A Secular Humanist Examines His “Faith”
One of the ongoing conversations I have with my atheist friends concerns whether their belief system depends on faith or not. I often assert that their atheism is but one more faith system, one more religious group among many on campus (and in the Spiritual Center, where any presuppositionalist would agree they belong–they are a religious group).
Just yesterday, one atheist friend acknowledged some core “faith” assertions, but argued that they are so common and basic as to be inconsequential. I disagreed, arguing that anything which lies at the foundation of beliefs could hardly be called inconsequential or trivial. This is what presuppositionalists often call “borrowed capital,” the use of Christian or theistic beliefs in the argument against them.
In a fascinating article over at Dissent magazine, secular humanist Andrew Koppelman reviews the book A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. Taylor makes the case that secularism would never have arisen were it not for the Reformation, among other developments in Christian theology and ethics. In the course of the review, Koppelman is compelled to lay several assertions on the table which should be of relevance to this ongoing conversation of “faith” underlying unbelief.
Taylor is Catholic, and he is clearly trying to make the case for theisms like his own. Taylor’s history refutes what he calls the “subtraction view” of the movement toward secularism, according to which the decline of religious belief is simply the result of the falling away of superstition and the growth of knowledge. Rather, modern secularism is a religious worldview, with its own narrative of testing and redemption, and shares the vulnerabilities of such views. The news that secularists also live in glass houses has implications for ongoing stone-throwing operations.
I don’t think Koppelman is merely summarizing Taylor at this point, because he goes on to say that:
TAYLOR IS right that secularism is missing something important. There is a gap in the narrative. But this is not a comparative disadvantage for secularism, because the precise area of weakness—a normative commitment to human rights that can’t be accounted for—is equally present in traditional religious worldviews…
Taylor is right that “going one way or another requires what is often called a ‘leap of faith.’” Secularism has the advantage of parsimony in its leaps. In its most common modern form, it relies on a humanitarian impulse that has no articulable foundation. But this intellectual weakness isn’t any more troubling than any of religion’s…
Taylor has noted that a central element of ordinary moral reasoning is “strong evaluation”: the “discriminations of right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower, which are not rendered valid by our own desires, inclinations, or choices, but rather stand independent of these and offer standards by which they can be judged.”
It is doubtless true that for many people strong evaluation is inseparable from religion. On the other hand, there are secularists for whom the rejection of what they regard as religion’s superstitions and fanaticisms is as much a matter of strong evaluation as their commitment to human rights…Their commitment to human rights lacks any further grounding. It certainly doesn’t follow from their secularism. As Friedrich Nietzsche showed, the rejection of religion can easily be accompanied by the rejection of human rights.
What secularists are committed to might be called “Naked Strong Evaluation”: the idea, unsupported by any particular metaphysical claims, that the commitment to decent treatment for all human beings is a mandatory criterion for judging our desires and actions. Does the nakedness of this commitment weaken it? Not necessarily…
So there is what appears to be a permanent gap in my belief system. If I were a religious person, I guess I’d be entitled to call it a Mystery. This gap doesn’t trouble me. All belief systems have Mysteries. My agnosticism is in many ways the functional equivalent of atheism: I don’t rely on a belief in God to justify my human rights commitments. I don’t think I have to. Naked Strong Evaluation works for me.
THE QUESTION about the relation between religion and human rights is chronically confused because it is really four different questions:
(1) Epistemic: How do we know that there are human rights? Taylor is right that the secularist commitment to human rights is curiously ungrounded and that religious revelation is one answer.
It is refreshing to see a secularist this intellectually honest: willing to acknowledge the ‘leap of faith’ in his belief system; to acknowledge the ‘gaps’ in his narrative, particularly in relation to human rights; and to acknowledge the epistemic problem inherent in his thinking.
I find it curious that he is untroubled by his “Naked Strong Evaluation.” This is a leap of faith, but with no fixed landing spot. That makes it arbitrary, at best. It is startlingly close to stating that when it comes to human rights at least, this “naked” secular Emperor has no clothes. I think this is why ultimately Koppelman can’t bring himself to take issue with the explicitly Christian, supernatural beliefs of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’m confident that King was not a fool or a sucker. I can’t tell you why I think that. And so I’m in a poor position to attack the hopes—hopes that to me (in most of my moods) are deeply implausible—that supported him in his confidence. Perhaps he could have arrived in the same place on the basis of Naked Strong Evaluation. Some have. But to do that, he would have had to change in so many ways that it is hard to imagine what he would have looked like. Martin Luther Kings don’t turn up that often, so I’m not inclined to tinker with the ones we have.
I liked Koppelman’s conclusion very much:
Wherever you situate yourself in this landscape, your view of the moral universe won’t—and can’t be—a neat, closed system with all the loose ends tidied up. Recognizing this can inoculate us against two related errors: One is to think that we have all the answers. The other, perhaps even more malign, is to be too confident of what the other fellow’s beliefs entail: that his or her “belief in God produces fanaticism” or “atheism leads to immorality.”
It would be good for Koppelman’s words to be heeded more. Because of the aforementioned “borrowed capital” and what Christians call Common Grace, I do not believe that an atheist automatically becomes immoral. In fact, the ones I know take moral issues–esp. human rights–very seriously. But I find Koppelman’s plea for a humble, untidy, and open view of things more compatible with faith, mystery, and the God of Christianity. Any encounter with him will not allow us to think we have all the answers.