God”. The first chapter in Part II, is Chapter 7, “An Omnipresent Spirit”,which focuses on the following sentence:

(3) An omnipresent spirit exists.

This sentence involves two key attributes that Swinburne uses to define “God” (or “divine being”, which is a category of beings to which God belongs). In Chapter 7, Swinburne “considers what it means and whether it is coherent to suppose that there exists an omnipresent spirit.” He is not concerned here with the question of whether (3) is true or probable.

Swinburne first clarifies the meaning of (3) on pages 101-106, and then briefly makes a positive case for the coherence of (3) on page 107. The bulk of the chapter is then devoted to answering a key objection on pages 108-128.

His initial clarification of (3) is brief:

By a ‘spirit’ is understood a person without a body, a non-embodied person. By ‘omnipresent’ is meant ‘everywhere present’. That God is a person, yet one without a body, seems the most elementary claim of theism. (COT, p. 101)

So, the question at issue becomes: Is it “coherent to suppose there exists a person without a body who is present everywhere”? (COT, p.102)

Swinburne then answers three questions of clarification:

  • What is a ‘person’?
  • What does it mean to say that some person is ‘without a body’ (in this context, where God is the topic)?
  • What does it mean to say that some person is ‘everywhere present’ (in this context, where God is the topic)?

P.F. Strawson analyzed the concept of ‘person’ in terms of a distinction between M-predicates (such as: ‘weighs ten pounds’, ‘is six foot tall’, ‘consists largely of water’) and P-predicates (such as: ‘is smiling’, ‘is going for a walk’, ‘is in pain’, ‘is thinking hard’). The point of the P-predicates, according to Swinburne, is that persons, “unlike tables and chairs, are from time to time conscious.” (COT, p.102).

Swinburne agrees with an objection that was raised to Strawson’s analysis, which is that “…many P-predicates…can be ascribed to dogs and cats and monkeys, and we would not normally wish to say that these were persons.” (COT, p.102). So, the applicability of P-predicates is insufficient to show that something is a person.

Additional criteria for being a ‘person’ are suggested by Swinburne. In addition to being conscious from time to time, persons…

  • use language to communicate
  • use language for private thought
  • use language to argue and put forward objections
  • have second-order wants (they can want not to have certain wants or aversions)
  • can form and state theories about things beyond observation (e.g. electrons)
  • can form moral judgements

According to Swinburne,
If a thing is characterizable by all of the above predicates then it is a person, and if it is characterizable by none it is not. (COT, p.103)
He allows that there could be border-line cases where something is characterizable by some of these predicates but not by all of them.
I think it is worth noting that, based on these criteria, an unborn fetus would not count as a person. Swinburne does not mention this implication, but it is one that conservative Christians should be aware of before they buy into Swinburne’s line of argument here.
To be continued…

bookmark_borderDianelos on the Moral Argument

Dianelos Georgoudis, in reply to my post “Atheism Debunked! Again!,” has conveniently and succinctly offered both “conceptual” and a “practical” moral arguments for theism. I take the liberty of putting the first of these in premise/conclusion format and try to express it a bit more rigorously. I do hope I have not distorted his meaning. For his original wording, please see the comments section of the earlier post.
The Conceptual Argument:
1) For naturalists, that is, those who believe that the natural world is the only world and that there are no supernatural agents, there is no objective right or wrong. (premise)
2) It follows that for naturalists, the concepts of “right” and “wrong” can only be social conventions or names for convenient means of achieving practical ends. (from 1)
3) However, some actions, such as torturing a child for fun, are intrinsically and objectively wrong, whatever our social conventions might say. (premise)
4)Theism, unlike naturalism, accommodates the fact that some actions, like torturing a child for fun, are intrinsically and objectively wrong. (premise)
Therefore: Theism is compatible with the existence of objective right and wrong, but naturalism is not.
Again, I sincerely hope I have not distorted Dianelos’ meaning.
My objection, of course, is to premise (1). To say that values are objective means that they their worth is intrinsic, not a matter of convention or convenience. Objective values are not made; they are discovered. We do not decide that they are valuable; we find that they are so. Naturalism has no conceptual problem whatsoever with the existence of intrinsic worth or value in that sense. For instance, learning is intrinsically satisfying, even when it has no practical end (in fact, I would say especially when it has no practical end). Simply satisfying your natural curiosity by learning about the world is intrinsically satisfying to creatures such as human beings. It is how we are put together biologically, as Aristotle observed long ago. All humans, by nature, desire to know. Nature has made curiosity as natural for us as bipedalism, so just as we value being able to walk upright, so we value being able to satisfy our curiosity. The objective value of knowledge for human beings is therefore no more mysterious and no more incompatible for naturalism than is the objective value of walking upright.
Furthermore, just as we find value in knowledge, so we find value in each other. We are social creatures. Like other primates, we form strong personal bonds with each other, and social interactions matter a great deal to us. Why? Again, that is just the kind of organism Homo sapiens is. The value we find in friends and family is not a convention; we do not simply ascribe such value or impute it. It is there. Valuing companionship when I am lonely is just as natural and unmysterious as valuing good food when I am hungry. There is nothing here naturalism has the least problem accommodating.

Right and wrong, of course, are conceptually connected with value. The objectivity of right and wrong therefore comes down to two considerations: (1) Are there objective values that our actions might promote or impede? (2) Can it be objectively the case that our actions do promote or impede the realization of certain values or the prevention of certain disvalues? There is no reason whatsoever that a naturalist cannot answer “yes” to both questions, and so no reason that right and wrong cannot be objective for naturalists. So, the claimed advantage of theism over naturalism is spurious.

bookmark_borderAtheism Debunked! Again!

On his Dangerous Idea blog Victor Reppert refers to a 2007 article by Washington Post writer Michael Gerson: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/12/AR2007071201620.html

I did not see this article at the time, and my reason for commenting on it now is that the arguments it gives are ones we have heard many times and ones that will be heard again ad nauseam. Though hackneyed in the extreme, these arguments need to be addressed again and again, and their fallacies must be pointed out for the umpteenth (actually, umpthousandth) time. Why squash bad arguments repeatedly, knowing that no matter how thoroughly you do it, they will soon pop up again, sometimes in slightly disguised garb? Because canards are like weeds. You cannot eradicate them, but you can, by diligent weeding, control the damage they do. Another reason for paying attention to these arguments is that, really, they are almost certainly convictions that motivate even some of the most sophisticated theists. If theistic philosophers were compelled to admit that the whole program of natural theology is a sham, and all of its arguments worthless, it is a good bet that their faith would not budge an iota. The reason is not that they are unreasonable or deceptive people, rather, the reasons they give in the philosophical journals—modal ontological arguments, Kalaam arguments, etc.—are not their real, personal reasons for belief. I think Gerson articulates some of their real reasons.

Gerson is reacting against the “new atheist” books that were high on the bestseller lists when he was writing. The “new atheists” were often chided, accused of boorish tones and disdainful attitudes towards believers. Yet, when I read something like Gerson’s essay, I can’t help feeling like Billy Jack in that godawful movie when the goons dusted his little Native American friend with flour: “I try very hard to control my temper, but when I see something like this, I JUST GO BERSERK!” Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins may have been disdainful, but when I hear the smug, sanctimonious, self-satisfaction with which Gerson delivers his platitudinous polemic, well, I try very hard to control my temper…

Gerson says:

“So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma.”

Hmmmm (still controlling). Well, maybe it might be good to look and see what some philosophers have actually said before too quickly making such sweeping pronouncements. Consider Aristotle. Aristotle is not an atheist. He has a sort of God. His God is the Unmoved Mover, the ultimate reason for the eternal movement of the heavenly spheres. Aristotle’s God thinks eternally on thinking; he has no thoughts to spare for the likes of us. Aristotle’s God provides no basis or motivation for morality, and hence Aristotle’s ethic is entirely secular and naturalistic, an ethic quite consistent with atheism. Why be good? Aristotle says that you should be good because only by practicing virtue can you achieve happiness. This sounds like a shallow answer, but the appearance of superficiality is not due to Aristotle, but to the extreme degree to which our culture has degraded and debased the notion of “happiness.” Consumer culture has equated happiness with beautiful 22 year olds with 1% body fat enjoying an endless supply of consumer goods and pleasurable sensations. Hence, we tend to regard people as happy who are, in fact, miserable, worthless, fools.

Aristotle’s word is eudaimonia, which is not well translated by “happiness,” but better approximated as “flourishing,” or “well being,” or “self fulfillment.” Virtue (“arête”) is better translated as “excellence.” You achieve excellence as a human being by practicing the intellectual and moral virutes, and only those who attain such excellence can experience the full richness and fulfillment hat it is possible for a human creature to enjoy. Eudaimonia is the condition in which ALL of our deepest needs are met and we are fully functional as the type of beings nature has adapted us to be: Rational creatures living in society with other rational creatures. I shall not summarize the entirety of the Nicomachean Ethics here, but I would assign it for reading by Mr. Gerson and all others inclined to make such facile and fatuous pronouncements. (Aristotle, BTW, is, of course, not the only philosopher who gives reasons to be moral that do not appeal to God)

Gerson also says:

“Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature — imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.”

As discussed in older posts, William Lane Craig says much the same thing in places, and my reply to Gerson is the same as to Craig: Anyone who seriously worries about the sun growing dim and cold in billions of years does not need a God. He needs a life. Love, harmony, and sympathy are things we humans can give to each other. God has nothing to do with it. Indeed, God clearly does not intend for us to find love, harmony, and sympathy because, obviously, so many deserving people do not get them. Ah, but they will get them in heaven, right? Isn’t that the hope Gerson is really intimating? So, let’s get this straight: Life is meaningless, a cruel joke, unless we cherish a fantasy of pie in the sky, up on high, by and by, when we die. Otherwise, why not just go kill yourself (or your neighbor) right now? Isn’t this really what Gerson is saying? Isn’t he saying that our desire for love, harmony, and sympathy amounts to nothing in the end unless those desires are eternally satisfied? If this is what he is asserting, then the assertion is not only false but infantile. On the contrary, it is because the good things in life are ephemeral that they have such value. Atheists say love and live NOW, because now may be all you get.

bookmark_borderSocial changes that may undermine nonbelief

Standard accounts of secularization emphasize how social changes that led to the modern world undermine organized religion. Few people actively wanted religion to become a more private affair – secularization has always proceeded against a background of shirt-rending about the erosion of public morality. And few were affected by intellectual critiques of religion. Science, for example, had little to do with the European decline of organized religion except in an indirect sense, where supernatural agency became less plausible in an increasingly technological world where many basic human needs were being met by technological means.

There is a flip side to this story, however. In the last few decades it has begun to seem that the story of secularization was a story of an exception, Europe in particular. In fact, lately there has been more reason to pay attention to examples of de-secularization, such as the Muslim world. So it could be interesting to speculate about broader social changes that undermine the social and institutional bases of secular ways of life.

Neoliberalism may be important here. After all, the time when secular politics has become increasingly delegitimized coincides with the global dominance of neoliberal policy.

At first, this does not appear promising. In the standard narrative of the secularization of Europe, capitalism is a major force undermining organized Christianity. If commercial markets come to shape much of social life, this puts pressure on religious institutions that try to carve out areas of life that are not subject to markets. If people are thinking about making money much of the time, it becomes easier to restrict church to a private weekend activity and reduce religious moral ideas to platitudes.

But the currently successful varieties of religion do wonderfully in the marketplace. Conservative American Christianity and born-again Islam are both in many ways creatures of the market: populist, entrepreneurial, saturated with advertising. The religion of parish priests or local ulama has suffered much from the modern world. But mutated varieties of their supernatural beliefs have come to flourish, often under the pretense that they are even more strictly faithful to the original revelations.

So, religion has adapted. But what about secular ways of life? I suspect less so.

A common theme in most religious nonbelief today is that opposition to religion is understood as a legacy of the European Enlightenment. We care a lot about intellectual reasons for nonbelief. For example, we favor scientific critiques of supernatural notions, even though historically science has had only a minor contribution to secularization. We have broadly democratic notions about politics, but in a sense where we don’t just decide as an easily manipulable mob or as a collection of atomized consumers “choosing” with their dollars. We have at least some vague notions about deciding on public goods based on informed debate. When we defend secularity, we defend it in such a context of Enlightenment-derived ideals.

That sort of politics, and the institutions that support it, have not fared well in the neoliberal era. It would not be unreasonable, though speculative, to expect negative consequences for an Enlightenment style of nonbelief.

Consider, for example, the university, especially the public university. I would say that the university has been a prominent institutional engine of secularization in the twentieth century. In Western countries, it has helped create a broad-based middle class and has supported an associated style of politics. It has been an avenue for democratic debate in the Enlightenment sense. And it has been the place where much of the science and philosophy that supports a naturalistic view of the world has ben produced.

But it’s no secret that universities, especially public universities, are in trouble. For decades now, public universities in the US have been starved for public funding. Indeed, they are now best described as state-supported rather than state universities, with in some cases as little as 10-15% of funding coming from state budgets. And the continuing trend is for this percentage to get smaller. The public university system is being gradually privatized.

At the same time, there is enormous pressure on academic departments to make themselves commercially viable. The sciences suffer their own corruptions from this, but the largest negative effect has been on the humanities, which are more directly relevant for secular ways of life. Privatization and commercialization now mean that access to a more liberal-arts education, which provides exposure to a more Enlightenment style of thinking, is increasingly restricted to a shrinking segment of the population who can afford the obscene tuition bills.

Conservative religious leaders have justly been worried about those of their flocks who attend university: they have a significant likelihood of becoming religiously more liberal if not outright nonbelievers, and they often adopt a functionally secular approach to politics even if they remain privately devout. Seriously engaging with philosophy, literature, and the sciences very often has such an effect. This does not happen as easily for a financially disadvantaged first-generation student shunted into a program geared to develop “marketable skills,” and who needs to spend every extra minute holding down jobs to pay for even that privilege. It can happen: she may, for example, encounter one of the many philosophy instructors who toil in unpromising circumstances but still make heroic efforts to awaken a spark of interest in students. Nevertheless, these are not conditions that keep universities engines of a broad-based secularity.

Maybe universities are dinosaurs, clinging to old-fashioned notions such as public goods and non-market values. They may be devoured by commercial markets as with everything else. But that still leaves the question of whether secular ways of life are suffering from neoliberal social changes, while some varieties of religion have adapted well.

In that case, perhaps the secular wave of the future is a variety of nonbelief that is best adapted to a market-fundamentalist society. And we do have something that might fit the bill: those sects of Libertarianism or Objectivism that already have a considerable presence among American nonbelievers. I have no idea what their prospects for a larger social constituency might be, possibly because I have next to no sympathy for that sort of politics.

It used to be that nonbelief would be associated with communism in many American social circles, and joining something like a Unitarian or similar ultraliberal congregation would be vital protective coloration. If the day comes when nonbelief regularly gets associated with libertarianism, I will go hunting for a church to join. Not because I expect libertarianism to be feared and despised like communism, but because I am not willing to have anything to do with it, even by mistaken attribution.