Secularism's Blind Faith

Adapted from Freedom and Its Discontents: Reflections on Four Decades of American Moral Experience, by Peter Marin, published by Steerforth Press, in South Royalton, Vermont. This appeared in the September 1995 issue of Harper's Magazine.

The great dream at the heart of modern American secularism has always been that religion would slowly wither away, giving way, as it did so, to reason, to a morality rooted not in a fear of God or the hope of heaven but in reflection, a sense of kinship, and a belief in the common good. Values once maintained through oppression or fear would rise naturally from human reason, instinct, and sympathy. The religious divisions and hatred separating us from one another would disappear, and the senses of gratitude and awe traditionally felt for God would be transferred to the human world and provide a foundation for a universalized community. As we know, none of this came to be, or is likely to come to be. The struggle to live ethically without God has left us not with the just and moral order we imagined but with disorder and confusion.

Something has gone radically wrong with secularism. The problem has more than its share of irony, for secularism, in the end, has converted itself into a kind of religion. Our hallowed tradition of skepticism and tolerance has grown into its near opposite, and it now partakes of precisely the same arrogance, the same irrationality and passion for certainty, the same pretense to unquestioned virtue against which its powers were once arrayed. In the desperate way we cling to belief, in our contempt for those who do not believe what we believe, secularism has, indeed, taken on the trappings of a faith-and a narrow one at that.

All of this, I suppose, should come as no surprise. Certain ideas fundamental to much of modern secularism - especially those associated with progress, improvement, "uplift," or rehabilitation - have their most obvious and deepest roots in religious ways of seeing the world. Analyze the positions of secular, liberal, or left-wing Americans on any of our contemporary national debates and you can find, clearly preserved, many of the assumptions and attitudes held by the Puritans toward community, deviance, sinners, and rectitude.

Remember, in this context, what we saw at the last Democratic Convention, and then at the Inauguration: Bill Clinton surrounded by secular academics and experts of all kinds, ready to right society's various wrongs with an endless series of schemes and interventions, an extended twelve- step program for the nation with the role of "higher power" played by the state. Our secular claims to moral authority, our postures of superiority and virtue, our belief in the use of a "moral" government to correct errant behavior-all of this is the secular form of what in the nineteenth century was brought to frontier towns by the preachers and the other members of the "civilizing classes." Now the transition is complete: the state has become the church, and it's all happened in the name of ends so virtuous, so pure, so astonishingly assured, they might have been handed down by God.

The attitudes I am describing - a passion for totalizing thought, a conviction that we know better than others what is good for them - cut across almost the entire range of contemporary secularism. They're present, obviously, in the Marxist notions of the new man, in the speech and behavior codes now enacted on campuses, and in the fury with which abortion-rights defenders denounce as charlatans or knaves all those who persist in thinking of the fetus as a person and alive. All of the positions I've named may indeed be defensible on one ground or another, but what's important is how they're held: with a monstrous certainty that assumes- first the tone of self-righteousness and then the form of coercion or tyranny.

I remember that a few years ago someone discovered, behind an abandoned California abortion mill, hundreds of discarded fetuses in dumpsters. As best I can recall, a Christian group approached state officials and asked to say some kind of prayer when the fetuses were buried. But this proved too much for certain secularists. They went to court and argued against the rights of the Christians to say their prayer and petitioned the judge to declare the fetuses "waste human tissue."

Waste human tissue! This is what we've come to as secularists. This is what we fight for in court. I honestly doubt that souls exist and rise, and I've never believed there exists a God who listens to our prayers. But so what? I can understand the human horror or grief one might feet at the desecration in a dumpster of life-to-be or what-might-have-been-life. Is a reverence for that life-to-be, or sorrow at its degradation, so out of the question that we must forbid its expression in prayer? Here, juxtaposed with one another, we have the illusions of religion and the "mature realism" of secularism. And which one seems more frightening, more dangerous, closer to death than life: the religious notion that the soul of a fetus floats up to God, or the secular notion that nothing more is involved here than a discarded appendix?

Pick up, if you will, almost any copy of The Nation, or Mother Jones, or The Village Voice. In those dissident publications you'd hope to find, in one form or another, some kind of altemative wisdom to hold over and against the conservative or religious points of view now on the rise. But that is not what's there. Though I sometimes write for these magazines, I now find it increasingly difficult to read them. There's an implicit sense of superiority in almost every word, a denunciatory tone attached to all disagreement, a furious self-righteousness that accompanies all criticism, turning it into a battle between the saved and the sinner. Everything is put forth as if fundamental matters had been settled, as if truth had been revealed, as if our own particular points of view-socialism, say, or feminism-are somehow coeval with reason itself, have emerged from history as absolute truths magically vouchsafed to us from the future.

I do not mean to demean here the extraordinary ideas or glorious ideals which still lie, half- forgotten and largely unexpressed, at the heart of secular belief. The role secularism has played in the last couple of hundred years has usually been an honorable one, powered by deep and transformative passions and hopes. But along the way we've bred out of secularism the deep seriousness and the humility that once informed it, and also the senses of tragedy, complexity, and ambiguity which, at its best, marked it as a legitimate response to the mindlessness of others. And we've somehow picked up the baggage of those mindless others: a readiness to force upon people through law what reason cannot teach them, and a sense of superiority or virtue that makes us contemptuous of others. Whether it is the state of education or children born out of wedlock or divorce rates or moral confusion in our communities, we steer forever away from the possibility that something in our system of beliefs may be in some small way to blame.

The astonishing thing about all this is that such certainty, such freedom from self-doubt, should persist at the heart of secularism even after the past century, after countless examples of the ways in which predominantly secular ideologies-I am thinking here of Marxism, Stalinism, the Maoists in China-have failed to produce the results that were anticipated or promised. What we should have learned has something to do with fallibility, with humility, with the endless human capacity for error. It ought to have sent us rushing back to examine the fundamental assumptions we've made about the world, the pretty castles and palaces we've etched in the air. We know now, or ought to know, that men are as ready to kill in God's absence as they are in his name: that reason, like faith, can lead to murder, that the fanaticism long associated with religion was not born there, but has its roots deeper down in human nature.