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David Brooks & Secularism

David Brooks, the conservative columnist at the New York

David Brooks

David Brooks

times, recently wrote a provocative piece about secularists. Ordinarily, his

focus is politics; he’s well connected in Washington, he’s reasonable and he writes well. Brooks occasionally comments on society and culture, and there his conservative vision can lead him astray. His column on secularists sprang from his reading a book, Living the Secular Life, by the sociologist Phil Zuckerman. Brooks didn’t review the book, but used it as a jumping off point for his own views on “secular individuals” and “secular people.”

He makes a number of observations which we can agree with, or debate, or think are plain silly. Here they are in his own words:

•“Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries.”
•“Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice.”
•“Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.” It’s hard to believe but, yes, he’s serious here.
•“Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. Religious people are motivated by their love of God and their fervent desire to please Him.”

As you can see, secular people have a very hard life, having to build their own philosophies, communities and rituals, having to make choices, needing to decide when to reflect on life, and having to create their own moral motivations. On the other hand, religious people have it, oh — so easy.

Brooks comes to the point of his piece, beginning with a couple of things that it is not:

“The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.”

So that’s the point,  that life is really, really really hard for secular people, even if they don’t know it — like when they’re bored with their lives and aren’t even conscious of their boredom and go around thinking that they’re not bored.

In his conclusion, Brooks offers some suggestions to secular people.

“It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.”

Of course, secularism isn’t a religion and it doesn’t have a creed the way religions have creeds and one wonders how a religious person, like David Brooks, would respond to a secularist’s suggestions for ways to improve religion. Because Brooks is religious, he knows what he’s talking about when he speaks about a certain kind of spiritual inspiration and feeling. But he doesn’t understand the secular temperament and his his characterization of the secular person is a clownish caricature. And although his lines about Christianity and Judaism speak powerfully, he strangely portrays religious people as passive sheep.

Christianity and Judaism impose the same ethical “burden” on their faithful as is imposed on the secular person. Though religious and secular people may phrase the process differently, they both, at times, have  difficulty in distinguishing the right moral choice and both recognize their self-deception and folly.

Yes, being part of a religious group does give meaning to the lives of many people, but it’s witless to think it gives meaning to all of them. Furthermore, many secular minded people find meaning in their family, in their love for their husband or wife, their children, in their daily work for their daily bread, in their pursuit of justice and social good – there are numberless ways in which people find meaning in life  without being affiliated with a church.

Brooks concludes by saying “The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.”

Only David Brooks knows what an “enchanted secularism” is. Maybe there is in each of us a spiritual urge, a drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification. But in the context of his essay those words have specific religious meanings and a secularist wouldn’t use those words that way. The secularism and the sanctification he’s been defining throughout his piece are clearly incompatible.

David Brooks isn’t a dummy. Liberals read Brooks and generally can follow his reasoning even when they disagree with views.  So it may be that a newspaper column isn’t large enough to allow a well reasoned exploration of secularism and religion.  But one thing’s sure, on this subject his writing — though serious and well intended — is a confused and confusing muddle.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.