Is Secularism a Faith?

In a fascinating review of Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age, secular humanist Andrew Koppelman said a few years back:

[M]odern secularism is a religious worldview, with its own narrative of testing and redemption, and shares the vulnerabilities of such views. The news that secularists also live in glass houses has implications for ongoing stone-throwing operations.

The reason why I love this review, and often come back to it in discussions, is because it is one of the more honest evaluations of the emerging secular framework done by one of their own. Koppelman notes, for instance, that modern Western secularism has its roots in Christian theology, and that secularism’s continued commitment to human rights does not logically flow from atheism. The article continues to note that as a secularist he thinks his own worldview has a faith/hope underpinning, much like the religious views that secularism tends to mock. These features mean that, for Koppelman, both religious and secularist worldviews have a form of “gap”: he notes that the “gap” in religions is the fact that one has to believe that in history amazing actions and events have happened, while the “gap” in secularism is that there is a normative commitment to human rights that does not seem to be able to be accounted for by mere evolutionary principles.

Still, while acknowledging that all faiths require a “leap,” Koppelman continues to argue that secularism has a smaller leap of faith. For him, you don’t have to believe in any historical event, just a common commitment to human life void of an overarching system. He says, “Secularists are committed to what one might call “Naked Strong Evaluation”: the idea, unsupported by any particular metaphysical claim, that the commitment to decent treatment for all human beings is mandatory…” I appreciate Koppelman’s honesty in the article to acknowledge that his own position takes epistemic faith, much like Christianity. I also appreciate that he acknowledges that the idea of human rights did not originate in atheism, but in fact Christian doctrine.

So while Koppelman seems to think that secularism borrows Christian capital to account for human rights and morality, he doesn’t think it necessarily invalidates his position. In the end of his review, Koppelman goes to Martin Luther King Jr. and notes that it was his Christian faith that drove him to stand up for justice in the midst of oppression, and it would be wrong to negate the good of his work simply because of the foundation he drew from.

The candidness of Koppelman is refreshing, and it demonstrates how harder it will be for secularists to make moral claims of injustice the further Western culture gets from Christendom. An example can illustrate this: a book review in the Wall Street Journal notes that the sex ratio of the worldwide population has unnaturally skewed to be male heavy. The author concludes that the only explanation is that girls are being aborted at an alarming rate simply because of their sex. The right to live is coming up against the rights of the parents to want a happy and nice life that they think sons will provide for them instead of daughters.

So who gets to win? The secularist today would say the little girls’ right to live wins because it is a higher good, compared to the parents’ preferences. For now. Without a mooring of morality into something deeper than “it makes sense,” atrocities can seem justifiable. Just look at the psychology of the Holocaust. On the other hand, Christianity roots human rights in the imago dei, and humans made in God’s image not only have to be treated with sacred dignity, but also cannot be reduced to “it makes sense.”

Both religious and secularist views are forms of faith; both have “leaps;” both make moral assertions. Yet Koppelman makes clear that, in regards to human rights, one offers better consistency for those of us who care about massacres, the poor, and the AIDS epidemic – and it is not his own point of view. The big question for those of us who care about these things is then, where is your view of morality located?

Michael Keller

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One response to “Is Secularism a Faith?

  1. Pingback: Atheist honesty | Wondering Fair·

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