Monday, July 17, 2006

The Secular Fringe

That is what you attach to the hems of your lefty jeans: a fringe of secular, multi-cultural beads. Not really, but that would be much more fun than the reality, which is the idea that liberals and progressives make up the extreme fringes of the Democratic party in being rabid secularists who hate all religion. This is not the whole truth, by the way, though there are liberals and progressives who do hate certain types of religions, a lot. I might be one of those liberals and progressives, because I have a lot of trouble not at least fearing the fundamentalist religions of this world, mostly, because they'd prefer me not to exist or at least not to exist as an independent and autonomous deity.

Take the Christian Reconstructionists, an extreme sect of the religious right. These folks want the laws of the nation to match Old Testament laws. For example, adultery would be cause for execution. The same for homosexuality. And women would have no rights at all, because they didn't have rights in the world of the Old Testament. Doesn't that remind you of Osama bin Laden's views of Islam?

In short, there is lots to fear in religion of the types that nowadays make the news. That it is the most extreme type of religiousness that seems to affect our lives these days is probably one of the reasons for the growing frustration and anger more secular people feel. It's not just that one is expected to be religious in this country (can you imagine an atheist ever getting the presidential nomination) but that one is expected to accommodate religious beliefs of the most revolting sort, just because they are religious beliefs. As an extreme example, consider slavery. Now, some Christian Reconstructionists would argue that slavery should be legal in the United States because the Old Testament doesn't actually ban it anywhere, and this argument is a religious one. Religious arguments have a serious problem from the point of view of those who would like to argue back: no counterarguments suffice if one is seen as debating God.

I'm fully aware that I biased the discussion in the above paragraph. I did it for a good reason: to show why religious arguments are tricky in the public sphere. They can't be debated unless the religious person is willing to use criteria which are visible to the nonreligious person, something else than the assertion that God has willed the outcome a certain way, and this seldom happens these days.

Indeed, one of the consequences of the increased focus on religion in politics is by necessity an increased focus on politics in religion, not only in the sense the megachurches are all Republican now, but also in the very different sense that if we are to allow religion to affect public decisions then all people must be allowed to criticize the religious arguments from religious points of view as well as logically. I don't think most religious people want that to happen. Take the Christian pro-life stance in abortion. If Christianity is the reason why abortions should be illegal then I should be allowed to point out the fact that the Bible doesn't equate miscarriages or abortions with the death of born human beings.

Or consider the current marriage between the religious right and the Republican free-marketeers. If religion is to be openly used in politics, shouldn't we point out that Jesus was very disapproving of the rich and of those who exploited others in trade? And finally, note that Jesus advised his followers to give the emperor what was due him and God what was due Him, which could be read as recommending the separation of the church from the state. And so on.

I don't really want to have a political system where we use each other's religious beliefs in this way, and I can see the practical problems of doing this with all the different religions Americans have. A secular system is more manageable. By "a secular system" I don't mean a system governed by atheism or agnostism but a system in which arguments must rely on something individuals can observe and judge in this world, not just in some hypothetical future world.

After that long defense of secularists I'm ready to address their rabid rage at religions. For there are such people among us. As I mentioned earlier, I sometimes count myself amongs them. I believe the rage is a consequence of the last few decades of public debate, a debate which has been venomous from the religious right, a debate which has painted secularists as no better than the devils and which has defiled the values of those who do not regard themselves religious. Add to that the fact that the religious right advocates things which stand in direct opposition to many humanist values, and you can see the roots of the anger on the left.

More recently, the centrists in the Democratic party have started courting the religious voting blocs, and it's hard not to see this attempt as giving in on some of the basic values of progressive politics: equality of opportunity and fairness, values which many secularists hold dear. Wouldn't you feel anger if your most central values are seen as something easily tradeable for some voters-on-the-fence? Wouldn't you feel like nobody is representing you? Like you were of no worth to the party?

The final reason for some of my anger at the religious arguments is the often made assumption that I have not met those arguments before, that I have to be educated or converted, that I'm walking in the wilderness, just looking for a savior, when in reality I have read all the major religious texts and much of the attached literature, when I have thought about the arguments and rejected them for something different, and when that something different is every bit as spiritual as what the main religions offer their adherents. That I'm seen as not having values, other than the desire to consume as much as possible and have sex all the time. Not that those are my values anyway, but it gets old to have to argue that simple point.

How was that for a very long and not very clear rant?