Another thing to blame on secularism

Each week, the Guardian provides a religious person a written version of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day in the form of its column Face to faith. This week it is the turn of a chap called Nicholas Buxton, who has written on the familiar subject of ‘secularists just follow a different kind of religion.’

Now, I don’t disagree that some secularist ideologues tend to evangelise with religious fervour. But where these examples of such religiosity creep in it tends to be in spite of whatever ideology, school or theory they are espousing, not because of it. Darwin is not responsible for the drivel of Herbert Spencer. Marx, famously, was not a Marxist. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This is a stark contrast to a religious faith, it’s very raison d’etre is living your life with a wholly certain worldview.

More to the point, Buxton appears to lump ideologies, schools and theories in together. Marxism is a political ideology. Freudianism is a school. Darwinism is a theory. The latter is rooted in the scientific method, and is only a theory because it is, by definition, falsifiable. So if people are clinging to it in a faith-like way, they are rejecting the scientific method. Care to name some names?

Marxism and psychoanalysis aren’t, so far as I am aware, even that. They are approaches that people use from time to time to develop hypotheses, but what’s important is whether those hypotheses have validity, not the ideology or school itself. Both have tended to fall in or out of fashion over the years depending on their ability to explain the world. By contrast, you don’t find evangelical academics publishing papers on how Adam’s fall from grace explains why anti-social behaviour has become endemic in post-industrial western countries. Theologians aren’t under anything like the pressure to adequately explain the world, and seldom do so in a way that has any practical application.

So, ultimately, Buxton is comparing apples and oranges here. He then becomes even sillier:

One outcome of this post-Enlightenment disenchantment is that the world, indeed life itself, has become a commodity subject to economic forces that we have as little control over as the weather. With God as capital, every aspect of life gets translated into the language of economic transactions: passengers become customers, patients become clients. Where once we were souls, we are now consumers. And the problem with this is that when everything has a price, nothing has any value; especially vague notions such as human rights and dignity. In the market state, greed is good and the maximisation of profit is the only viable ethic.

In the days of the Roman empire Christians were called atheists because they did not worship the gods of the state. We have come full circle: Christians are once again atheists and heretics because they do not worship the “gods” of today’s orthodoxy. Now that atheism is the new “religion”, religion is the new “atheism”. To be a Christian in such circumstances is to be unconventional and nonconformist: it is to be something of a freethinker, espousing a radical vision of human flourishing that shows us how we can be more than what we are, rather than reducing us to less than what we should be.

Where do I start? The commodification of human life began a long time before the Enlightenment. Christians like to claim the credit for the abolition of the slave trade, but it was the Enlightenment which made it possible*. Before then, the Church was a political body which was perfectly happy to treat the hoi polloi as so much fodder to work on its land and fight and die in its wars. Trendy lefty though I may be, I’m much happier being a post-Enlightenment ‘consumer’ than a pre-enlightenment ‘soul’.

You also only have to look around you to see that there are plenty of Christians who are perfectly happy to treat us as consumers. Brian Souter is hardly the poster child for corporate social responsibility. Thatcher, the vanguard of neoliberalism in the UK, was hardly famous for her atheism: Reagan and his spiritual heir George Bush are famous for their faith.

Once again, we find a religious writer seeking to blame atheists and secularists for a mess that religion is at best passively, at worst actively, complicit in. What Buxton fails to mention when he attempts to draw an analogy between the Christian experience in the 21st Century Britain with that of the early Christians’ in ancient Rome (ha!), is that those Romans tended to distort and lie about what the Christians actually believed in order to justify their attacks. As I’ve blogged before, while atheists are losing their shyness in attacking religion, the blatant distortion all appears to be coming the other way.

* Before anyone points it out, yes, I am aware that the Enlightenment would not have been possible without the Church. But I’m also aware that it was dependent on Islam. We have a rich history of religions’ support of science and reason that anti-secularists would have us ignore. The purpose of this article is not to caricature organised religion as fundamentally indefensible but rather to rebut the increasingly prevalent claims that secularism is responsible to all the ills in the world.

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