What is the defining quality of the secular movement, if there is a center at all? Merriam-Webster defines secularism as “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” This aspect is self-evident to everyone in the movement. Many prominent secularists have at one point or another declared war on religion, typically by reducing all religious traditions to their fundamentalist, literalist manifestations. Motivated by the theory that religion was a primitive form of science, the mystifying beliefs of divine inspiration, holy-book-inerrancy, and divine-human relations have been shown for what they truly are: linguistic and ritualistic artifacts of a world now left behind by the progress of science.
The movement of secularism isn’t itself contained within this definition of secularism, however. The definition for humanism, which stands today as a largely non-negotiable feature for many in the secular movement, describes the contexture more precisely: “a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” Reason and science, coupled with anti-supernaturalism and displacing religion, appear to be the primary drivers of secularism. This warrants some critical reflection. Although reason can be understood as an intellectual endeavor that utilizes principles of logic, it’s not self-evident whose reason, and which rationality, should undergird the secularist movement. The de facto rationality motivating the secularist movement at present is rationalism.
The rationalist tradition for our purposes can be understood as the tradition of thought that makes truth the outcome of an equation: it proceeds from premises to conclusions that are warranted by logic. This is, in Aristotle’s term, “dialectic.” More broadly, a compelling yet underdeveloped strain of rationalism that creates the framework for secularism subsumes empiricism. Here, the premises of thought do not rely entirely on abstract, a priori conditions but take into account scientific findings and experiential knowledge. Another strain has developed, unfortunately, deducing that our motivated action is grounded by the rationalist equation. Let’s call this “naive rationalism.” The naive rationalist asserts we’re basically rational animals and with our handy reason, we are guided by rationalist equations. The yield of these equations are the truth in the realm of thought, and the good in the realm of action. Proposed as the successor to religious traditions that make claims based on authority, the rationalist tradition appears poised to further the cause of humanism and the advancement of knowledge by the force of reason, in a way that is historically unrivaled and unparalleled.
This ambiguity in the rationalist tradition should be interrogated. For centralizing the naive rationalist tradition in the secularism project devalues the fundamental, constitutive role valence frameworks play in any kind of rationality in the first place. Reasons, as modern philosophy and psychology have shown, do not originate from value-neutral systems, but rather are products of systems of value. The point can be made more explicitly: this rationalist tradition favors facts and reason as the highest goods, virtually diminishing the explicit roles of fitness, creativity, virtue, and meaning in the scheme of human motivations. Secularism could benefit from reintroducing these roles back into the pantheon of humanism.
What I am suggesting is not entirely novel, but it remains sufficiently foreign to many projects sympathetic to secularism that it bears repeating and amplifying here. I am not, after all, calling for a devaluation of reason. Reason is a grand achievement of humankind, and rightfully remains as the symbol of not only progress but of a future world without mass population manipulation by appeal to fantastical claims. I simply want to bring reason back from the clouds of the Enlightenment to the real world, where values, emotions, and unconscious biological mechanisms propel us to action and thought.
In an episode of The Sopranos, Tony’s therapist explains that rage is the psyche’s way of creating a massive distraction, enabling one to not account for potentially punishing or threatening stimuli (whether in memory or experience), but rather displace them, so as to shut one’s eyes to these stimuli as meaningful or real. The picture of rage here is like the child who hides her head under blankets after seeing a scene from a horror film. The way in which we use arguments to reduce others’ positions to ludicrous strawmen is precisely a type of security blanket, but in linguistic form. Let’s remove this blanket, and confront the ambiguity in the function of rational beliefs that emerges when we ground them in the creaturely realm. Our beliefs themselves, whether true or not (in the sense that they adequately take into account our place in the world in the present), may be what obstructs us from ascertaining truth in the future. Truth, in this way, returns to the motivational level, and doesn’t remain in the realm of articulate conscious thought. Our knowledge of the present may not be true enough to enable us to thrive or acquire truth in the future. Whether reason itself is (1) a method for finding truth or (2) a claim about the authority of an assertion is a tension for many int he secular movement. Just take a look at all the anti-religious memes and rhetoric flourishing in online secular communities to see just how much reason has been misunderstood as a position or claim and not as a method.
Truth as motivational, as operating in the realm of meaning, is important when the secularism project encounters religious thought, and especially as it invokes science. Humanism’s anti-supernaturalist bent is understandable and significant. With Bacon’s critique of Aristotle’s final cause, the method of science was significantly brought into focus and under these conditions prospered without religious conceptions of the world. We don’t need to know the metaphysical constitution or nature of a thing to determine its efficient or material causes. That there may have been a being that created the material world does not weigh in on the question of why the sky is blue or how bacteria cause disease, or even, now, where humans came from. With Bacon, the weight of supernaturalism no longer grounded science, and it could finally fly freely toward the light of truth.
This is not where the story ends, however. Science appears positioned as Icarus. Important modern figures of secularism and champions of science like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have taken their cue from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, claiming religion is a primitive form of science, and that with the progress of science, it will be left behind. Although Frazer rightly positions the basis of myth and religion in psychology, the view was unfortunately colored by a naive rationalism. Frazer, among others even today, do not account for the importance religion has for the inward life and the psychological mechanisms that motivate religion in the first place. Seen as an institution that delivers a guide to right action and right thinking based on authority, religion becomes cosmology + ethics, undermined by its supernaturalism.
One reason the rationalism of science fails to adequately give an account of religion is because the tradition of rationality itself hasn’t taken into account the creature that uses rationality, but rather has reduced this creature to something like a more-or-less competent logic-guided robot. This oversight is a significant one. The public and communal nature of the scientific enterprise meshed with the philosophical underpinnings of secularism’s rationalism and empiricism make for a formidable force not unlike that of Christendom’s mix of magisteria and religion in the life-world of Medieval Europe. Still, the potential has yet to be unlocked. At this point in history, especially in the post-industrial, Christian-inspired nations of Europe and North America, secularism is like the potential energy of two tectonic plates producing some seismic activity in the last two or three centuries but overdue for a massive earthquake.
Motivation and Articulation
The religious wars that gave impetus to a non-religiously grounded framework for truth and political institutions birthed our modern secularism in more and less obvious ways. As deism rose to prominence during this time, true religious beliefs were no longer associated with the authority of church institutions, which had enforced the status of these truths by political force. Rather, truth became an inward reality, an “inner light.” The public became private, the communal individualized. The stakes of this reformation, owing much to the ideas of the Reformers who ignited growing ideas of nationalism and equality already in place, couldn’t be much higher at the time. The political leaders who were endowed with authority by the Church weren’t just making sure, as in our day, the beliefs of one person didn’t intrude on the liberty of another, but were charged with the task of safeguarding the souls of their people.
As human history moved to favor the death of ideas over the death of people, the importance of symbols and narratives as the spaces where truth showed itself were lost within the development of rationalism. The separation of church and state has reversed the roles of what fundamentally grounds us. This is easily seen in populations of both religious and secular stripes, with people in both groups claiming that the minimal requirement a valid belief must meet to be legitimate (or, at least, not disallowable) is that it won’t infringe on the liberty of others. With rationalism sectioning individuals into types and tokens, our beliefs have become hyper-individualist, and what motivates us on the pre-conceptual level has been lost as a category for thinking, in the demand to typify everything for the calculus of our secular rationality.
For the kinetic energy of secularism to support life rather than diminish it, it’ll have to not only capture the minds of the masses, but also the hearts, and not just in the equivocal, ambiguous way by assuming and sublating the good, or motivational truth, with the method of rationality. The disparity between the proselytizers of religion and the advocates of secularism might just be measured by the forms made available to religious people in symbols and rituals that haven’t found a functionally equivalent home in secular movements. These forms enable the appearance of content framed as statements of belief, which illuminate, inspire, and unify the mind and heart. And the reasons are somewhat obvious, for those with eyes to see. Image processing and pattern recognition, as forms of thinking that are innate and unconscious, are more primary to and pervasive in consciousness than articulate thought. That the myths of religion are saturated by images and narratives is, as a result, no accident. Stories grab us on a pre-conceptual level and even appear to ground our conceptual frameworks in the first place. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow depicts this secondary role of articulate thought in consciousness even more acutely: our “fast” system, what in common parlance we name “intuition,” this pattern recognition mechanism that I mentioned before, “makes” choices for us on most occasions. It is only when something unexpected or unknown is encountered that our secondary, “slow” system becomes operative: articulate thought.
If the strictly rationalist perspective of the human were true, whereby the givenness of thought were provided completely in the mediation of sense data from the world, through the eyes, to the vassal of our minds, waiting to be formed by our concepts, then the world would, in a significant way, be value-neutral to our biological systems: there would not be a primitive reaction of fight, flight, or freeze, but an immediate compulsion of reason—articulate thought would be more pervasive than non-linguistic thought. This is, in fact, not what we find and doesn’t account for everyday experience.
A now prevailing theory of perception supports the valence-laden notion of the world. Scientists formerly believed that when we look out at the world and perceive the “givenness” of it, those objects with the most salience attract our attention. The consensus is moving in a different direction. We are, rather, attracted to valence: the most meaningful aspects of our perceptual field. And, on a more general level of analysis, when we don’t know what’s going on, when we find ourselves in situations that are new or unexpected, our amygdala goes to work, and in some degree produces the fight/flight/freeze response. This is true not only for situations in the world when we encounter strangers, animals, natural disasters, or darkness in a foreign place, but also for situations in the mind, when we encounter new ideas and beliefs.
To be fair, the disparity I am outlining, between truth as fact and truth as valence, isn’t irreconcilable. The difference rests merely on two images of humankind conceived in “natural” or “normal” states of affairs. The naive rationalism that grounds some strains of secularism would have us believe it is natural for humans to encounter the world in a value-neutral way, although the methods of science itself, and its empiricism, contradicts this claim. On the other hand, religion, as it encourages literalist interpretations of its mythical symbols, would have us think the world is populated by gods and demons, and that it is natural for humans to encounter a world for or against them. These claims are literaly false, but perhaps metaphorically true. The issues arising from naive rationalism on one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other are not inherent to the secular enterprise itself, but are simply artifacts of the pre-Darwinian philosophy of Descartes. It is my belief that becoming more Darwinian will galvanize secularism to a more synthetic and all-encompassing view of ethics, politics, and especially religion.
Religion and Rationalism
If we take Kahneman’s research and conclusions seriously, rationality appears to be a mechanism motivated by the negation of itself. We can put it conceptually this way, using Hegel as our guide, contrasting the understanding from conceptual thinking: (1) the understanding is an immediate (meaning unmediated) interaction with the environment, bellying most of our thinking most of the time; (2) dialectic, or conceptual thinking, is a mediated form of the immediate, and its goal is to synthesize the mediated with the immediate experience to adapt understanding and return to the world, forgive the religious image, as a new creation, better fit to overcome whatever obstacles stand in one’s way. Rationality, as the conceptual aspect of thinking, arises when we encounter a problem or an unknown in our environment, when our unmediated understanding, our immediate experience of the world, becomes questionable. When the issue appears, we mediate the world, so that we don’t have to die to learn, but can predict, contradict, examine, and evaluate new courses of action to map on our environments. Our mental life returns to immediacy until a new problem or a novelty is encountered again.
This cycle of immediacy and mediation seems to account for a significant difference between rationalism and religion. And I think rationalism could gain from learning about this difference.
A piece of a Darwinian understanding of religion will reside in this framework, I believe, not limiting religion to either a scheme of morality only or a cosmology only, or simply both together in varying intensities. Wittgenstein once wrote “God” is a term like “object,” and with it, you get an entire conception of the world. The first commandment given to the Jews, that they should have no other god before God, can now be interpreted in the way the Father of Modern Theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, once spoke of miracles: “Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant….The more religious you are, the more miracle would you see everywhere.” Religion makes a move that rationalism doesn’t necessitate but could, and should, incorporate. The moment of mediation, for religion, is not a moment to figure something out about the objective world, whether that be the causal relations of objects or the laws of nature, and to the extent that these are figured out by religious people, it’s an accidental and not an essential feature of the religious disposition. The moment of mediation is undertaken to correct disposition: mediation is a form of meditation, a reception or correction of behavioral patterns. Immediacy becomes transformed into miracle the very moment God is sought in all things. Consider the words of Deanna A. Thompson, explicating the centrality of faith for the Christian life in light of Martin Luther’s theology:
“…having faith means that your whole life is redirected toward ‘trusting [God] with your whole heart’ and looking to God ‘for all good, grace, and favor,’ honoring God through the orientation of your inner life.”
Rationalism, on the other hand, utilizes mediation in a fundamentally different way, and this is what separates the objectivity of rationalism from the existentiality of religion. The point of mediation for rationality is to understand the causal connections and physical makeup of the world. Yet it doesn’t end there. Mediation becomes saturated with facts, more so than the religious disposition strives to attain, and in such a way sets the mediated move of reason as the primary driver of thought, rather than a certain disposition toward the world as it relates to oneself immediately.
This is a significant difference. It doesn’t mean that religion only operates within the realm of value and rationalism in the realm of truth, but it does indicate a different kind of navigation of the world as it presents itself to human beings, as creatures who not only think and plan but also suffer and love. The platitudes, deriving from metaphors, narratives, and images, used to communicate religion by religious people themselves, inspire a depth of life for many that appears simply, at least in this point in history, inaccessible by other existing avenues. Taken seriously, with a more fully Darwinian conception of religion we may acquire a wisdom and appreciation for not just life itself but the lived experience of life that has been hidden in the cliches of the sages of the past. The fact that so many religious people use platitudes or canonical beliefs, grounded in metaphor and imagery, to communicate deep inward experiences tells us conclusively that these inward experiences need forms to carry them to the public eye, and these forms are patterned and universal. It seems otherwise a miracle, for instance, that the myths of the world have global structures and archetypes, which when abstracted from any individual myth fits within a universal framework common to all myths. To go further, an experience that I can’t mediate to myself doesn’t have meaning, and the way I mediate these to myself is the same way they’re mediated to communities I find myself in: by language and images. There is some sense in which, as a result, the meaning and shape of experiences arise within communal constraints and traditions. And these constraints and traditions, undergirded by patterns of categories seemingly inherited, testify to something all too human.
Rationalism as a Humanism
Rudolf Otto introduced the notion of “awe” as central to the encounter with the divine, as the most salient characteristic of a religious experience. And we might say this “awe” is essential to the propensity to live by inward disposition and motivation rather than external manipulation and control. Joseph Campbell asks in Myths to Live By “what the proper source of awe might be” for us who no longer live in a world of gods and demons? What are the sources and symbols of mystery and inspiration that evoke “the impulse to imitative identification?” He traces these sources in history as beginning with animals and their mystical agency, then to the vegetable world where death changes into life, and then to the cosmos and the seven moving cosmic lights that affected the ordering of societies. He finds in our time the individual stands as the source: “as a Thou, one’s neighbor; not as ‘I’ might wish him to be, or may imagine that I know and relate to him, but in himself, thus come, as a being of mystery and wonder.” Every human is a new beginning, a singularity in the history of humankind, and to diminish this novelty is a kind of blasphemy.
Like Nietzsche, Campbell finds the first explication of the human as a source of awe in the Greek tragedies, already in the period of Homer. From the two classically recognized tragic emotions as indicated by Aristotle, pity and terror, we discover a conceptual framework in which to turn the traditionally religious movements into a humanist project. Campbell uses James Joyce’s exposition to spell these out: “Pity is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”
In tragedy, we are compelled to relate to the individual by the shared grave and constant reality between us, and we are inspired by the secret source of this grave and constant which unites us. In our case, it is death which is the grave and constant specter that haunts us, and it is life which is the secret source of death, but also of things greater than these: family, creativity, and meaning. In this recognition, we may return to the Father of Modern Theology but without God: life is received as a gift, that which we share with all our brothers and sisters, which we did not ask for or could not acquire by our own actions, but by the happenstance of evolutionary history, are gifted immeasurably.
For rationalism to motivate secularism properly, it must catch up with the times, and not deliver to us an image of humanity dreamed by the ghost in the machine of Descartes, or in the tabula rasa nothingness of Locke’s children. Being clear about the nature of the creatures who use rationality is one thing. We must also understand the motivations of these creatures. Reducing, disregarding, or criticizing religious beliefs by a way of thinking foreign to it, without first taking genuine steps toward understanding it on its own terms, doesn’t seem to be the most reasonable response to a phenomenon that has enamored most people for most of history. Rationalism, itself, is a tradition, a human tradition. It is imperative that secularism recaptures the human element in the heart of rationalism. The best secularism, in my estimation, is the one that takes into account and integrates the best of all human thought, no matter where it may be found. What images of the human we use in this process will be crucial, for it is our metaphors that “mediate between our procedural wisdom and our explicit knowledge; they constitute the imagistic declarative point of transition between the act and the word.”
The West celebrated the God incarnate for millennia. It’s time we celebrate the fact that life became human, and that now, with the gift of consciousness, we may understand, revere, defend, and serve it. We need not pray that God bless us, for life has. Nor should we pray for God to return, for life is here. No more prayers for miracles of God, for the secret source that connects us all, life, demands of us that we act. The only question is whether we will become worthy of this demand. “The old imagery now carried a new song–of the unique, the unprecedented and induplicable human sufferer; yet equally a sense of the ‘grave and constant’ in our human suffering, as well as a holy intimation of the ungainsayable ‘secret cause,’ without which the rite would have lacked its depth dimension and healing force.”
 See Christopher Hill’s wonderful book where he tracks this in England from 1400-1580 in The World Turned Upside Down.
 This is Freud’s insight and it has turned out to be true in an interesting way: our “fast system” heuristics are such that we have systematically predictable errors that we make in our thinking.
 I find this especially in the Objectivist ethic, but this idea has advocates from Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant as well as Ayn Rand.
 Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning.
 Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.
 And already does to some extent. Listen to lectures and presentations by Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you’ll hear a very similar view.
 Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, 58.
 Ibid., 59.
 Peterson, 94. We should note, here, a prime example of our danger. The fact that the trolley problem has been posed as a moral problem, in the sense that it awakens our intuitions enough to perceive it as a moral problem in the first place, is disconcerting, as it assumes the moral choice can be perfectly moral while making life expendable.
 Campbell, 59.
“The strange thing about Dillahunty’s reflections is that he’s actually much closer to Peterson than would have appeared in Pangburn’s video. As I have written, Peterson thinks religion has evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, religious myths provide for us the grammar of stories, and, because they rely on competence hierarchies, these stories set the background evolutionary setting to which we’ve adapted as a species, and the conceptual grounds from which our concepts of the individual derived. There is nothing supernaturalist about this position and, in fact, it’s a denial of special revelation, miracles, and divine inspiration altogether, at least, if these concepts are employed at all, they’re stripped of their traditional content.”
“I think the secular humanist movement would be better off, especially in its relation to religious people and its understanding of religion and religious belief, if it sidestepped the question of the existence of God and asked what it means to say that God exists and what it means to believe or have faith in God. It seems to me that this change of emphasis must be granted purely out of the principles of charity and skepticism; the principle of charity because to arrive at a position about religion and religious belief, we have to engage with the best religious thinkers who do ask these questions; and from the principles of skepticism because we have to be skeptical of our own assumptions and ideas about what religion and religious belief are.”
“As social media continues to shape our discourses by selecting for epigrams over nuanced discussion, Bradbury asks us if we will become like Mildred, whose words are like those “heard once in a nursery at a friend’s house, a two-year-old child building word patterns, talking jargon, making pretty sounds in the air,” or whether we will become like the talking, depthless faces of anchors operating distraction machines like Fox News or CNN: “the gibbering pack of tree apes that said nothing, nothing, nothing and said it loud, loud, loud.” May we find the words that wrestle and struggle with the challenges of life, without strangling or flattening them, and, consequently, diminishing the possibility for genuine human flourishing.”
“As a thinker, he sits firmly within the philosophical traditions spurred by Nietzsche, William James, and Jung. And as an influence, he’s a cultural force that we will not soon forget. Why tell the truth in our age of group-think and Twitter epigrams? Well, it’s our only hope for survival, and the only way for the hero, who speaks a freeing word that organizes chaos into novel order, to emerge.”
The difference between Dennett and Harris is not only in the frameworks from which they analyze the problem of free will, but in the consequences that follow from their methods of analysis. To accept both projects as legitimate, which I think we should, would mean that we should work both to be linguistic innovators and also social revolutionaries. We should be attentive to the ways in which language shapes thought but also be open to using the tools of science to move beyond mere argumentation and hermeneutical innovation to improve society.