The Limits of Secularization

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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27 Responses

  1. matoko_chan says:

    or merely men and women hungrier for power than for true cultural change.

    That is just false.
    The christianist movement wants to abrogate change, to freeze society and culture in an iceblock of the past. That is what “traditional wisdom” and Manzi’s New Fusion “federalism” is all about. Stopping change, callin’ a halt to cultural evolution. Whether this is “virtuous” or not, it is a plan for failure. In a religiously pluralistic, educated society, “our god says so” is simply not an acceptable reason to fight cultural evolution unless the christianists make a majority. And that is nothing but mob-rule.
    As long as the christianists were the biggest mob, “because we say so” was a fine argument. Majority rule.
    This was the “traditional wisdom” imposed by Kylon and the democrats on the Pythagoreans.
    But now the demographic decline of white christians in the electorate is spawning a frenzy of specious apologia for “because we say so”, manifested as an endorsement of “traditional wisdom” and a return to the glory days of feralism. Well “federalism” as envisioned by (it seems)the whole of the christian right base is just localized mob rule The truth is, there are no secular reasons to oppose SSM. And indeed, the analogy of the judiciary striking down segregation academies and anti-miscegenation laws is apt.
    In other words, this is a doomed and futile quixotic adventure completely divorced from reality.
    Can’t stop teh evolution.Report

  2. Clinton says:

    I think if one allows “tradition” to mean the preservation of a basic yet fluid societal framework which can take into account the changes in make-up of the population and the progress of learning, technology and science, then tradition is acceptable. The freezing of the framework leads to sects (Amish, Lubavitcher, Wahabbist, christianist, findamentalist LDS, etc.) some of which demand conquest and others that don’t and merely wish to be left alone. At least in the US which, in my opinion, was founded much more on idealized Greco-Roman traditions than Judeo-Christian, the framework is more malleable and allows for your “navigational aids.” Total secularization has been attempted often and failed. I think the direction we are headed is to a more secular general society which allows for what I see as a more internal search for belief that will lead to the forming of like-minded, new congregations which may or may not retain traditional ritual and dogma.Report

  3. E.D. Kain says:

    That’s a good point, Clinton. I would agree, largely, that tradition and religion both allow for change and technological progress etc. And in many ways, good traditions can help solidify or preserve sensible changes within society, as well as guide social and technological progress.Report

  4. E.D. Kain says:

    The truth is, there are no secular reasons to oppose SSM.

    But actually, there could be. If marriage were to be totally secularized – for instance, turned into a purely sensible institution say to encourage procreation and the continuation of the species – then it would be quite possible to have a very secular argument against SSM. Without the ability to procreate there is no scientific basis for marriage. Thus all gays, and all straights who were unable to conceive, could be barred from marriage on purely secular grounds.Report

  5. greginak says:

    I think it is incorrect to equate secularization with no moral basis. It is very possible to be privately religious or agnostic/atheist and still be moral. as a broad example many countries in western europe are mostly secular but don’t seem to kill, rape, express naked bigotry, or put in prison as many or our fellow citizens as we do and provide a more robust social safety net then we do. it is one of oldest smears of the religious right that if you are not religious then you are not moral.

    Nor does being completely secular equate with no tradition. Traditions come from many places, religion is only one of them. People can base traditions on shared culture, environment, ethnicity, nationhood to name a few. while religion may mix in with those things in some ways it does not have to be prominent. simply religion is not the sole fountain of tradition or custom. again the religious right pushes that argument, mostly likely out of projection of their own belief that religion is all. we also need a lot more then tradition to guide us, since tradition is not always pure and wonderful. like anything human tradition can be corrupt, viscous and hostile.

    Fearing a backlash from the right is foolish. they are going on their loony way no matter what happens unless they get everything there own way. for example see glenn beck, michelle bachman, etc.

    Finally a secular society seems only to me, mean that as a government we don’t make decisions based solely on religious principles. people can still be as religious as they want, they just don’t get to say “our religion sets the rules for the country.” Most right wing Christians seem to feel they are supposed to rule the country and any deviation from that is unamerican.Report

  6. Kyle Cupp says:

    The tactics of these culture warriors are often brash, loud, and hostile. More often than not they eschew the humility and love that Christ taught in favor of judgment and condemnation.

    True. I’d say a big reason for this is that in conceptualizing culture conflicts into the metaphorical framework of a war, the culture warriors perceive those of differing cultural views as enemies to be defeated, rather than, say, fellow citizens to be persuaded. In a democratic society, this approach is doomed to failure. Political gains are fragile and fleeting without consensus to support them, but building consensus isn’t part of the culture warrior’s plan. They are more interested in alienating and defeating the opposition than in listening to others and convincing them.Report

  7. matoko_chan says:

    “Without the ability to procreate there is no scientific basis for marriage.”

    Arrant, unscrupulous, and shameless disinformation.
    Evo theory of culture and cognitive anthropology and evolutionary biology are all sciences. Evolved normative forms of marriage are the building blocks of society. Once polygamy was the normative form because it was genetically and culturally successful. I guess you would deny marriage to deliberately childless couples, older couples, infertile couples.
    And anyways, so darkages your argument, so dated.
    Lesbian couples can reprduce right now with a sperm donor, and a host womb (in ten years the j-womb) allows homosexual men to reproduce their dna.
    jeez, teh Stupid….it burrrns.Report

  8. matoko_chan says:

    Without the ability to procreate there is no scientific basis for marriage. Thus all gays, and all straights who were unable to conceive, could be barred from marriage on purely secular grounds.

    But right now lesbian couples can reproduce with a sperm donor, and gay men with a host womb, or via adoption.
    Are you going to outlaw adoption and fertility therapy?Report

  9. matoko_chan says:

    You fail.
    Would you like to play again?Report

  10. E.D. Kain says:

    You are the ultimate culture warrior, matako. Everything is a war with you.Report

  11. E.D., I agree there is much lost in secularization and moral liberalization. My argument is that it is worth it. The evidence is that secular liberal societies do better than less liberal, less secular societies on various indicators of well-being. If the evidence goes the other way, then I’ll go the other way. But until then, religious conservatives are basically left with a single desperation move, which is simply to claim that all empirical indicators fail to capture what is so great about religious conservatism. No one seems to be able to make this argument in a principled way. It always comes off a very ad hoc affirmation of prior prejudices, and I suspect that’s because it is. You can blame the culture warrior hypocrite evangelicals for alienating people. But you should also consider that religious conservatives more broadly have very little to offer in terms of a substantive argument in favor of living religious, conservative lives. The most compelling argument seems to be that life is better if one makes an irrational foundational commitment to something or other, and it might as well be something familiar.Report

  12. E.D. Kain says:

    Again, the end problem with this theory is the fact that we’re human, and that as a tribe, we need meaning – and that we will, in one fashion or another, find that meaning somewhere. Secularization, I believe, will not provide that meaning for the vast majority of people, or at least not for long. Nor, I would argue, will the brand of Christianity presented by the religious right. Secular Europe will not remain secular forever; I would say that already you can see Europe shifting more and more toward Islamification as immigrants tend to be very religious and have higher birth rates.

    I think the key is in balance, and that the good aspects of secularization – science, equality, liberty, etc. – need to be embraced by the religious in order for religion itself to be saved, but at the same time in order for those qualities themselves to be preserved. I suppose, on another level, this is why progressivism needs conservatism (and the opposite is also true) on a more purely political level.

    If secular society could do all of this without religion, then perhaps that really would spell the end of God, but I don’t believe it can, or at least don’t believe that it is likely to ever happen. Secularization is a swing on the pendulum.

    NOTE: I have no bloody clue why my comments are showing up in italics.Report

  13. Your answer is precisely why I think it’s so important to take claims about meaning seriously enough to try to measure them. I don’t doubt that people take meaning from music, from religion, or militarist aggression. Some sources of meaning are better than others. Your claim is that the demand for meaning will not be met without religion. I don’t understand the basis for this claim. Is life in Denmark intolerably meaningless? And I don’t understand the basis for your claim that secularization is cyclical. What is it? You seem to think there is a more or less fixed demand for meaning which only religion can meet, which creates a natural limit on non-religiosity, but I still don’t grasp why you think this is true.Report

  14. matoko_chan says:

    I just want that elusive mythical secular reason for the opposition to SSM.
    I asked for it at secularright, I asked for at TAS, and they just handwaved at “traditional wisdom”.
    As I explained, that is not sufficient.
    I respectfully and humbly ask for it here.
    Satisfy meh, O League of Ordinary Gentlemen.Report

  15. William Brafford says:


    I highly recommend to you the first third of Jeffrey Stout’s book Democracy and Tradition. Stout argues that the American pragmatism of Whitman, Emerson, and Dewey is a secular tradition with enough strength to provide a moral grounding for society. Pragmatism, he says, is democratic traditionalism. If Stout is on to something, then what we have is not tradition vs. nothing (Nietzsche vs. Aristotle, as MacIntyre would have it), but tradition vs. tradition.

    It still seems to me that you’re stuck with the problem that the denominations that are doing what you’d like them to be doing (i.e. the mainlines) are the ones that are hemorrhaging members.


  16. William Brafford says:


    I don’t have a secular argument against SSM. Is that good enough for you?

    And who at the League has voiced any opposition to SSM, anyway?


  17. Dave says:

    I can think of at least one secular reason to oppose striking down SSM bans, but that’s about it.Report

  18. E.D. Kain says:

    It still seems to me that you’re stuck with the problem that the denominations that are doing what you’d like them to be doing (i.e. the mainlines) are the ones that are hemorrhaging members.

    See my Pop Christianity post. Actually I’m not referring to mainline Christianity which has become largely modernized/secularized already. I’m simply referring to the non-political Christians, be they conservative Catholics, evangelicals – the ones who find a deep meaning in tradition, but don’t attempt to hyper-politicize their beliefs.Report

  19. matoko_chan says:

    I can think of at least one secular reason to oppose striking down SSM bans, but that’s about it.

    Let’s hear it, by all means, Dave.

    Oh yes, William, your schitck is Fear of a Secular Planet, as virtualized in E.D. ‘s “blind” ship.
    I forgot.Report

  20. Dave says:


    A theory of judicial review that defers to democratic majorities so long as the rights involved are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

    Progressives ought to know it.  It’s their handiwork.Report

  21. E.D. Kain says:

    A last test.

    Trying out the editor.

    • Lots
    • of
    • good
    • stuff.


  22. matoko_chan says:

    A theory of judicial review that defers to democratic majorities so long as the rights involved are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

    Then unless someone can come up with a valid <i>secular</i> reason to oppose SSM, citizen rights endowed by the constitution and the bill of rights  apply to homosexuals with the equal protection afforded to blacks and women.Report

  23. William Brafford says:


    Which secular planet? Fear, worry, ambivalence, whatever–it’s not schtick to me. If you’re right, my tribe (Presbyterians, more or less) disappears. Ents who will never find their entwives, at the dawn of the age of man. It’s a sad thing. If you want to talk seriously about that, I’m down. If not, I’m sorry.


  24. E.D. Kain says:

    Good luck with that, William.Report

  25. From E.D. :

    These are good things, to be sure, but I would argue that a liberty devoid of morality is a shallow creature, flighty, easily dispersed. 

    I really liked that line. I know the old saw that God is not needed for people to have good morals, but  would also argue that it helps. Pope John Paul said, “Liberalism without Catholicism is thinly disguised totalitarianism.”  His point was that we need the non-secular to humanize liberal ideals sometimes.
    There’s also the notion that right or wrong,  people’s religious beliefs can be strong motivating factors. That was the basis for the entire social gospel movement during the Progressive Era.Report

  26. E.D. Kain says:

    All good points, Mike, and I completely agree.Report