Are atheism and secular liberalism ideologies in decline?

John Gray, reviewing the book God is Back (by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge), predicts, for the rest of the 21st century, the decline of Western secular ideologies (like atheism and liberalism): 

[A]s energy and power flows eastwards, the secular ideologies that developed from Christianity are likely to dwindle in influence.

Rightly, Micklethwait and Wooldridge note that the grand secular belief systems of the past two centuries continued Christian ways of thinking: “Marx found it impossible not to think in terms of grand eschatologies . . . He employed numerous religious tropes – communists are latter-day gnostics, communism is heaven on earth, the revolution is the Last Judgement, workers are saved and capitalism is damned.”

In other words, God never really went away, for secular political projects were continuations of Christianity by other means. But if Marxism is a post-Christian creed that is now obsolete, why should liberalism – in its militant, proselytising form – be any different? In fact, it has been in decline for some time, a process that began with the fall of communism.

Put another way, when it comes to religion, the American Dream, not the European Dream, seems to be the 21st century’s future:

The notion that modernity and religion are at odds is a generalisation from the experience of some parts of Europe. Europe is now largely post-Christian and the majority no longer follows any conventional creed, but things are otherwise in much of the rest of the world, and notably so in the US, which, during most of its history, has been intensely religious and self-consciously modern.

European Enlightenment thinkers have tended to see the US as the exception that proves the rule – an unexplained lag in a universal trend towards secularisation.

So ha, ha, says John Gray to secularists like me: we are on the wrong side of history:

Whether Marxian or Millian, socialist or liberal, secular rationalists have held one tenet in common: religion belongs to the infancy of the species; the more modern a society becomes, the less room there is for religious belief and practice. Never questioned, this is what lies behind the hot-gospel sermons of evangelical atheists: if you want to be modern, say goodbye to God.

At bottom, the assertion that religion is destined to die out is a confession of faith. No amount of evidence will persuade secular believers that they are on the wrong side of history, but one of the achievements of God Is Back is to show how implausible, if not ridiculous, their view of history actually is.

John Gray may well be right. But it’s hardly anything to be gloating about. And the world’s colleges and universities (where elite intellectual culture flourishes) are overwhemlingly secular, and they represent global humanity’s long term trends. The Enlightenment continues to be winning where it counts most (among opinion leaders). It’s not entirely irrational to think that the world, a hundred years from now, will be less religious than it is today. Sooner or later, news of what the academy has learned gets out. The Enlightenment—not the anti-Enlightenment—deserves to win the future because it is closer to the truth and to reality, and I continue to have faith that truth and reality are more powerful than lies and delusions.

I can hear John Gray laugh: what a silly and naive secular humanist I am. But they laughed at Noah, too.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Are atheism and secular liberalism ideologies in decline?

  1. Heuristics says:

    What is the truth and reality? On secular grounds humanism seams to me to be at best wishful speciesism. On a physicalist/naturalistic ground it appears to me to be completely unwarranted and even impossible in principle. But if physicalism is false, what is true, what is the reality that the truth of humanism comes from, the ground it stands on?

    Surely it should not just be claimed to be the truth because people at universities think it to be true? An argument from authority is not a good argument after all. As far as I am aware the people at universities are in a full scale war over what the correct way to construct ethics is (what it’s ground is does not appear to concern them much), what the correct way is to construct the human experience (consciousness) has caused an even larger war.

    After looking to academia on these issues I have not found the truth and the reality (the tone of this post is correct, I am a bit bitter about it, I had much higher hopes about the project when I started).

  2. santitafarella says:

    Heuristics:

    The epistemic and ethical paradoxes that emerge from naturalism are intellectually interesting, but positing a god to ground these things run into the same regresses (just set back a step). Does God, for example, declare what is good and true out of a whim independent of human reason? Or does he point us to the good and true because it is inherently good and accessible to our reason? With that one question you’re stuck again. You’re in the realm of question begging.

    But we can get to modest truths and modest reality, and this is where the university campus shines in its atmosphere of civic and rational exchange, and the methodologies for the discovery of what is, in fact, real and true.

    Here, for example, are some truths that most people on a university campus, at least among the professors within the disciplines adressing these issues, reasonably know: the earth is old and plants and animals have changed over time; women are not inherently inferior to men; homosexual desire is not primarily a learned behavior; the god Hanuman did not build the (currently underwater) bridge connecting Sri Lanka and India (as fundamentalist Hindus assert); prayer and herbal remedies for sick people do not work; 3 million Jews were not slaves in Egypt circa 1500 BCE, did not wander in the desert for 40 years, and did not conquer Canaan; camels were not moving about in caravans at the time of the patriarchs; the use of condoms reduces AIDS incidents in a population; vaccines work; etc. etc.

    Religion, especially in its fundamentalist varieties, gives people permission to engage in evil, distort the truth, and ignore reality at so many levels it is hard to know why anyone—especially an intellectual like Gray—would be so Iago-like in wishing it a prosperous future against so noble an Othello as the secular Enlightenment tradition.

    The secular Enlightenment has its blindspots, don’t get me wrong. But it has the tools and philosophical openness to address them. It is more likely that an Enlightenment influenced person will change course in the face of new information, or in dialogue with others, than a person whose religion is larded with memes designed to deflect doubt and clear thinking.

    I don’t think we should be praising those facing the wall in Plato’s cave, content not to try and figure out where, exactly, they really are.

    —Santi

  3. Roger Salyer says:

    Don’t you think the Enlightenment ill—named? Shouldn’t it be the Darkening? That is, Darkening thought consisted of determining that we really didn’t know anything? It holds truth more closely by stating that there is no truth to be known. That reality is what people make it to be, in their own minds.

    Incidentally, I don’t think secularism is going away, in part because it is not very secular. The American view of religion is really just a view of the American civic religion.

    If secularism does go away… well, we can always hope.

  4. The Destructionist says:

    THE EVOLUTION OF CAPITALISM

    Capitalism was founded upon basic principles: production, supply and demand, and capital accumulation. It is a social theory whereby prices are determined by profit and loss, as well as market interest and fluctuations.

    Although I understand the need for a free market enterprise, such a theory should not imply that we are willing to disregard our environment, or sacrifice the needs and comforts of our humanity in an attempt to realize higher profits (a.k.a., BP, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, etc).

    Capitalism may be wonderful, but like anything else, it is still a flawed system. It’s a work in progress. It needs to be tweaked here and there in order to perfect its balance and to soothe the inordinate swings that occur day-to-day in our financial markets. If left unchecked, however, such a system will prove to be our economic downfall.

    How so?

    Well, for one thing, there is only so much profit a business can make from a product before it is left to cut costs in both quality and workmanship. In order to continually sustain a profit, businesses have to create those same products with lower quality ingredients and cheaper labor: which means that they must pull up stakes and move to other countries like China, Taiwan, or Mexico in order to survive. What does this eventually mean for people like you and me? It means that the very financial theory that promoted our country to super power status has turned on us. It means that the American workforce is now expected to work harder, longer, cheaper, and faster if we are to compete with the global economy now breathing down our necks.

    Where do we go from here?

    George Orwell had it right, to some extent, when he wrote his book1984. Many years from now, money will become worthless and the global populace will be employed and subject to hundreds (if not thousands) of individualized corporations that managed to survive attrition through merger aquisitions. It will be a feudalistic society: every corporation out for blood and vying for global dominance and absolute power. Our children and grandchildren will be there too: housed, clothed and fed by these various corporate entities; all the while being sent out on occasion, like brainless automatons, to errands of war, in an effort to absorb the weakest corporations into the fold. After all the dust settles, and everything is said and done, the remaining corporations will finally merge into a one-world government.

    Science fiction, you say?

    (…I’m left wondering.)

  5. santitafarella says:

    Destructionist:

    If you’re interested in a counter-narrative to your dystopian one, Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist, is interesting.

    And I think you are misreading Orwell’s 1984 if you are interpreting the society in it as a capitalist one. Orwell is depicting a totalitarian society.

    —Santi

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