Terry Eagleton Asks: What Does It Mean to Live in a Secular Society?

Terry Eagleton, in a recent essay for the New Statesman, suggests a sure-fire method for determining just how secular your society truly is. It has to do with the degree to which universal compulsion on matters religious has been abandoned (both in law and cultural convention): 

Like art and sexuality, religion is taken out of public ownership and gradually privatised. It dwindles to a kind of personal pastime, like breeding gerbils or collecting porcelain. As the cynic remarked, it is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up. In this respect, it has a curious affinity with alcohol: it, too, can drive you mad.

This is quite the libertarian definition of secularism for someone like Eagleton (who professes to be a Marxist). My only quarrel with him comes in this sentence:

[I]t is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up.

I would change this sentence as follows:

[I]t is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up if you choose.

In other words, even in a thoroughly secular society the ardently religious—like alcoholics—will always be with us. A secular society is a society, not of people who are mostly irreligious, indifferent to religion, or even hostile to it, but of people—religious or otherwise—uninterested in forcing their personal or group religious preferences onto society-at-large by force of law or broad cultural taboo.

And there’s the rub, because Eagleton also notes that religion takes on many guises:

The history of modernity is, among other things, the history of substitutes for God. Art, culture, nation, Geist, humanity, society: all these, along with a clutch of other hopeful aspirants, have been tried from time to time. The most successful candidate currently on offer is sport, which, short of providing funeral rites for its spectators, fulfils almost every religious function in the book.

If Friedrich Nietzsche was the first sincere atheist, it is because he saw that the Almighty is exceedingly good at disguising Himself as something else, and that much so-called secularisation is accordingly bogus.

Eagleton might have added to his list of God-substitutions—but, tellingly, did not do so—his own favored trope: Marxist utopianism. 

Nevertheless, his point is well taken. Gay marriage in New York is an example of a state getting secularism right: civil marriage, not religious marriage, is recognized by the state, but there are very specific provisions in the new law that protect religious objectors and institutions from any recognition of gay marriage.

An example of where a state might get secularism wrong is in the realm of providing abortion services. If, for example, a pharmacist who is anti-abortion cannot opt out of being the person who fills a morning-after pills prescription—and not lose her job because of it—then she is not really living in a secular society. Rather, she is living in one dominated by an ideology that functions as a substitute for God and means to advance itself among people, not just by persuasion, but by compulsions against the exercise of individual conscience.

But this too is problematic, for secular institutions—governments, universities, and private corporations—narrow the realm of freedom for citizens, students, and workers all the time, and frequently set agendas that attempt to compel broad cultural conformity.

Are environmentally motivated laws that, for example, ban the use of incandescent lightbulbs in favor of compact fluorescents, actually a chipping away at a truly secular society?

Maybe liberals (like myself) are insufficiently honest about such matters, and should ask ourselves which of these three secular models we really support:

  • the libertarian secular
  • the nanny-state secular 
  • the authoritarian or totalitarian secular

Most of us (I presume) are quite happy, whether humanist or religious, to live in the libertarian secular; few of us are thrilled to live in either the nanny-state secular or authoritarian/totalitarian secular. And this, perhaps, is where atheist and theist can make alliance (in defending the libertarian secular realm against its enemies: religious theocrats, nanny-state do-gooders, and all other assorted authoritarians and totalitarians).

This, at bottom, is the real division among individuals that matters. And isn’t it interesting (and a source for optimism) that most humanists, evangelicals, and moderate Muslims are actually, where it counts, likely to be on the same side?

Here I am, for example, interviewing a Muslim imam—at a mosque in northern Los Angeles County last year—and getting a surprisingly libertarian secular response (at least in broad terms). Maybe Muslim secularist need not be an oxymoron:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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17 Responses to Terry Eagleton Asks: What Does It Mean to Live in a Secular Society?

  1. Paradigm says:

    “Are environmentally motivated laws that, for example, ban the use of incandescent lightbulbs in favor of compact fluorescents, actually a chipping away at a truly secular society?”

    I’m not sure what you are getting at here. If we can have whatever views on religion we choose then it makes sense that we can make all other choices to? The difference is that not caring about the environment will hurt others. The libertarian view seems to be freedom as long as no one gets hurt. Which is highly problematic because practically everything you do affects others in one way or other. But when you inhale other peoples garbage it is obvious to anyone that their choice hurts others.

    (Incidentally, the older lightbulbs hardly affect carbon emissions at all while the new ones require mercury, mined in China in a way that poisons the workers as well as their children. If you really want to fight global warming you should become a vegetarian.)

    • santitafarella says:

      Well, in the United States conservatives are wound up over compact flourescents (which I think is inane). On the other hand, it does seem to be a culturally liberal thing to do (switch out incandescent lightbulbs for compact flourescents). And conservatives define themselves as people who don’t do liberal things, and so they don’t want to do it.

      Furthermore, laws constraining where you get your light have symbolic power. Light has always been a deep symbol in the human psyche. Where one gets it affects the psyche. And, in this case, it impacts the home (another potent symbol in the psyche). It’s a primal human desire to take control, in one’s home, of the management of light and fire (see the title of this blog for an example of the endurance of a myth surrounding light and fire).

      Still, we don’t want the tragedy of the commons (where people over-pollute and waste the world’s collective energy resources). So maybe this is a prime instance of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s assertion that goods are not always reconcilable (such as freedom and equality), and that you have to be up front and honest about the (difficult) political choices you make. In this instance, the competing goods are liberty and the global commons surrounding energy usage. Prometheus vs. Gaia.


      • Paradigm says:

        Think of it this way: the old bulbs account for one percent of man made global warming and the new ones are not carbon neutral. So you fix less than one percent of the problem while poisoning Chinese workers and their families.

        Meanwhile meat production accounts for 15-20 percent. In my book that makes the new bulbs a charade. And not everyone define themselves as the opposite of their opponents. I for one am a conservative vegetarian.

      • santitafarella says:

        Well, you make a good point surrounding the light bulbs. It makes liberals (like me) somehow feel pious to do it, and it brings down anxiety about pollution without (perhaps) achieving all that much.

        Kind of like voting for Barack Obama.

        But in the United States, a conservative vegetarian (at least in the South), might be considered an oxymoron.

        —Santi : )

  2. Cody Deitz says:

    “As the cynic remarked, it is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up.”

    Eagleton seems to be commenting on a trend with the imperative rather than actually prescribing anything, although Eagleton himself would probably argue that you should give it up. I’ve read a lot of Eagleton in the recent months and I find that he and I agree on a lot of issues, and this article really isn’t much different.

  3. andrewclunn says:

    No complaints from me on this blog post, but you expected that right?

    • santitafarella says:

      Yes, but I think you also recognize that I struggle (as do most liberals) with whether there is some plausible and humanist middle way between Ayn Rand-like libertarianism and nanny-state secularism. My own Jacob-wrestling with libertarian secularism (as well as the nanny state) is ongoing. I think Barack Obama, contra the cartoonish charicatures from the right, struggles with the same issue. See the deficit debate, and how Obama is wrestling to reach a compromise, as exhibit A.


      • Anonymous says:

        Oh I agree that he’s trying to find some middle road, but without some kind of standard for determining what approach to take, he’s floundering. This is perhaps the great difficulty that the progressives face, they have no clear line or standard by which to gauge when government planning is or is not preferable to markets, and as a result their policies are guided more by emotional responses and political expediency.

      • santitafarella says:

        On complex matters, I prefer the reflective and empathic pragmatist and muddler to the ideologue suffused with (unwarranted) confidence.


      • andrewclunn says:

        Whether it be empathy or some form of pragmatism, even a muddler has some standard, some mechanism for determining what is right and wrong. The difference is that unlike the ideologue, they do not state what that standard is. This is only an asset if one believes that the subconscious mechanisms in the brain, formed by evolutionary processes, are preferable to explicitly stated logic. I do not.

      • santitafarella says:

        Explicitly stated logic is often a rationalization for a conclusion already arrived at by other factors (intuition, desire, association, etc). Thus, if you’re going to be Spock, you have to be a very, very self aware Socratic Spock who, as Augustine says, “knows thyself” and knows, at least half the time, when you’re engaging in self-deception.

        As for the muddler, the muddler’s standard is not necessarily the range of the moment, but someone who actually reality checks, grapples with the physical and social reality honestly and, with eyes wide open, plays the chess board as he or she sees it. Ideology can frequently blind a person to what’s in front of his or her nose.


      • andrewclunn says:

        Bah. So one we should assume introspection from anyone who doesn’t state what their logic is? And anyone who does is likely engaging in self deception? I state my arguments clearly so that when they are flawed, the flaws can be pointed out, either by myself or by others. If you’re looking for an example of self-deluded justifications, I refer you to your prior response.

      • santitafarella says:

        Okay, your point is taken. Not having an ideology or frame for seeing the world can also blind you to what’s in front of you. As a practical matter, though, is it really all one way? Don’t people have premises and frames and see things through them, then sometimes (depending on their temperament for ambiguity) question them and try on other frames, and maybe try to see things from another vantage without any explicit or preconceived frames at all?

        I guess I’m just questioning the value of the idea that we should run full steam ahead with untested logic without much concern for reality testing. No, I’m not setting up a straw man, nor am I saying that you do such a thing. I’m saying that a lot of people do. George Bush got us into Iraq this way, I believe. He was blinded by ideology accompanied by oversimplified logical models for how things would likely go.



      • andrewclunn says:

        That’s why all frameworks should allow for a means to self alter. I mean yes, there are axioms, or irreducible premises that may be untrue, that are very difficult to throw off, but I think that is more of a result of human physiology than ideology in general. If an ideology contains a set of criteria for determining the truth as it’s base, rather than starting with a conclusion and working backwards, then it creates a space for people with differing conclusions to reasonably discuss and argue about their differing world views.

        When something (which should clearly be a conclusion rather than a premise) such as “everything in the bible is true” or “everyone should be provided with health care” is stated as an unquestionable value statement, then there is no room for discourse. This does not mean that ideology itself is a bad thing, but rather that all ideologies should attempt to work form first principle, or at least admit when a heuristic is just that. And such frameworks for thought do indeed fall under the label of ‘ideology.’

        It is social expedient to think that ideology itself is the problem (or at least to say as much), but the people whom I see do this the most often (Jon Stewart comes to mind) are always pushing an ideology themselves, merely under the banner that they are not doing so.

  4. Shoogle says:

    Apologies for raising a zombie thread. I was searching for something about Eagleton, and simply interested to see an odd perspective in a blog thread; thereafter I felt compelled to dispute minutiae – all is meant in friendly terms.

    I’m amazed that no-one has pulled you up on the abortion comment. Perhaps this is a sign of where American sensibilities lie, rather than necessarily a reflection upon rationalities.

    To simply reverse the terms of your argument clearly shows its fallacy. If a pharmacist/chemist/surgeon/anyone else involved in the contraceptive or abortion process can opt out of doing part of her job, and not lose her job because of the religious protection afforded her, then she would not live in a secular society, but one where moral and political decisions are made on a religious basis.

    This is a simple issue of practicality. Let us imagine the equivalent case of a police officer or state prosecutor who fails to apply themselves to their work on the basis of their political or religious sympathies for someone they would otherwise be obliged to arrest or charge.

    One would expect them to lose their job, just as the worker who takes unilateral strike action on such grounds, the Muslim or Jewish worker objecting to their employment in a non-halal/kosher slaughterhouse, the creationist who wishes to work on macro-evolution in virii, theories of planet formation, and many other things, or the Muslim banker who wishes not to charge interest on loans, the woman who wishes to wear hijab for a Playboy shoot..

    The descent to the absurd is almost immediate, for the argument you present simply is absurd. Certain professions are simply incompatible with certain tenets of certain religions – just as they are with certain political outlooks – and it is a reality of living in a pluralist society that one simply must either be denied certain things, or sacrifice certain others in order to rub along.

    Thus the issue simply is not, and cannot be interpreted as one of enforced ideology – after all, no-one has forced our chemist into that profession. Further, where the professional capacity is one of societal obligation and emergency necessity, the case for blanket compulsion can clearly be made: not all slaughterhouses need be halal or kosher – or neither, as distribution can assure that everyone’s demand is met, but were chemists allowed the distinction of choice on abortion and contraceptive issues, market distortion would mean that in remote parts of the country – or in urgent circumstances – an effective religious sensibility could be enforced upon the customer by the chemist as moral dictator.

    Further, it should be clarified that equivalence with same-sex marriage is certainly not absolute (though I don’t believe that you entirely wished to make such parallel). Churches are primarily and fundamentally religious institutions. Chemists, surgeons, policemen, politicians and legal professionals of all stripes simply do not act in roles that are, at base, religious.

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