Laïcité: The Radical Secular Imperative

You need to join us. Now. You need to take a stand against the deadening of the American brain. You need to do this whether you think America is already brain dead, or if you are an American worrying about just how much life is left in you.

The Europeans have long had a word for what radical secularity is, at its heart: it is based on challenging the prerogatives of religion in society–something Americans have long thought their First Amendment made it unnecessary for them to do. It is called laïcité in France, and sometimes gets translated into English as laicity: the rise of the common woman and man (the laity) who were not in clerical orders nor members of the aristocracy in cahoots with the Church. It goes back to the time of the Revolution (theirs, not ours) when the Catholic Church was greatly diminished in power and prestige among members of the third estate–ordinary people.

I’m happy to call it secularism, as long as we understand it in the most radical sense of that word. The term laïcité has the advantage of naming the thing after what it is: people. And when you get down to it, it is ordinary people (not bishops and theologians) who have suffered most at the hands of religion–and still do. It has the disadvantage of being French in a country where some states still serve Freedom Fries, though they have forgotten why.

It is amazing to me that the Catholic Church is still standing. We now know that the Church of Rome has used its prestige and its illegitimate claim to be the protector of conscience to tamp down the fires of outrage over the rape of children. Children were raped in Boston. In New York. In Brussels. In Dublin. In Frankfort. In Philadelphia. In Sydney and Toronto. We are just beginning [see note below] to get a sense of the scale, but on the basis of what we know–the number of priests and children involved and the inaction of the Church to stop the abuse–the crimes can only be compared to multiple serial killers being permited to go about their routine with the police watching and winking.

It is amazing to me that Islam has not petitioned the World Court in the Hague for forgiveness from the international community. There is no central authority to lodge such a petition, of course, and no desire to lodge one–which is part of the problem: The death in Pakistan last week by assassins who became national heroes overnight was conducted with the بركة of a dozen radical clerics, each claiming legitimate authority to issue licenses to kill in the name of God. I am not very interested in social explanations of why such killing occurs. I want to know why a liberal West is so willing to accept the rationale that it occurs because the liberal West created radical Islam. Or why the United Nations can pass a resolution declaring that the “defamation of religion” is a violation of international human rights, a premise eerily like the Blasphemy laws that led to the murders of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer. I am saddened that innocent soldiers have to die to make a point about living without fear or reprisal and in the hope of freedom, sadder still that the atrocity of religious violence usually ends up not merely short of its objective but in the rubble of another Muslim household.

I am outraged at the religious sources of ignorance. Gallup 2010 says that only 39% of Americans “believe” in evolution while a further 36% have “no opinion,” a conclusion almost as stupefying as the first. And while the religion marketplace is competitive, and while church attendance is slightly down, Pew Research suggests that between 80 and 85% of Americans are either “religious” or “very religious.”

They are also anti-science and pro-ignorance: Abortion is not a science question, but a healthy 52% (Gallup) oppose it, exceeded by the 57% (Rasmussen, 2010) who oppose embryonic stem cell research because opponents think it involves killing babies for their brains.

I am angry at the teaching of absolute falsehood and mythology as truth, whether it is put across as history or geology or geography. The entropic principle in American democracy has always been the insistence that there are two sides to every story, and then applying this notion to facts.

There are not two sides to facts. It is self-evidently a crime against reason to tell “learners,” as we like to call the innocent these days, that a fact has the same epistemological value as an opinion or a perspective, thereby encouraging them to think that things that really are just opinions, like religious doctrines, have higher status than facts.

Scientists know this about facts or they could not do their work. You cannot treat cancer like a cold. There is nothing to be said for the idea you can get to the moon in a cardboard box. But there are still people in postions of authority over mind and heart, some of them passing laws on our behalf, who believe the world was created in six days and that Jesus walked on water and ascended into heaven. There is no doubt that this did not happen: there are not two sides to it.

Neither is there any merit in the idea that God created marriage for the procreation of the human race. The human race was doing very nicely without the god of the Hebrew tribes before the story was invented, and the Church cared almost nothing about the religious value of marriage until the 12th century. Procreation is a fact. Interpretations of its sanctity or exclusivity are opinions.

This list could be extended, should be extended. What these cases have in common is not only that they offend against our intelligence and perhaps basic sense of decency–a phrase that needs to be revived–but that religion is implicated in all of them. There is no secular child abuse scandal. There are very few secular suicide bombers. Among seculars facts are, in the main, valued and Darwin is permitted to speak. This doesn’t mean that secular women and men have not done evil things, but they have done them through malice, not in the name of secularity. In cases where the State simply replaced God, as in Soviet Russia, the motivation was essentially religious.

I am not happy to say Leave the dims to their dimness and let’s get on with converting the world to atheism. For one thing, that is not going to work. For another, we see what happens when the religiously craven are left to their own devices. It is a question of how long before they come knocking at your door and require you to have a Bible or a Quran in your house—just like pistol packers who want you to pack a pistol, too.

And I am also not prepared to say, “We need to start talking to each other, find out where the other side is coming from.” I have limited faith in the powers of this conversation. There comes a point, and we have reached it, that to indulge religious illiteracy is the same as saying there are two sides to every fact. But we can bring with us people with sincere, peaceable religious commitments who are nonetheless equally committed to secularity. That is not dialogue; it is common cause. It can be carried on with kindred spirits still living and long dead.

It may be true that atheism, agnosticism, interfaith understanding ,and various interest domains share with the Laïcité an interest in opposing and—to be perfectly militant—defeating the repugnant positions I have mentioned here. But the battle line has to be made up of people who see the world in a particular fashion and who do not think that the truth that constitutes knowledge of the world is negotiable. That is what Laïcité is all about. That is what a radically secular worldview requires.

All of the people who do these things, who believe these things, who teach these things are terrorists, not only the ones who throw bombs. The Catholic Church has committed acts of terror against children. Ultra-conservative protestants continue to promote intellectual feebleness among millions of people worldwide. Significant numbers of Muslims have adopted an anti-rational posture toward their domestic critics and towards all outsiders, especially in the west. That is the world we live in.

Slogans about there being No God (Live with it), about “Being good” without God–or about it being possible to be loving, gentle, and kind without God, besides being laughably obtuse, are almost hopelessly irrelevant to the problems we face. They shift the emphasis from causes to the moral rectitude of unbelief, a different matter, a game being played on a different field. Atheism and Goodness without God may be perfectly worthy subjects of discussion over coffee, among friends. But they are not relevant to this discussion, which is how very badly a great many people who believe in God are behaving. The problem requires a great many more than the 16% of Americans who aren’t especially religious to solve, since the religious ennui the statistic may betoken is not the same as laïcité–a radical secularity.

I hope that those of you interested in joining a cause, an organization, and a movement that is both targeted and appropriate to what’s happening in real time on the world stage will join the Institute for Science and Human Values. We affirm that there are non-religious solutions to the problems we face. We affirm that human beings shape the future by shaping appropriate values in the present.

Join us in promoting the cause of a radically secular future—one where there are not two sides to every fact.


Note on Roman Catholic Abuse Scandal:
The 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was based on surveys completed by the Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. The surveys provided information from diocesan files on each priest accused of sexual abuse and on each of the priest’s victims to the research team, in a format which did not disclose the names of the accused priests or the dioceses where they worked. The dioceses were encouraged to issue reports of their own based on the surveys that they had completed.

The team reported that 10,667 people in the US had made allegations of child sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002 against 4,392 priests (about 4% of all 109,694 priests who served during the time period covered by the study). One-third of the accusations were made in the years 2002 and 2003, and another third between 1993 and 2001. “Thus, prior to 1993, only one-third of cases were known to church officials,” says the report.

Around 81% of the victims were male; 22.6% were age 10 or younger, 51% between the ages of 11 and 14, and 27% between the ages to 15 to 17 years.

15 thoughts on “Laïcité: The Radical Secular Imperative

  1. You might think atheism and the signs are irrelevant. But I think it can be shown as a supported opinion that the modern atheist is very interested in secularism. We don’t mind our opinions getting checked rationally. We just mind when our opinions being false appears to be the rationale believers need to reinforce their beliefs. That’s where my oppositional stance comes from, anyway.

    It’s my opinion that this series of posts that you’re writing is even more like what I’m thinking than your average fare. And that’s interesting.

    • Seth and Herb: Surely the problem is that no one who is the head of any corporation needs to have religious credentials, though in practice a kind of soft Christian morality is behind a lot of advertising in insidious ways. Which means it would be reckless of an exec to get too talky about religious and my impression is that as long as the stockholders are happy they don’t need to. But politics is something else. Politicians need to be seen to be proactively “men/women of faith.” And that is because the stockholders are voters who have opinions that are decidedly pro-religion for the most part and who really don’t know much about the First Amendment. –Not that it applies to voters, btw.

      • Yeah. Herb and I are on the same page. Business is relatively secular. I think we need more institutionalized secularism including things like secular alternatives to religious ethics for a bit before I’m settled that American business is secular enough.

  2. Hi Seth: No, I would not put it that way–I would never say that atheism is irrelevant but that it is not the targeted response to the abuses of religion. I think you are absolutely right that perhaps a majority of atheists are secular in a radical way– a way that fits together logically. Some atheists find a dialogue with religious people who are open to discussion tolerable. But there are large numbers of people who aren’t very religious who feel intensely secular and who regard the extremes of religion embarrassing and frightening. The atheist solution might be simply to say, “Give it up.” My response would be “Come along.” I don’t see religiousness as a virus that exists in gradients with slightly religious people being sick and very religious people being very sick. I have never bought the Sam Harris thesis, for example. And yes, we might be travelling in the same direction!

    • I guess I can agree that having a belief seems like a typical and thus healthy thing for a human to think. I’d be willing to compromise on people having beliefs but not thinking that their beliefs come with entitlements.

  3. I think you’ve eloquently expressed the concerns that many of us have had for many years now about how the religionists, many of them anyway, run amuck (wherever that is) and about where the state of secularism, if not civilization itself, now finds itself.

    There are so many thoughts running through my head on this subject, I don’t know where to start or, if started, where it would end. That said, I going to go with this: authoritarianism is anathema to responsibility. And responsibility, more often than not, begets morality.

    Authoritarianism is almost synonymous with religion. The big guy in the sky is going get you if you don’t do what the priests and the preachers and the imams tell you He wants. Of course, the dirty little secret is that there is no big guy in the sky, no hellfire and damnation to worry about, no heavenly afterlife to impel you to change your life. It’s the old carrot and stick deal, but it is powerful stuff. After all, we’re talking eternity here. You don’t mess with eternity.

    So, when religions, or, I should say, certain factions of a given religion, get a little uppity and tell you, for example, to fly planes into tall buildings while screaming “god is great,” well, hey, that’s a ticket to paradise right there – 72 year old virgins and all. Trouble is, that’s not the responsible thing to do. But, that’s how many believers behave; they subjugate responsibility to the almighty authority in the sky, they do the immoral thing rather than the right thing. I mean, you don’t see atheists flying planes into tall buildings screaming “God is dead,” now do you?

    Trouble is, secularism doesn’t work either. Here in the U.S. we are (Republicans close your eyes) a welfare state. This is true at all levels of society – from wall street to main street, from school kids to senior citizens, from laborers to CEO’s, from scientists to astrologists. We depend on government for everything. Through the legislative process (read lobbyists) the plethora of social engineering is manifest in everything from the military industrial complex to the tax code. This is authoritarianism of the first order.

    As a result, I believe we have lost our democratic republic, and replaced it with an elitist plutocracy; Adam Smith has trumped Thomas Jefferson. Today, American values are not based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but rather on property, profit, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. If our system of government has devolved to the point where following the rule of law is considered optional, where squandering limited resources is called patriotic, and where creating and passing a massive financial burden on to future generations is deemed acceptable, then responsibility, and morality itself, has become a prisoner of an out of control political process.

    There’s an old story about this guy having trouble with his mule pulling his cart. From time to time the mule would just stop for no apparent reason. So, the guy would get down off the cart, grab a 2 x 4, walk up to the mule and bash him right in the forehead with it. He would then climb back on the cart, yell “getty-up,” and the mule would start going down the road like nothing happed. A passer-by sees all this going on and eventually asks the driver, “What’s up with the 2 x 4?” “Well,” said the guy, “to get him to do anything you have to get his attention first.”

    Sadly, I think that is what we might need to wake up and take responsibility for the problems at hand – a 2 x 4 right between the eyes. I know you’re read it, but for the purposes here, I think rereading the first few paragraphs from Rebecca Goldstein’s beautifully written “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” might be in order; emanations of a 2 x 4, if you will:

    “Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.

    “Call it the world.

    “The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues that you had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated you are, the more annotated your mental life, the more taken aback you’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires you had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.

    “What is this stuff, you ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and mostly forgotten.

    “Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on your watch. You ought to have sent up a balloon now and then to get a read on the prevailing cognitive conditions, the Thinks watching out for the Think-Nots. Now you’ve gone and let the stockpiling of fallacies reach dangerous levels, and the massed weapons of illogic are threatening the survivability of the globe.”

    Keep on helping us fight the good battles Dr. H.

    • I’m mostly in agreement with this but our secular Americans that you’re blaming for corporate issues aren’t secular. If you don’t think religions have built in greed at the level of your average capitalist, we’re going to find ourselves discussing very different problems.

      • Seth, I think we’re on the same page here. Our disagreement is probably just a semantical one. I see republicanism, capitalism and socialism as inherently secular because they are not predicated specifically on any particular religion or religious dogma. For example, George W Bush was reportedly a born-again Christian, and that no doubt informed his decision-making, but he didn’t present himself as an evangelical Christian as president in the same way as, say, Oral Roberts presented himself as president of his ministry. In any case, once you reach a certain level in the political power structure, religion becomes secondary for the simple reason that it’s unnecessary. Thus, secularism is front and center while religion lurks in the shadows. At least that’s my opinion.

  4. Pingback: Christian Education Books and More » Blog Archive » Christian Musicals

    • @ Richard: Thanks, Richard. I am posting these to draw wider attention to the ways in which the international humanist community is responding to the issue.

  5. The death in Pakistan last week by assassins who became national heroes overnight was conducted with the بركة of a dozen radical clerics

    Would you believe that you have a reader who doesn’t know what ” بركة ” means? I had to put it into Google translate, where I got “pond” as the result. Luckily, there was also a list of other options: “1. pond. 2. blessing. 3. boon. 4. tank. 5. mercy. 6. mere. 7. receptacle. 8. pan. 9. patch. 10. benignity.” Much as I am tempted by “pond,” “tank,” “receptacle,” “pan,” and “patch,” I am going to go with “blessing.”

  6. Paul, I am very pleased with your message, except for the sentence:
    “In cases where the State simply replaced God, as in Soviet Russia, the motivation was essentially religious.”
    “Radical Secularism” is what I want. I would like to call it “laicite” but the word will not fly in this country. Could we keep the expression “radical secularism” or create the word “laicism” (which may already exist?)

    I will join your new organization.

  7. Pingback: Laïcité: The Radical Secular Imperative (via The New Oxonian) | First Praxis

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