The Limits of Secularization

Secularization is part of a long trend toward moral liberalization. That the Iowa Supreme Court would unanimously rule prohibition of gay marriage illegal when a decade ago this would have seemed impossible is just one example of this very welcome trend.  ~Will Wilkinson

This is a tricky subject for me – on the one hand, I agree entirely with what Will is arguing here in regards to the end of gay marriage prohibition; on the other hand I think there are very real dangers in pushing for a totally secularized, modernized – even liberalized – society.  Accepting that modernity, liberalization, and so forth are simply good without fail is a sort of blind faith all its own.  Wilkinson and many others are correct in many of their critiques of religiosity in America, and especially the highly politicized zealotry that has come to dominate the religious right.  I would argue that it has also been bad for religion and for the religious in America, many of whom are not reactionary or very political who find their loudmouthed brethren are causing a great deal more harm than good to their causes.

But it’s easy to conflate religion and morality with religiosity and faux morality.  I think this is because, in America, there have been two types of religious moral frameworks coexisting which really cannot be defined as “conservative” and “liberal” but rather as traditional vs revanchist.  Sam Tenenhaus broke conservatism down into similar categories, but I think the same can be applied to Christianity.

The revanchist moralists have been largely responsible for the culture wars, and as with all the other wars (on drugs, on terror, etc.) the culture wars have been largely a failure.  Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the warriors themselves, often revealed to be hypocrites, bigots, or merely men and women hungrier for power than for true cultural change.  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.  They paint a picture of Christianity and Christians that is angry, reactionary and proud, and quite frankly, not very Christian.  Andrew Sullivan has come to call these revanchist moralists, Christianists.  Damon Linker calls them theocons.  Whatever the term, the real defining aspect of the revanchist Religious Right is that it has adopted political means to achieve moral aims, as opposed to cultural or moral aims to achieve political ends.  In other words, this particular brand of religiosity is intent on using the political process to enforce its set of irredentist morals and beliefs from the top down, rather than using cultural means to influence society from the bottom up.  In a decidedly secular state, with a constitutional separation of Church and State, this is bound not only to fail, but to fail miserably.

There is a corresponding Religious Left, I suppose, though in terms of political clout and influence, the Religious Left is rather insignificant as a religious movement.  The Christian Left has long ago accepted secularization as the way forward, and are thus outside the question posed here.

The other moral framework that the Christian community in America operates within could better be defined as “traditional” or “cultural” Christianity.  Under this framework the culture wars are personal struggles; the politicizing of religion is seen as dangerous.  I think both liberals and conservatives can be of this stripe, actually, though both those terms have taken on less and less meaning for me.  My own mixed bag politics make it very hard for me to know what to call “conservatism” or “liberalism” anymore.  The important distinction is that it is not a top-down approach to moral concerns, but rather a grassroots effort; or perhaps not an effort at all, just a way of life.

The natural desire for autonomy and liberty is strong in traditionalists, but so is the need for preservation of culture, history, and of course, tradition.  This is the strength that religion can bring to a civilization.  Tradition is important, as is some semblance of social cohesion.  Where multiculturalism and secularization can lead to a splintered social order, and fragmentation of groups within a society, tradition can help sustain common culture.  And a living tradition can adopt and then preserve change in a way that the empty shell of secularization cannot.

This is the danger in adopting the sort of attitude toward secularization that Wilkinson and many other libertarians and liberals advocate.  While there is no denying that some good has come out of secularization and science and modernity – indeed, I’ve mentioned before that I think the addition of strong, intelligent atheist voices to the religious dialogue is in fact a good thing, regardless of how I personally feel about some of the New Atheist’s deeper motives – nevertheless, secularized society cannot preserve tradition or liberty as well or as deeply as a society with a deep moral and religious tradition.  In the Soviet Union God was pronounced dead along with millions upon millions of Russians – often professors and intellectuals.  In secular Europe, God has not been lost entirely, but rather replaced.

Where secularization succeeds is in the promotion of liberty and the advancement of technology and science.  These are good things, to be sure, but I would argue that a liberty devoid of morality is a shallow creature, flighty, easily dispersed.  Technology without a moral tradition and the wisdom of that tradition is made too easily into a weapon.  Without moral and religious inhibitions to the advancement of technology we risk dismantling much of what makes us human; through cloning or weapons of mass destruction or the acceptance of death as a cure to our age or our sadness.  We also risk a reaction to secularization which embraces a resurgence of the revanchists who promise a more fiercely fought battle, and a more politically (and thus more tangible) return to “family values” and other culture war talking points.  In other words, secularization is all well and good until people lose faith in it.  Far better to wish for a better, smarter embracing of religion.  There is no need to do away with Christianity in America; most Christians accept science and equality and justice.  Indeed many of these things were born out of the Christian tradition, which has been inextricably bound to the larger Western tradition.  Of course, there have been bumps in the road; for a time the Earth was believed to be the center of the universe; witches were burned and crusades were futilely waged, sometimes against the Muslims, sometimes against fellow Christians.

But to wish for a purely secular society is to wish for the untested, untried and essentially unmoored civilization; one without distinct moral traditions, without deep roots or a steady source of spirit.  This is to wish for a ship without compass, sun or stars.  Indeed, the ship can float on its own.  It can house its crew and carry its burden.  It can do it all in a moral vaccuum.  But  if it founders, if it becomes lost at sea, will it ever find its way home again?  Will it even know after a while, where it set out from and thus where it is bound?

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27 thoughts on “The Limits of Secularization

  1. 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.


  2. 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.


  3. 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.


  4. 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.


  5. 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.


  6. 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.


  7. “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.


  8. 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?


  9. 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.


  10. 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.


  11. 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.


  12. Nope.
    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.


  13. E.D.,

    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.



  14. Matoko,

    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?



  15. 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.


  16. 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.


  17. Matoko,

    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.


  18. 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.


  19. Matoko,

    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.



  20. 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.


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