Secularist zealotry?

It used to be fairly straightforward. Religious people reckoned they could appeal to a higher authority when it came to mapping out the contours of moral rectitude. Atheists, agnostics and secularists generally pooh-poohed this appeal to the imaginary friends of faith on the basis that these friends were, well, imaginary and that whilst religious citizens were welcome to their private fantasies, they had no business visiting them on anyone else. The most obvious outcome from this was a broad division between the religious with their restrictive moralities, squaring up to the heathen with their free-thinking, anything goes liberalism. In other words the liberal-authoritarian axis led pretty consistently from the secular to the religious. A more liberal individual could be pretty well assumed also to be a less religious one.

If things were ever really that simple, I suspect that they certainly aren’t any more. In his article in the Guardian criticising the Bishops et al over the Equality Bill, Terry Sanderson is assuming some moral rectitude of his own. It’s not a rectitude that I personally take any issue with – I agree that any exemption on religious grounds from equality legislation should indeed be proportional – but it seems to me that Sanderson’s appeal is no less based on a sense of moral absolute than that of any religious zealot. His article appears to be driven not by any sense of morality, but simply by the legal demands of the EU Commission. But somehow I doubt it. Suppose, in a future dystopia, the EU Commission gets taken over by people who, backed by the conservative religious right that Sanderson seems to think are making ground in the UK, propose legislation preventing citizens from shopping on Sundays. Would Sanderson then support it just because it was the will of the Commission? Probably not. Secularists should be more honest about the sources of their moral compasses, and not pretend that moral compasses are only an issue for the religious. The Secular Society oppose the Bishops on the Equality Bill because they believe the Bishops to be morally wrong, and that discrimination against gay employees, for example, is wrong, not just that it happens to be unlawful. I agree. It is wrong. Ironically, despite Sanderson’s implication that I must be a right-wing nut-case, my sense that discrimination against gay people is wrong comes from my faith. Where does Sanderson’s come from? Not from democratic consensus, I hope, or he’ll be backing the return of the death penalty. Not from Darwinian natural selection, I hope, or the outlook for disabled people will be bleak indeed. Not from legislative diktat, I hope, or he’ll be supporting those countries with laws permitting the killing of homosexuals.

At least the morality of people of faith is transparently based elsewhere (even if the other place is imaginary), but ultimately that of secularists seems to be based only in their personal sense of right and wrong. Not on biology, not on consensus, not on law, but in their personal opinions. If you want to criticise or take issue with my moral sources, I can tell you where to look, and it’s not inside my own head. If you’re going to be authoritarian, perhaps it’s secularism and not religion that gives you the most licence.

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18 thoughts on “Secularist zealotry?

  1. Another thought provoking post. I agree entirely that secularists can so easily hide behind smoke masks as much as the religious do & that secularists should be more open about arguing from a moral position. I think it has been a failing of atheists and secularists in the past not to argue from our own moral position, and to explain where that is drawn from, rather than to simply ‘argue from opposition’. I have to pull you up on one thing though, Darwinian Natural Selection does not lead to killing of the disabled!! I think you mean Social Darwinism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism) which as a theory could potentially lead to euthanising the weak…

    • Thanks for your considered response. This is dangerous territory indeed, and it’s often hard to conduct any kind of dialogue between these entrenched positions. On your specific point about disability I didn’t say that they would be killed! Without intervention some kinds of disability which have their roots clearly in genetics would simply not survive if natural selection were allowed to proceed unchecked. I should have used a narrower category than “the disabled” in making that point; which is of course that in not allowing natural selection to take its course we are expressing a moral choice.

      • ah i see! I think i read along to the next line and amalgamated them *slaps forehead*, us darwinists we’re a sensitive lot. Although I still don’t agree with you necessarily, whose to say shortsightedness for example doesn’t confer different evolutionary benefits that we don’t understand, for example in my case bookish awesomeness. I’m not sure that was a particularly scientific point… 😉

  2. At least we’re all agreed the Bishops are wrong 😉

    Does having faith really help with moral decisions? I’m not claiming to have any special insights into morality, but most practical moral questions seem quite straightforward. It’s inevitable that a lot of my moral sense is informed by a broadly Christian society even if I am an atheist. If I do hold a moral position, it is mine to argue for not defer to a higher authority.

    • It’s not the arriving at a personal morality that’s at issue here: it’s how we decide whose morality is to prevail when there is contention. All I’m really suggesting here is that some secularists seem to be saying that only their moral sense has any rational basis, and is self-evidently right. But that is surely no different from what religious people have always said!

      • I think the frustration is that in arguments on whose morality should prevail those without faith are pretty much obliged to enter into what I would say is rational argument but those with faith, tend to play what they consider a trump card: “God said it”.

        To take a particular example: euthanasia. I’m in favour of euthanasia because I believe in the liberty of the individual to make choices about themselves (with provisos on how that impacts on others). Whereas the first argument presented by those with faith appears to be “God has made us the sacred gift of life, which it is not ours to dispose”. To me this is a non-argument since I don’t believe in God.

        I feel that my approach leaves us open to argue about whether that liberty is universal in the sense that as a society we might decide that some people might not have that liberty of choice and what should be the provisos in terms of impacts on others.

        I suspect I’m eliding secularism and atheism here. I’d consider myself to be a relatively non-confrontational atheist, even if I think the Atheist Bus Campaign is a great idea ;-).

        • I entirely agree that the “God said it, so there!” argument is not one bursting with creative possibilities for engagement! Personally, that is not how I’d ever present my position, but in the case that you posit, the “value” of the argument about the sacredness of life is that it can act as a counter-balance and possibly a brake on arguments purely from utility. Euthanasia is a hugely difficult area: “God said it, so there!” is not perhaps much worse than “I want it, so I should have it!”. The better approach is an exploration of the space between these arguments rather than a choice between them, I think.

          • I think euthanasia is a good place to have this type of discussion because it is a morally grey area!

            As a secularist the issue here is that religious views are given a privileged position, which I’d argue they don’t warrant. Privileged because of the position of Bishops in the House of Lords, privileged because they receive special opt-outs in equality legislation and (oddly) animal slaughter legislation, privileged because they implicitly claim a moral authority, and privileged because they claim divine authority.

            So I think I disagree with your final point: “If you’re going to be authoritarian, perhaps it’s secularism and not religion that gives you the most licence.” The ultimate authority I can claim is me or some other bloke, the religious have God!

            • So much fertile ground here for a creative exchange of views! It’s not really possible to do justice to them here, although I think it’s important to keep different things separate. So the position of Bishops in the legislature is to do with establishment of one strand in one religion, not about privileging religion per se, and many religious people are as unhappy about it as you are! Of the other “privileges” you cite, I think they are negotiable in some (my!) religious understanding, and frankly unacceptable in other “fundamentalist” perspectives. When some secularists effectively argue for the intrinsic and self-evident superiority of their understanding of the world, they behave identically to the worst religious fundamentalists who claim the same immunity. My own view is that we could all use some humility!

  3. ” If you’re going to be authoritarian, perhaps it’s secularism and not religion that gives you the most licence.”

    An interesting, tempting, and thought-provoking idea. But, I wonder if authoritarian people do not exploit the opportunities given to them by their upbringing. It is my impression that in a mainly religious society, the most “successful” authoritarians are religious. And vice versa in a secular society. And, at the extremes the two poles meet: the most authoritarian secularists eventually turn a personality cult into a religion, and the most authoritarian theocrats lose all contact with their religion.

    • An interesting idea, reminiscent of the notion that fascists and communists were but different facets of the same illiberal idea. I like your concept of “successful” authoritarians, which sees to me to be another way of describing hegemony.

  4. Are the bishops wrong? After all, the prevailing moral environment is decidedly relativist. Which I guess means that there is no absolute moral authority other than our own judgment.

    Are the bishops wrong? How they organise their sects, churches, cabals and covens is a private matter. Why should we presume to make a value-laden judgment affecting their private arrangements?

    The proposed law provides one set of exemptions – for clergy (narrowly-defined, hence the spat) – that rather undermines the broader case. If it is wrong for the church to refuse emplyment as a verger to a gay person surely it is as wrong for that church to refuse employment as a priest to the same or another gay person?

    Mostly we just poddle along with this morality – disliking the “I have a moral compass” argument be it from a priest, a politician or a philosopher. We kinda know what’s right and wrong, good and bad…which is enough really!

    • Unfortunately, I don’t think you can have an established church that is also private! If Bishops deserve a place in Parliament as of right (and many people believe passionately that they don’t) then they surely cannot claim at the same time that they run a private club.

      “We kinda know what’s right and wrong, good and bad…” For ourselves, it may be that that vague sense is sufficient (until we’re tested by something more challenging such as euthanasia, as SmallCasserole cited) but it won’t, can’t, do for the public morality enshrined in law. As I noted in a different response, it’s when moral values are in contention that the problems arise.

  5. Most of the discussion has been about the logic of what is right or wrong. Without discounting the importance of rationality, I am more interested in the psychology of arguments. Authoritarian people, whether they are secular or religious, are similarly irrational. The point of a justification of a policy or decision for them is to get their way, not to be right or wrong. So, if they need to say that what they did was legal, they will get a legal opinion. And, if the legal opinion is inconvenient, they will get another. And another. Until they get the one they want.

  6. Of course not.

    Marx said something along the lines of: history repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce.

    When history repeats itself for the n’th time, is that tragicomedy?

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