Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Agony of Secularism; The Thrill of Secularism

Secularists try to cook up
a little joy and meaning
without God
James Woods has written a nice essay in the New Yorker: "Is That All There Is? Secularism and its Discontents." He begins by telling a story of a friend who is an analytic philosopher and an atheist. She sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night asking questions like: “How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?” That's an atheist who has doubts. That doesn't mean she's on the way to being a theist, or that her atheism is wrong. Doubt is, I am certain, part of our human condition. Anyone who believes something strongly will have doubts about their belief. They may doubt more than most. And their doubts will be different because of their deep personal investment in the issue. I think Woods and others (like Charles Taylor) affirm this in the talk of secularism and the "disenchantment" of our world. One faces death more positively in an enchanted world.

Woods thinks that, as death approaches, doubts and uncertainties increase. "As one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night." My guess is that such doubts occur more for unbelievers than believers. The person who has an existential cetainty that their life has cosmic relevance will more likely go gently into that good night.

Woods notes Julian Barnes's brilliant "Nothing to Be Frightened Of" as exemplary of agnostic autobiography in the face of impending death. That book was, for me, a wonderful read. Woods also mentions Terence Malick's "oddly beautiful film" 'Tree of Life.' For me, it was beautiful and not odd.

Woods brings in Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's excellent A Secular Age.  Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith has recently devoted Calvin's senior philosophy seminar to the study of this text. Woods writes: "Taylor, a practicing Catholic, presents a narrative in which secularism is an achievement, but also a predicament: modern Godless man, deprived of the old spirits and demons, and thrown into a world in which there is no one to appeal to outside his own mind, finds it hard to experience the spiritual “fullness” that his ancestors experienced."

But hold on - could there be a special "joy of secularism?" That's the title of George Levine's recent The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now. Can secularism fill the enchantment void? Levine argues, rightly I think, that the militant atheist who thinks they have refuted the idea that there is a God need to do far more than that. This "far more" especially means: fill the void that the disenchantment of our world has left. People still need comfort and assurance. Levine's book attempts to provide such a thing.

But, says Woods, "this is no small task." This is because life without God seems to be devoid of meaning. Taylor has written that modern secular life “is beset with the malaise of meaninglessness.” Taylor has an essay in Levine's book, and doubts that "an “upper language,” in which we describe altruism as noble and admirable, can be fully captured by a “lower language,” of instrumental and biological explanation, a language that scrupulously avoids the vocabulary of purpose, intentionality, design, teleology."

With that I am in full agreement. Secularism, try as it might, cannot fill the God-void.