Monday, September 1, 2008

Secularism vs Fundamentalism

From the Irish Independent:

SO CARDINAL Seán Brady still expects us to believe that the Catholic Church has no desire to interfere in the political process. The Church's often-repeated mantra to that effect is about as objective and accurate as the mendacious and misleading statement that secularism is hostile to religion.

It can be argued that secularism and relativism, the Cardinal told the Humbert School last Sunday, "enjoy an uncritical acceptance which would never be accorded religious faith".
First, the Cardinal is wrong about hostility. The only hostility in the relationship between religion and secularism is religion's hostility to the demand for rational proof that is the basis of atheism. Religion is also hostile to liberal humanism, because its own doctrinaire authoritarianism won't accept that people can be trusted to live by the tenets of their religion unless the civil code imposes them by law. (I think these are two very important points. I believe, as does the author of this editorial, that there is a purposeful confusion between secularism and atheism on the part of Church authorities. The second point about liberal humanism and religious authorities and trust in their constituents to live their moral code without the civil support of law, is one of the underlying undstated issues currently being played out in the Phillipines.)

The Cardinal spoke of "shared humanism": that does not mean one religion imposing its beliefs on those unwilling to accept them.
Far from being hostile to religion, secularists are supremely indifferent to it. Their objection is to religious-based doctrines, laws, and customs being forced on the entire community in order to appease strident religious authorities who do not trust their adherents to live within the code of the faithful unless it is enforced by civil law.

Secularists have no objection to every Roman Catholic in Ireland, for example, spending each Sunday sprinkling broken glass on the sides of Croagh Patrick and then climbing the mountain on their knees.
Secularists have no objection to Roman Catholics burning condoms and packets of contraceptive pills in a merry bonfire to defend the Church's loathing of artificial contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. They just don't want to subject themselves to the danger of STDs or to people the earth with unwanted children.

Secularists have no objection to Roman Catholic homosexuals living celibate lives, their natural instincts held in abeyance by prayer and fasting according to the Church's teaching. But they object strongly to laws being passed by their parliaments which force secular gay men and women to live by those teachings.

Second, the Cardinal was impertinent to Irish and other European citizens when he asked if the debate in the European Union was fair or representative of the views and convictions of the majority of the people here in Ireland. And he blamed the media for being dominated by a secular view hostile to or disposed to relegate the value of religion.

Secularists never deny the value of religion to those who believe in it; they merely do not want its teachings to dominate their own lives. And the Cardinal is in dangerous territory because he implies that only religious values can ensure an ethical society. In this, of course, he is at one with President George W Bush, who is on record as saying that atheists are "not citizens", because to be a citizen you have be at one with god. (This comment of Bush's still floors me.)

"Is it possible," the Cardinal asked, "to agree that there are objective values for which we should have serious regard because of their implications for the good of society?"
Objective by whose standards, in what era?

Half a century ago, the objective values for which the Irish hierarchy had serious regard included obstructing a health service designed to protect the lives of mothers and their children: communism by another name, the Church howled. And the poor and their babies died in droves. Objectivity can be a very subjective matter.

"Successive decisions (in Europe) which have undermined the family based on marriage, the right to life from the moment of conception to natural death, the sacredness of the Sabbath, the right of Christian institutions to maintain and promote their ethos, including schools, these and other decisions have made it more difficult for committed Christians to maintain their instinctive commitment to the European project," Cardinal Brady said.

That doesn't sound like a man and an organisation that does not wish to control a legislature, national or international. Cardinal Brady is comprehensively demanding the right to control the way of life of every citizen in every European country, whether Christian or not, much less Roman Catholic.

It does not seem to have occurred to the Cardinal before he made his sweepingly arrogant demand that those of no religion also have a right to maintain their ethos.

But there are no secular State schools in Ireland, not one, and Dr Brady and his cohorts are determined to keep it that way. And the Church (despite what some people believe) is so dominant that it has managed to brainwash the public (even some secularists) into believing that a multi-denominational or inter-denominational school is a secular school and should be quite acceptable to those who wish their children to be raised with a secular humanist ethos.
Without respect for "Christian memory and soul", the Cardinal claimed, difficulties will emerge not only in economic terms but in terms of social cohesion and the continued growth of a "dangerous individualism" that does not care about God ... with continuing difficulties for the European project. So much for "instinctive commitment" to the project, which was another of his phrases.

Instinct is vague, just like religious faith: an irrational comfort zone. The European project, as Dr Brady calls it, is a very defined political entity, and it is based on political reality, not on instinct. It's not a woolly feelgood factor which can be abandoned if the going becomes intellectually or politically rigorous. It involves a defined common core of political values in which all citizens can share, not just those of a given faith, or all religious faiths.

The kind of "instinctive commitment" the Cardinal seems to be talking about is a blithe membership club where each member can make their own rules, the devil (if you'll forgive the phrase) taking the hindmost. Except clubs don't work that way; certainly the Roman Catholic Church club does not. You're in and you keep the rules, or you get out. The Cardinal should understand that.
You can't keep only the rules that suit you.
It was what Wolfe Tone meant when he spoke of Republicanism: it could unite Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter, he said.

He didn't mean that it would incorporate all of their beliefs; what it would do was separate itself entirely from religious belief, so that clashing doctrines of transubstantiation, Eucharist, biblical interpretations and the other elements of Christianity which had given people the excuse to murder each other for generations in the name of various denominational gods, could move forward in political brotherhood.

And they could still go to church, chapel, or meeting house on Sunday, each in their own way.
Two hundred-odd years later, nothing has changed. Nobody is asking the Cardinal's flock, or the Archbishop of Canterbury's flock, or anybody else's flock, to deny their beliefs or abandon a way of life which reflects them.

They are just asked to respect the beliefs of others, and accept the existence of an ethical code which may not include Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus Christ.
Secularists, even atheistic secularists, are not the anti-Christ. Most of them live their lives as well or as badly as fervent Christians.

They pay their taxes, they don't kill other people, and they don't molest children.
They probably don't even spit on the street, much less on each other.
They keep the law and behave decently because they believe that humanity is the highest form of life.

And they object very strongly to being told that they are slavering monsters of depravity because they don't believe in a supernatural being. (Or believe in a particular definition of God, or in every jot and jittle of a particular moral code.)


Although the above article deals with the Church vs secularism battle in Ireland, it speaks to many countries in which Catholicism is using civil law to underscore it's moral teachings. Right now this battle is especially hot in the Phillipines.

In the United States another election season will bring the same arguments. The selection of Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate indicates that the maverick John McCain is willing to use the Christianity vs secularism battle for his own and his party's political gain. Hopefully he won't be tempted to come out with such an inane statement as GW did in his assertion that atheists can't be citizens. I guess in this country all men are created equal, unless they aren't fundamentalist Christian, Mormon, or Catholic.

In the case of Catholicism where civil law doesn't apply, canonical law is a secondary, but still useful club to beat secular Catholics over their heads. Joe Biden will not be receiving communion in Pennsylvania or Colorado. I'm sure the list of dioceses will only get longer.

I have to admit I've never understood the positions taken by religious bodies with regards to social issues like abortion and same sex marriage. It's not like legalizing either forces people into using these rights on a personal basis. Choice is not coercion, but to legally criminalize or legislate these rights away is a form of coercion for any citizen who does not subscribe to the moral code which says abortion is in all instances a grave moral evil and same sex relationships are abhorrent to God. A reasonable person can see that in the case of these two issues, there is plenty of room for questioning the absolute positions of the so-called Christian right.

It's very tempting to suggest to strident social conservatives that if you don't like the secularism in America, immigrate to the Phillipines. If you can't trust yourself or your children to tow your Church's moral code immigrate someplace where the government will enforce these for you, say Iran for instance. I'm sure the corresponding reduction in services and income would be a small price to pay for a national government which enforces your moral code.

I get a chuckle out of American Episcopalian dioceses that are petitioning Southern Cone and African dioceses for canonical supervision. That certainly changes the existing moral climate in the United States. If you don't like women priests and gay marriage, make a real faith statement, move yourselves to Angola. Don't keep your pristine parishes and suburban life style while you make your religious statement. Make a real statement. Find a government which is perfectly willing to legislate your moral code. In the meantime leave the rest of us alone.

The United States was founded in opposition to doctrinal theocracies. Our founders wanted the ability to live the respective moral codes without legal interference from government. People from multiple faith traditions were able to come together and agree on core basics, and in that process they developed a constitution which is the envy of the world. Legalized abortion and gay marriage rights do not effect the practice of any given religion in the United States. People aren't forced to have or participate in abortions and churches have the right to deny rights to gays if they are willing to give up the government perks they will lose for practicing a form of discrimination which is not tolerated in our government structures.

Instead of trying to change the game for everyone, I wish those with religious objections to various social issues, would put some money where their mouths are and that their leaders would trust that their flocks can walk their talk. If their flocks have difficulty walking the talk perhaps the issue isn't in civil law but in the religious talk.


  1. Colleen a couple of reflections:

    "only religious values can ensure an ethical society."

    -- If this is true, then why is there so much scandal permeating every level of the catholic church leadership?

    "You can't keep only the rules that suit you."

    -- unless you're part of the magisterial authority, then one can do whatever one pleases with impunity

  2. Carl, It's not just Catholic leadership, it's endemic to leadership in a lot of spiritual traditions. To me it seems to be a confusion between spiritual truth and personal power and the proverbial "Do as I say, not as I do."

    This confusion of secular power with spiritual truth is very toxic.
    The truth of true spiritual power lies in it's fruits--that is the walk matches the talk and the gifts become evident.

    When a religious organization uses it's truth to force separation it is not spiritual. True spirituality leads to seeing connections not separations.

  3. Colleen, you are correct, it is endemic to western leadership at all levels. Thank you for reminding me to keep looking at the bigger picture.

    There was one interesting item buried in your post that is worthy of mention.

    "undermined ... the sacredness of the Sabbath"

    I say interesting, because in the truest sense, the Catholic Church is the master underminer of the Sabbath. The sabbath was given as Saturday and observed as Saturday for millinea. The catholic church perverted the sabbath and changed it to sunday after the council of trent. The change was made to coincide with roman pagan sun-day celebrations. Interesting that it was after the sabbath was perverted, that chaos began to appear and has continued to appear in all levels of the church into the present day.

    I'm guessing that anytime this is brought up, papal infallibility and lineage of Peter are used to rationalize it away. Even though 1600 years is a mighty big coincidence.

    Something to think about.