The New Yorker has a review by James Wood of a new book, The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, edited by George Levine, who says that the book’s aim is to “explore the idea that secularism is a positive, not a negative, condition, not a denial of the world of spirit and of religion, but an affirmation of the world we’re living in now; that building our world on a foundation of the secular is essential to our contemporary well-being; and that such a world is capable of bringing us to the condition of ‘fullness’ that religion has always promised.”
Wood in the past has not shown himself very sympathetic toward religion, or even very knowledgeable about it, but in this review he is at times more generous toward it, and more skeptical that secularism really offers any more consolation. Here are his first two paragraphs:
I have a friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who told me that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, anxiously turning over a series of ultimate questions: “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?” In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts. We are locked into our rival certainties—religiosity on one side, secularism on the other—and to confess to weakness on this order is like a registered Democrat wondering if she is really a Republican, or vice versa.
These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer. Religion assumes that they are not valid questions because it has already answered them; atheism assumes that they are not valid questions because it cannot answer them. But 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.
The idea that “religion” (that great abstraction!) regards those large questions as not valid has certainly been refuted often enough in the various religious traditions, not least of all by many, if not most, Christians. That “atheism” (another abstraction) things the questions invalid because unanswerable is likely to be equally false.
At a later point Wood refers positively to the essay by Philip Kitcher:
To take a central example, many religionists assume that life without God would be life without meaning. Where secularists cherish autonomy and choice as qualities that make life meaningful, religionists often emphasize self-abnegation and submission to a higher power. This would appear to be a wide gulf. But Kitcher suggests that religionists and secularists actually agree about how to create meaning in a life. Many believers think of their submission to God not as compelled, he points out, but instead as “issuing from the choice of the person who submits.” Life develops meaning because someone identifies with God’s purpose. This identification must spring from an act of evaluation, a decision that there is value in serving a deity whose purpose is deemed good. Believers, then, make an autonomous choice “to abdicate autonomy in order to serve what the autonomous assessment has already recognized as good.” Both atheists and believers are involved in making independent evaluations of what constitutes life-meaning. They draw different conclusions about what that meaning is, but they go about finding it in similar ways.
I like this argument because it tries to overcome the idea that to believe in God or to submit to his will is the antithesis of personal autonomy. Since the Enlightenment this has become a very common idea, not least, unfortunately, among Christians: Feuerbach’s idea that to enrich God one must impoverish man, to enrich man impoverish God. Earlier it was not always so: St. Thomas, for example, said this: “This is the supreme degree of dignity in human beings, that they be led to the good by themselves and not by others.” He regularly invoked two axioms, one Aristotelian: “Liber est causa sui” [A free person is self-responsible], and one biblical: “Posuit eum in manu consilii sui” [“God left man in the hand of his own counsel” (Douai-Rheims), that is, “made him subject to his own free choice” (NAB)]. (Sir 15:14). So far was Aquinas from counterposing human autonomy and participation in the life of God that he even invoked the Aristotelian tag in order to explain what genuine Christian freedom is. Immediately after saying that every created will must be “regulated by the divine law,” he went on to comment on the Pauline text, “Where the Spirit is, there is freedom” and made use of the Aristotelian axiom as the hinge of his interpretation:
A person is free when he is causa sui, while a slave exists for the sake of a lord. Whoever acts on his own initiative [ex seipso], therefore, acts freely, while whoever acts because moved by another, does not act freely. A person, then, who avoids evil not because it is evil but because of the Lord’s commandment, is not free. But if a person avoids evil because it is evil, he is free. And this is what the Holy Spirit effects when he inwardly perfects the soul by means of a good habit so that out of love he avoids something as if the divine law had commanded it. And thus he is called free, not because he is not subject to the divine law, but because by the good habit he is inclined to do that which the divine law ordains.
For Aquinas, then, the Aristotelian tag meant that human beings, at the highest level of their dignity, are self-directed, act on their own initiative, for their own sake. The triumph of grace is not the denial of this human autonomy, but its transcendent realization. It is sad that this wise position of Aquinas is so poorly represented today among many theologians and ordinary Christians.
Wood ends his review with this paragraph:
Thirty years ago, Thomas Nagel wrote a shrewd essay entitled “The Absurd,” in which he argued that, just as we can “step back from the purposes of individual life and doubt their point, we can step back also from the progress of human history, or of science, or the success of a society, or the kingdom, power, and glory of God, and put all these things into question in the same way.” Secularism can seem as meaningless as religion when such doubt strikes. Nagel went on to conclude, calmly, that we shouldn’t worry too much, because if, under the eye of eternity, nothing matters “then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” This is impeccably logical, and impishly offers a kind of secular deconstruction of secularism, but it is fairly cold comfort in the middle of the night.