Sunday, February 10

Is secularisation dangerous ?

People in the United States haven’t secularised as much as people in comparable countries, but they have still been “fallibilised”. American Christianity is so deeply enculturated that it doesn't amount to much anymore. Even nominally conservative people have gone far in adopting practices of toleration and pluralism that only make sense on strongly fallibilist assumptions. The constitutional framework has house-trained its Christians well.

If you, my conservative Christians friends/enemies, really had the courage of your convictions, if you really believed all you say you believe, shouldn’t you start to behave a lot more like jihadists and a lot less like the average evangelical voter ? Why do you put up so meekly with blasphemy, adverse court rulings, the practice of abortion ? Doesn’t it that mean that you have gone soft and sceptical already ? That there are other norms – norms of pluralism – that you put above the commands of your religion ? Don’t your actions belie the claim that your religious standards are your highest standards ?

When you put up with blasphemous speech, aren’t you implicitly saying that you value the norm of free speech higher than the purity of your religion ? It is quite easy to justify a norm of free speech from a fallibilist perspective, but how do you justify your own adherence to the norm ?

When you submit to defeats in the legislatures or the courts, aren’t you implicitly saying that you value the norms of democratic fair play higher than the commands of your religion ? Aren’t you admitting that there is a profound tension between the open-ended nature of the democratic process and your commitment to an eternal canon of truths ?

When you submit to the practice of legal abortion, aren’t you implicitly saying that you value the rule of law higher than what you see as an important moral imperative ? If the imperative were as absolute as you say it is, how can you stay inside the process, limiting yourself to lawful protests ? Does there not have to come a point, for a believer in divinely inspired truths, when the entire democratic regime is rejected as illegitimate ? If talk of a "holocaust" in our midst is not just tasteless hyperbole, how can it be that the most drastic step you take is to vote a certain way ? For if a holocaust were going on, wouldn't you be under a moral obligation to overthrow the government of the United States, immediately ?

Now I am glad you behave the way you do. I obviously don’t want you to turn towards trying to blow up the constitution. I am just saying that you may have made much more substantial concessions to the fallibilist way of life than you are aware of. Functionally you may already be fallibilists, or reasonably close to getting there.

Forgive me when I read your behaviour as a form of reverse hypocrisy: Barking bad infallibilist slogans while doing good fallibilist deeds.

There may even be a rational explanation for how this situation arose: Practice precedes theory. Practice grows from the ground up. Then very gradually a theoretical superstructure develops to explain it. The arrival of a satisfactory theory straightens and strengthens the practice, and accelerates its growth somewhat. But this only happens late in the game. Theory does not make practice. In other words, the worst of what you fear may happen has already happened. The change of governing philosophy is not to come, everyday practice has in effect ratified it some time ago.

The relentlessly sceptical cast of fallibilism may seem radical but it agrees quite well with a temperament that is already wide-spread. It just gives a little more structure and heft to that temperament. The philosophical superstructure only supplies premises for conclusions people are reaching already. The results are therefore going to be quite a lot more conservative with respect to already current practice than on philosophical paper. It will only slightly accelerate us in a direction we are going anyway. Fallibilism may seem radical, but compared to what is common practice in 21st century America, it isn’t very radical at all. (And compared to what is happening in liberal arts departments across the country, it’s positively friendly to religious sensibilities.)

It is a common idea among conservative Christians that secular humanists are parasitic on Christianity, “living off the accumulated capital”, “running on the fumes”. The implication is that as practices become ever more thinly Christian, they become ever more fragile.

This is a fallacy, a category mistake to be precise: Genealogy – explaining from where a practice is descended – is not the same as explaining its viability, or lack of, today.

Our ancestors once passed through a fish phase. That does not mean that we rely on gills for survival today. Similarly, that a cultural practice once passed through a Christian phase does not mean that it has to depend on Christianity today.

If you think that secularism must be on its last legs, then you should also fear that Catholicism today is running off the incense fumes of a more real, earlier Christianity, the old-time religion before the hierarchy came round – very late and reluctantly in each case – to state that the market economy might not be such a bad idea, that liberal democracy might not be such a bad idea, that anti-Semitism might be bad idea, that religious liberty might be a good idea, …

You would be wrong to think that fallibilist secularism is just some thinned-out, overstretched version of your own Christian infallibilism. The old secular humanism may have been like this, but the new fallibilism is not; it has entirely different bases. If there is something that is increasingly thinned-out and overstretched it is your position in the context of contemporary America. A fresher mentality is spreading all around you. There is a growing schizophrenia between what people like you say they believe philosophically, and what you do in daily life: In your stated philosophical views, you still demand rigid certainty; in your actual conduct you have become almost as tolerant and pragmatic as your liberal neighbours. Not convinced by argument, true (I’m working on that one); but convinced by the habits of postmodern society rubbing off.

There is in fact very little to fear from proclaiming fallibilism in today’s America.

1) Any effects on the public standing of morality are going to be minimal. Scepticism about the moral order has been priced into people’s actions since time immemorial. Aside from a very small number of innocents no one is going to be caught by surprise (Certain people may find it useful to act surprised, but that is not the same as actually being surprised.) What it will do is add another layer of reflexivity to the multi-layer game of strategic deception that is life. Same old game, slightly faster pace.

Fallibilism will strengthen the tone of our moral discourse. We will lose a few more pious lies, but gain a finally believable basis on which to explain and defend morality. All justifiable degrees of certainty about knowledge and ethics can be maintained under fallibilism. Fake authorities stand to lose their last shreds of metaphysical cover. If they are left with nowhere to hide, it would be all to the good.

2) Accelerated secularisation would be unlikely to change U.S. economic policy in a statist direction. The libertarian segment of U.S. opinion that is responsible for the distinctiveness of the U.S. approach to economic policy is already highly secular. They would still fight their corner even after God left the building. For this reason, and reasons of history, even a post-Christian U.S. would still likely remain distinctive. There is, after all, no secularist position on the economy, it ranges from anarcho-libertarians to socialdemocrats.

3) Democracy will, if anything, be even safer. It becomes a lot easier to justify the pluralist norms that underpin democracy on fallibilist grounds.

The justification of a classically liberal system like the U.S. constitution flows much more naturally from fallibilist assumptions than orthodox Christian ones. After all, at the time of the Continental Congress the Catholic Church was still busy defending the divine right of kings.

The U.S. constitution is not something a strictly orthodox believer would have designed. It is something that (rich, slave-owning) fallibilists would have designed. The framers were great pragmatists, but they had lacked a theoretical structure into which their piecemeal efforts could have fitted with any coherence. The salient features of their brain child – the separation of powers, checks and balances, neutrality between religious sects, free speech and enterprise, a strong constitutional court to guard fundamental rights, elaborate procedural guarantees of fair trial and appeal – really only make sense as measures of coping with a fallibility more radical than perhaps they could have stomached.

Infallibilists believe that individuals – the Great Dictator –, committees – the Iranian Council of Guardians –, or institutions – the papacy –, are able to know timeless truths, and should therefore be protected against the assault of mere opinion. The framers, on the other hand, left no perch in the constitution unchecked or unbalanced.

Infallibilists care about enshrining content; fallibilists care about enshrining process and procedure, leaving content to come out in the wash. The framers, on their part, wrote at great lengths about procedure, and enshrined virtually no content.

Infallibilist care about preserving and promoting truths; fallibilists care about promoting competition among truth claims on a level playing field. The first amendment is silent about discrimination based on content.

If the United States had been a primarily Christian project, then there would have been an established church, minorities be damned; there would have been broad blasphemy exceptions to the first amendment; there would have been explicit constitutional supports for religiously motivated limitations on commerce; religious oversight of education and the press; and morals legislation.

The only norm in the text, the only surety for explicitly Christian legislation, is the principle of majority voting. When these majorities evaporate there is nothing in the constitutional text to stop Christianity from disappearing.

If you are looking for a time when the rot set in, the U.S. was started on a non-Christian track, try the 1760s, not the 1960s. It was at the founding that all U.S. Christians made the concession of submitting to a fair and open process in the course of which their own denomination could not only lose, but could deserve to lose. It was then that the American system was set up as an essentially open-ended process. That the major concession each denomination made at the founding should in our time become the concession that the religious worldview as a whole could not only lose, but deserve to lose, was unforeseen by most at the time, yet entirely in keeping with the logic of system. Wherever people are honest enough to abstain from rigging a process it may not give victory to their own side. The process of freedom is unpredictable, and can surprise even its champions.

So while there are social changes that carry risks, I don't really see it for our drift towards fallibilist secularism. The essentials of the fallibilist position are conservative with respect to where Western society finds itself, whereas any attempt to reestablish hard-edged claims of religious truth would have to begin by tearing up its fabric. Moves to arrest and reverse the drift are now far more dangerous than acceptance could ever be.

If you still think there is an unfathomable risk, and we should better not go there, then I have to ask you this: What’s your position on free inquiry ? Is it worth the risk ? You never know what people might come up with, and what that might “undermine”. None of my stuff is as intoxicatingly transgressive as anything by the great Nietzsche; and his writings have been in bookstores for over a hundred years now. If anything, fallibilism is serving your interests by trying to rein in the Nietzschean impulse (as much as possible without going back behind any of his discoveries).

The process of modernisation that, among other things, gave us secularisation was a huge risk, but also quasi-inevitable, and ultimately worth taking. Accepting fallibilism would in a sense mark the end of this historical episode, would show that we have reached the other side, a new pole of stability, after a long and confused transition. It could heal and repair some of the rifts caused by modernity.

Human groping towards progress has in the past unleashed a rabid form of secular infallibilism that was, in its time, even more dangerous than religious infallibilism. I’m no friend of Stalin, or repression in the name of atheism. But I do not see these particular ghosts coming back in our time. (Why repression when we can win this on the merits ? It’s the conservative Christian side that should be, and often is, afraid of unrepressed liberty. Voluntary abandonment of faith is the best sign that nothing of value is being lost.)

Infallibilism, taken to its logical conclusion, gives you totalitarianism. We have probably seen the end of totalitarianism as a political ideology. What we could still see is the return of a religiously coated infallibilism, a zombie ideology which aims, farcically, to be even more total than the political totalitarians.

Christians naturally believe their own belief system to be a force for good. So when there is a prospect of there being less of it in the (developed) world, you worry. Fair enough, from your perspective. Yet from a different perspective that views your belief system as evil in parts, that would be a reason to celebrate, not to worry. Faith in the unalloyed goodness of a belief system (or its founding prophet) is touching, but not very mature.

Is it obvious that social institutions become worse as they become less Christian ? Has Harvard become a worse university by becoming less religious ? Or has the university, rather, come into its own ?

Was Christianity essential to the Western take-off ? Or did the take-off only happen after the grip of Christianity had already weakened, and was, at each point in time, always driven by the most heretical element within Christianity, the forces most susceptible to secularisation ?

Be that as it may, we are in a new season, and last season’s scores no longer matter. The question of whether religion has in the past, on balance, been a force for good is not the same as asking as whether today this is still the case. It could be true that, for lack of alternatives, monotheistic religions have been a force for good at certain junctures in the past. But that does not mean that today, where fresh alternatives have emerged, religious worldviews could not simply be bad options, rather than the least bad option they may have been in the past.

Monotheism is a recent invention. Whenever you let human history begin – a few hundred thousands or millions of years ago – for only a small sliver of time have humans known monotheism, and for only of a few hundred years, a fraction of a fraction of fraction, has monotheism enjoyed anything like global hegemony.

Is monotheism still a good influence ? The one area where monotheism is strongest today and least doubted is the Middle East. Not the happiest region on earth.

Islam is a reformed faith in the monotheistic tradition. Reformed faiths, just like Protestantism, have a tendency to spawn two types of strains simultaneously – very mild strains (Quaker, Bahai, etc) as well as incredibly rabid reassertions of infallibilism.

I am half-convinced that in the near future we are going to see a final show-down between infallibilism’s last gasp, led by certain sections of Islam, and fallibilism, supported more or less by the rest of the world. I’m just hoping that we can keep it on the level of a shouting match, not a war. At least as useful as aircraft carriers in this struggle might be the following: A critical edition of the Quran and other Islamic scriptures. Scrupulously academic, not aiming to be polemic (but which would no doubt meet accusations of polemic intentions anyway).

As secularism makes headway in the U.S., a reaction from a tiny Christofascist terrorist movement is not inconceivable. The main confrontation, though, is likely to be inside the Islamic world, between two or more camps of citizens in each majority Muslim country.

We shouldn’t be too afraid. Time is on our side. The purer the infallibilism the less workable it will be. But there could be outbursts by an avantgarde of dead-enders running amok. Making sure these fevers pass with minimal casualties is not going to be easy.

I believe that American Christian conservatives have a tendency to misidentify their cause and their allies in this fight, and as a consequence are feeling alone in the world.

We should all, believers and secularists, as believers in the pluralism of the American system stand together in opposing the blasphemy of theocratic infallibilism. And that includes opposing infallibilism at home. You can’t fight the Islamists with some half-hearted, watered-down, cosmetically enhanced, tied-into-a-thousand-knots, restrained and relaxed in all the wrong places, almost already fallibilist version of Christian infallibilism. We need a simple, solid, thought-through position to defend. I suggest that that position should be fallibilism.

It also happens to be the only position that is ultimately compatible with both democracy and the practice of science.

Let me be blunt: Fallibilism is the best deal postmodern reality is ever going to offer to the conservative religious. Walking away from this deal is to start down the road Bin Laden went. You are free to search for a third way; I dare say there isn’t one.

I am not terribly interested in theism-atheism debates. I won’t hide my opinion when asked, but I am not invested in pushing it. For all I care people can keep their belief. What worries me is not belief as such, but when belief inclines people to adopt bad moral and political philosophies as well. If they drop their infallibilistic philosophies for fallibilistic ones, then I drop my case. Unlike a certain atheist, I have no interest for instance in talking an Andrew Sullivan, who is very nearly a fallibilist, out of his belief in Christ. I would not recommend trying to combine full-blown fallibilism with Christian faith, but I am open to the possibility of someone achieving it.

I very much want people to become fallibilists. Once they do I don’t care much whether they retain religious belief or not. Hardline conservatives will find it difficult to believe, but there is no intent here to destroy faith. The intent is to provoke an admittedly risky reform, to modify and purify, and see what can be kept. Belief filtered through fallibilism could keep alive resources that are available nowhere else; a language, rich with metaphors and poetry, that is able to express human experience in a way no other language can quite match. This fine sensibility is not something I would want to see lost, and I am relying on believers to keep it alive.

Fallibilism is in hard opposition to institutional Christianity, the kind of Christianity that sold its soul to Constantine in exchange for worldly power. There is much less opposition to a personal practice of Christianity that stresses non-violence and compassion, and keeps at least some distance from certain institutions. Moreover, the humility and vulnerability fallibilism fosters are not unreligious attitudes. There will be frictions even with a Christ-imitating practice, but, it seems to me, no unbridgeable chasm. Whether infallibilism is the way of the Pharisees, and fallibilism the way of Jesus is not for me to decide; it is something that believers might possibly want to debate among themselves.

If we were all to become fallibilists, we wouldn’t all suddenly start to agree on everything.

The non-committal nature of fallibilism is shared by any text meant to function as a holy book. Any holy book has to be strategically ambiguous, quotable against itself. If it weren’t so notoriously “two-handed” – amenable to considerations of ‘on the one hand’, ‘on the other hand’ – on all debatable issues, it wouldn’t be able to do justice to the balancing act that is life on most days. Just about the only thing that fallibilism rejects without a counterbalancing act is the idolatry of infallibilism.

People who claim to have History on their side are dangerous idiots. But we all, except for a few deep pessimists, provisionally believe ourselves to be on the winning side of history. Christians claim it, secularists claim it.

We could endlessly debate the balance of merit for past successes, and the prospects for the future. In the end we can only wait for the evidence to come in.

Religiosity makes the (Dis)United States of America an outlier among developed nations; all outliers revert to the mean eventually. So from my perspective it’s just a matter of waiting and letting the weight of the arguments take its course. The action is slow but over time virtually unstoppable, the intellectual equivalent of gravity.

Instead of arguing endlessly, let’s take a bet then: What happens first, the oft-predicted (by Christian apocalyptists) collapse of Sodom and Gomorrah, i.e. Europe and San Francisco, or the collapse of Christianity in the Bible Belt ?

No comments: