Notes politics

Chapter 14: Secularism (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

What is secularism? It is important to know first what it is not. Unlike religion, secularists don’t believe that they have a monopoly on truth, compassion, and morality. Seculars try to separate truth from belief. The story of religion endows people with a sense of meaning and purpose when one believes in it strongly, but this says nothing about whether this belief is true. Indeed, a strong belief is often required when the story isn’t true.

Seculars don’t think any group is superior to another one or that any one of them possesses a deep truth that others have no access to. The only commitment is to what is verifiably true, to what is scientifically provable, and this way of thinking has led to the discoveries of modern science from deciphering the human genome, to tracking the evolution of life. Historical figures such as Galileo Galilei are the heroes of secularism because these individuals dared to question the social order in pursuit of the truth. Similarly, the masses of people that stood up against brutal regimes are likewise celebrated.

Secular ethics is predicated on the appreciation of suffering – when people commit to the reduction of unnecessary suffering in the world, we will all be better off. The problem with secular ethics is in the details.

The uphill battle that secularists must contend with is the battle of the unknown. Many people fear the unknown, they want simple answers for every question, and in the past, societies were predicated on certitude for this reason. But we know today that secular societies that acknowledge their ignorance are prosperous and peaceful.

Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

There is no question that more people are willing to embrace the unknown today, and this has benefitted society. But it is important to acknowledge that this embrace does not come without consequences – namely, how to answer the most important questions of the 21st century. Our beliefs in humanism, and our commitment to the right of life will be tested in the face of new technology. Will our commitment to the right of life impel us to use biotechnology to overcome death? Does our commitment to liberty mean that we should use algorithms to uncover our deepest desires and help us fulfil them?

Secular humanists will find it difficult to answer these questions because humanism is still a dogma. Despite the overwhelming benefits that have resulted from the belief that each human should have the right to life and liberty, there is no reason to assume that it is true. It is simply the case that in the past, the commitment to this belief has moved humanity to a better place. But our new challenge is to find out which beliefs will serve our interests the most in the next century.

But absent a historical understanding of the development of our beliefs and our supposed ‘rights’, we will be blind to the most important considerations we should have when answering these questions.

Since it is difficult to send soldiers into battle or impose radical economic reforms in the name of doubtful conjectures, secular movements repeatedly mutate into dogmatic creeds.

Read 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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