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.