Volume 40, Number 1: January/February 2006

The New Secularism

Cultivating A Sober Tone of Doubt

I always learn something from going on right-wing U.S. talk shows like Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox. Once he introduced me as a columnist for “a left-wing Canadian newspaper.” I said I hated to use the pittance of time I was given between his long diatribes to defend the Globe & Mail. But I couldn’t let what he had just said stand: the Globe is in fact a conservative, business paper. He scoffed: “It’s a secular paper!” That’s what I mean by learning something. Alongside Afghanistan under the Taliban and the Iran of the mullahs, the U.S. is that rare nation that defines the left-right political spectrum in terms of the secular and the religious.

Unfortunately, even if the U.S. is a specially effusive version, that’s no great comfort, since the renewal of religion’s role in the political or public arena – which is what secularism has always fought – continues to be pervasive. Who’d have expected it? A century ago – nobody.

And the Spectre Currently Haunting Europe Is…

A hundred years ago, it was Communism that was the spectre haunting Europe. Imagine the surprise of Lenin or, say, Jack London, the fiery socialist novelist, had they known that religion, especially in its fundamentalist versions, would still be around as a serious political force across the globe.

The secularism that challenged religion at the start of the modern era was not skeptical; it was knowledgeable. It doubted the verities of religion because it was confident it could not only dislodge, but actually replace them. Secularism as a term was coined by the nineteenth-century English humanist, George Jacob Holyoake. He wrote in 1896 that secularism was “intended mainly for those who find theology [i.e. scriptural revelation] indefinite or inadequate, unreliable, or unbelievable.” Secularism was thus a socio-political program. It took a stand in the debate about which sources of knowledge were best suited to informing the leaders of society, who had to make choices concerning politics, education, art, and so forth.

That confidence marked the rise of socialism and Marxism, too, as inheritors of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Like other emergent disciplines like sociology and psychology, Marxism claimed to be scientific. Marx differentiated himself from previous and contemporary socialists by his scientific approach (a bit the way Muhammad Ali called himself a scientific boxer, to elevate himself over the thugs and brawlers). There was no ambivalence about using the term as there might be today.

Of course, this was well before the atomic age, when self-doubt began to infiltrate science and scientists due to their role in incubating horrors like Hiroshima, and to queries raised from inside science itself, queries about how accurate it could claim to be, as the natural sciences grew more abstract and distant from empirical experience.

Does History Absolve?

You hear an echo of that early certainty in Fidel Castro’s often-quoted words, “History will absolve us,” at his trial as a young revolutionary in 1954. Looking back now, was it confidence, or cockiness? And why did it matter? What if history didn’t absolve us?

I’ve always found the mentality behind the attitude perplexing. But think about the early revolutionaries, like the Bolsheviks. Think of what they saw and suffered. The scientific component provided a reason to carry on, despite the disasters, setbacks and betrayals they had known. Listen to Victor Serge, Bolshevik militant and novelist, jailed and hounded by Stalin, who wrote in the dark year of 1943: “Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think it is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression; those were the only roads possible for us. I have more confidence in mankind and in the future than ever before.”

At any rate, the secularism of the Left in the past was a result of their certainties. They believed that they had better access to knowledge than in the declarations of religion. After all, they were basing themselves on reason and the scientific historical approach.

The Stony Ground of Religious Conviction

Of course, once you start to lose that faith in reason and the scientific historical approach, it’s not surprising that religion makes a return. People in general, left and right, apparently yearn for stony ground. But the old secularism cannot offer the sort of certainty that used to come with this approach any longer. And the new secularism, which this issue of Canadian Dimension addresses, should be based – and has to be, since there’s no alternative – on a willingness to be uncertain. It should be skeptical rather than authoritative.

What else might it be marked by?

Possibly a new respect for religion itself? That wouldn’t be alien to the socialist tradition. The social-democratic movement in Canada – first the CCF, then the NDP – was created by Christian preachers of the social gospel, like J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas (along with, for some reason, Rhodes scholars). But respect for the religious is not alien to the Marxist stream, either. It’s true the young Marx called religion the opiate of the people, but in the same passage he referred to it as the heart of a heartless world and a sigh from the soul of the distressed.

It’s odd that this passage still has the capacity to surprise people, though it is quoted often. It’s compassionate and sympathetic toward religion, but remains in what you could call the reductive tradition. That’s because it empathizes with religiosity, but views it as an aspect of false consciousness: When human beings finally see through the delusory nature of their experience and of what is presented to them, they will transcend religion in favour of a scientific comprehension of their reality, i.e. of historical materialism as delineated by Marx. So, there are those who truly know – they would be the Marxist adepts – and those to whom they’ll lend a hand in order to raise them to true consciousness. There can always be something condescending and, on a rarefied level, disrespectful, in this kind of respect.

It seems to me that what this view misses is the mystery of matter itself, even for those who are materialists. Perhaps what will accompany the new uncertainty of the Left is a new openness to, among other things, the varieties of religious experience, in William James’ phrase.

That Fraudulent Sense of Certainty

This does not include the dominant versions of fundamentalism, which have adopted that fraudulent sense of certainty that once infected some of the cruder types of Marxism. That is because fundamentalism, in the versions that concern us here, i.e. those which seek to take a dominating role in public life, are also closed to the complexity of religious reality. They ignore, in Donald Swearer’s phrase about Sinhalese Buddhist fundamentalism, “the polar dynamic between the transmundane and the mundane.” They eliminate the religiously characteristic element of what Rudolph Otto dubbed the numinous or the mysterium tremendum, the ungraspable and ineffable.

Once you lose that quality of transcendence, you are barely talking about religion. It is as though they cannot bear the uncertainty involved in glimpsing another dimension of meaning that can never be mastered; they want it all brought down to an earthly plane. There is too much pain and anxiety otherwise. They require clear answers; even deadlines: it will all be made better – the pain, the failure, the missed potential will go away – within a given time according to established rules. What a relief they will feel then – whew. In this respect, fundamentalism is not even about religion. It is about politics and mundane, day-to-day policy. It is in effect the secularization of religion, in the name of religion.

It seems to me that this issue of un/certainty is also entwined with the more recent political history of the Left.

Marx’s “scientific” version of socialism, with its dialectical proofs for the inevitable triumph of the working class, the withering away of the state, and so forth, was difficult to refute, especially before it had been attempted. It’s easy to be cocksure when defending a logical, consistent, untried proposition. Even after the first problematic attempts to build the kingdom here on earth, following the Russian Revolution, and suppressed mutterings of doubt of the sort expressed by Victor Serge, that sense of certainty often persisted.

I remember a fellow graduate student in New York in the 1960s – she subsequently joined the Weather Underground – challenging our prof’s skeptical attitude toward what “the revolution” would achieve in transforming the state of human need and grievance. “Anything might be possible in a society of abundance,” she said. “We don’t know because it has never yet existed.” We dismissed the Soviet revolution as distorted, aborted, or perverted. We focused on other models: Cuba, Vietnam, or China. Or we stuck to still untried, “pure” versions, derived from theory or the classic texts. This was utopianism with an apparently rigorous rational core. It was optimistic, in a sunny, scientific sense, rather than hopeful – a category more at home in religion, which tends to believe despite the evidence and the odds.

In the 1990s, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellites, this kind of rationalistic, or rationalized, faith in an inevitable future became harder to sustain. The confidence in absolution by history waned. The simple actual presence of the (almost universally abhorred) Soviet model had at least provided an assurance that something calling itself socialism could be found out there in the real world – it was even on a map. Its disappearance from the map had to yield some tentative disturbing conclusions, and shake the confidence.

The burden (as it seems to me) of unwarranted political confidence then passed to those on the Right. In the immediate post-Cold War period, now fifteen years behind us, it is the tribunes and ideologues of the right-wing economic think tanks and journals who now sound as the Marxists once had. We are living at the end of history, they said; liberalism has triumphed, the free market will resolve all conflicts and bring abundance along with “freedom” to humanity. They sound like my friend in the seminar during the 1960s. Emissaries from the Fraser Institute fan out across Canada and boldly announce that “we know what we need to do to make an economy function at its best,” then baldly list the specific components: interest rates, labour market de-regulation, etc. Personally, I encountered that kind of cockiness with relief. It was nice to hear it coming from the other side. It’s so super-arrogant, it’s like begging for comeuppance.

They are getting their way, poor things, and the results are as mixed, or worse, as under any other triumphant ideology. Globalization, privatization and deregulation have clearly not solved the problems. They have exacerbated some and created others. The reactions to the neocon agenda in the form of popular protests at the globalization summits, from Seattle through Quebec City to Plata del Mar last fall, have been eloquent. The Multilateral Agreement on Investment has been scuttled; the Free Trade Area of the Americas is now becalmed. These failures are as definitive, in their way, as the demise of the Soviet bloc and the deterioration of so-called Communism elsewhere once were. There is a mute eloquence to historical reality, and to the daily newscasts, untheorized though they are.

Secularism: The Shifting Debate

The debate is shifting again, with those on both Left and Right less confident than they were during their high phases. I think it’s unsurprising that the tone of certainty in politics has moved on to reside in the camps of the fundamentalists (some fundamentalists, although not all), even if they focus less on economic or political matters per se than on what they define as moral and cultural issues. This in turn means that secularism’s moment to challenge has come round again. I hope it will be a secularism that asserts less its superior certainty than its ability to live with uncertainty. On that basis, it may proceed bravely into the future.

There is an additional, more practical value to a renewed secularism. The migrations of recent decades, spurred by economic integration, have produced populations that are not only ethnically and nationally mixed, but religiously jumbled. The new combinations go beyond the presence of Christian and Jewish populations, which were already volatile enough. This has now been massively augmented by Muslims and other religions, most of them containing at least as much variety and potential conflict, internal and external, as those of the past.

In its origins, secularism functioned largely to protect minority religions from “established” majority religions. In the current situation, it will probably have more to do with protecting the welter of religions from one another, and to some degree from themselves.

I’d like to end tangentially by reverting to the rough parallel with Freud and psychoanalysis. Freud, too, claimed to be founding a science – for instance, in his early lectures when he told audiences in the U.S. exactly what symbols found in dreams always mean. But as his work unfolded and met much conflict and failure, his tone altered. His later thought is marked by a sober tone of doubt. He sometimes suggested that, in particular cases, the best psychoanalysis could do was to arrive more swiftly at the conclusion that a cure was impossible, or how limited such a “cure” might be. In The Future of an Illusion he wrote, “But surely infantilism was meant to be overcome.”

Those are brave, confident words. But I’ve always felt they had the quality of a prayer or fervent wish, rather than a scientific prediction. It’s the “surely” that gives him away. In Hebrew he might have said halvai: “would that it were so.” I consider that kind of wariness an advance. It sounds more mature and has, for want of a better term, the ring of truth compared to his earlier ebullience. In the absence of a scientific bluster, which sounded more at home in the 19th Century than it does today, perhaps new ways of knowing, without the false certainties and hollow confidence of the past, can emerge, or re-emerge. These may even include the insights, accumulated via its own form of knowing, that belong to religion.