Monday, October 15, 2012

Religion's Fear Of Secularism

The Moral Code

It's an old argument that will likely never end. In this article, Lorna Salzman argues in favour of secularism and against religion, but more so, suggests that the three major Abrahamic religions are united in a battle against Secularism. While I agree that there is validity in such assertions, I don't agree that Religion is all bad, nor do I agree that Secularism and its non-religion of atheism is all good; it's more complicated and its a complication chiefly derived from not having sufficient common ground to meet, and thus allowing the extremist view to become normative. Unfortunately, extremists on both sides of the debate tend to shout loudest. And while I don't necessarily agree with the totality of Ms. Salzman's arguments in this case—I do agree that "Science, reason and education have set people free"— and as such her views are here for all to read, debate and decide. "Their voices get louder as they define morality and the moral landscape for humanity based on what they consider the overriding lessons and strictures of millennia-old doctrines. These are mostly lost in the fog of history for the rest of us but for religious leaders, these dogmas and dictates were handed down by a god to human prophets directly (Moses, Jesus and Mohammed). Forget Islamist terrorism; they say. These leaders have pronounced Secularism as the greatest threat to humanity extant."

by Lorna Salzman

Much outrage has been directed at the "New Atheists,"or the "Four Horsemen", who I call D2H2: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Some call atheism a religion though it clearly is not since it has no doctrine and does not either prescribe or proscribe human beliefs and behavior. Others, whether devout believers or doubtful ones, take umbrage at what they consider insults against their spiritual beliefs. Still others, including my Anglican cleric friend John Papworth, insist that the atrocities of religion pale against those of secular tyrants like Stalin and Mao, as if I were somehow letting them off the hook when I criticize religion.

Every now and then what has been an intuition suddenly becomes crystal clear. So it is with the growing suspicion that religious leaders of all faiths have now banded together instinctively to fight secularism, their common enemy, and defend their diminishing territory. Their voices get louder as they define morality and the moral landscape for humanity based on what they consider the overriding lessons and strictures of millennia-old doctrines. These are mostly lost in the fog of history for the rest of us but for religious leaders, these dogmas and dictates were handed down by a god to human prophets directly (Moses, Jesus and Mohammed). Forget Islamist terrorism; they say. These leaders have pronounced Secularism as the greatest threat to humanity extant.

Underscoring this paranoia were two recent events: a French panel on secularism and Islam in which the Council of Bishops did not participate and spokesmen of all major religions expressed their concern that this discussion "could feed demagogy" and lead to a rejection of religion ( as if it were not being rapidly rejected anyway); and a debate in the UK sponsored by The Spectator debating the proposition that secularism is a greater threat than Islam. Predictably in the affirmative were Muslim Tariq Ramadan, a radical Salafist and mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, and Rev. Tim Radcliff, a priest and Dominican friar. The final vote of the attendees on this proposition was a resounding No, testimony that rationality has not been entirely smothered.

The new atheists have some cause for rejoicing because it appears that their entreaties on behalf of reason and secular systems of morality are causing serious alarm among all three major religions. Scarcely a day goes by that a cleric of one faith or another does not take the opportunity to promote his ancient snake oil remedy for human fallibility and misbehavior. It does seem that Jewish rabbis constitute the preponderance of these modern-day prophets, however. Perhaps this is due to the ever-present fears of resurgent persecution or the diminished number of congregants or intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews. Perhaps a multi-faith alliance constitutes some kind of protection against growing anti-Semitism. Make friends where you can find them.

But this does not explain the reluctance of Jewish leaders to acknowledge and fight back against the rampant anti-Semitism of Muslims and the declared war on the Jews by Arabs in the Middle East. For some inexplicable reason, the post-9/11 period seems to have sparked in the liberal Jewish community some sense of fellowship with Muslims who, by order of the qu-ran, are compelled to seek the extermination of all Jews. It is as if the Jews felt an urge to cozy up to Nazis. Perhaps it is not surprising, given the fact that both religions closely resemble each other. Historically internal feuds within religions have always been the most violent and relentless, as witness Shia and Sunni Islam.

This phenomenon of faith-based solidarity has led Jews—but not Muslims—to initiate "outreach" and "multi-faith dialogue," though it is not clear just why the Jews should be the initiators rather than the Muslims, who have much more to answer for in their arrogant and superior attitude towards other religions, their qu-ranic mandate to kill nonMuslims and apostates, their enslavement of women, and their disdain for democracy, religious equality and the laws of nonMuslim societies.

But this is becoming clearer day by day: that leaders of the three major faiths are uniting behind a single barricade which is being built to fend off the growing secularism of society. This secularism, most prevalent in western Europe, is causing them serious alarm because it means, as indeed it has since the Enlightenment, the decreasing credibility and influence of religious doctrine. In a word, secularism in a democracy is giving all religions nightmares. What better allies can they count on if not the leaders of other religions who face the same threat?

The response is predictable: creating a new religious solidarity to fend off the common enemy of secularism. Mind you, this solidarity is not based on contemporary ethics but, as always, on religious doctrines and the declarations of prophets that go back thousands of years (in the case of Islam, only about fourteen hundred years but cribbed from the other religions which in turn cribbed from earlier ones). It is amusing (though disturbing) to see how little progress they have made and how hide-bound they remain in their desperate struggle to assert the waning authority of their respective churches. This desperation is evident in their public statements, including the one cited below.

And well might they worry. In the USA, 16% of the population is either non-believing or non-observant, almost double of that from ten or twenty years ago. In western Europe, this is reversed, with the vast majority of people nonobservant if not outright atheist. Religion has nothing to tell us today, no moral examples to set, and no legitimacy. Science, reason and education have set people free. More than that, the freedom to inquire and dissent means that people are free to imagine and construct a secular ethics and sense of morality without the stranglehold of religious hierarchy and dogma. They have discovered that morality is an inherent capability of humans and not dependent on adherence to a religious doctrine, much less a higher being.

At this point a specific example of the arbitrary and dictatorial nature of religion is apt. Here are some quotes from a recent post by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, contesting neuroscientist Patricia Churchland's purported reliance on biology as our only important moral guide. Let's keep in mind that here we have the two extremes: one defending religion as the sole guide and the other defending biology, yet another example of the tiresome unresolvable "Nature vs. Nurture" debate. [I respond to Joffe's arguments.]

In the Huffington Post article (July 21, 2011), "For Moral Guidance, Look to Religion—Not Neuroscience," Rabbi Joffe says, initially referring to an article by Christopher Shea, in the June 12 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education:
The article is worth reading because Churchland's thinking is a moral mess. It reminds us why religion is the best and indispensable guide to moral behavior.
Churchland is concerned with refuting the claims of scholars such as Jonathan Haidt, who have attempted to soften the militant materialism of modern neuroscience. Haidt, from the University of Virginia, has identified the existence of universal "foundations" of moral thought. For Haidt, people have universal moral intuitions, including fairness and protecting the vulnerable. But to Churchland's way of thinking, Haidt has given us no more than a random list of values, which, lacking roots in biology, have no significance. For Churchland, the biological key to morality is to be found in the role of peptide oxytocin, which solidifies the bond between mother and infant and also generates empathy to include more distant kin. 
Churchland emphasizes that oxytocin has nothing to do with right and wrong. The empathy that oxytocin generates is an emotion; it may have the feel of objective morality, but it is not. Building on this biologically rooted platform, culture and society come into play, generating moral decision-making. But, Churchland notes, the moral norms that are created vary tremendously from place to place. And recognizing this diversity, Churchland speaks the language of the moral relativist. For example, she defends the practice of primitive tribes that carry out infanticide in the context of scarcity, and she is slow to condemn the 19th century Hindu tradition of burning wives on their husbands' funeral pyres. "I don't know about their values," she says, "and why they have that tradition."
[SALZMAN: If religion is the best guide, then how is it that there are so many atheists and agnostics who are good law-abiding people? And what about pagans, who preceded Jews, Christians and Muslims, who believed in many gods? Are they equal to today's believers or nonbelievers? Further, one could just as well ask why modern religious leaders are slow to condemn the ongoing Muslim tradition of oppression of women, forced child marriage, murder of apostates and genital mutilation, not to mention their opposition to freedom of speech.]

Further on in the same article, Joffie says:
As a rabbi, I welcome research into neuroscience but believe that as much as we are the products of biology, we also transcend it. I make choices about right and wrong by studying sacred texts that record a 2,500-year history of men and women struggling with God's message and with each other as they attempt to define what is moral and what is not. I also draw strength and inspiration from a religious community that cares about values and deepens its search for the good through the practice of ancient rituals and traditions. I don't believe in easy answers to moral questions. As a liberal person of faith, I reject simplistic moral codes, and I am aware that different religious traditions arrive at different conclusions about good and evil. Nonetheless, the process of moral decision-making that my tradition offers has left me convinced that, as Jonathan Haidt has argued, there is a moral structure to the universe, and despite our differences, the great religious traditions largely agree on what our moral foundations are. And in the moral world in which I live, infanticide and wife burning are always, always wrong.
[SALZMAN: This is arguably the most devious and Satanic argument imaginable. No easy answers to moral questions? If one of Yoffie's congregants confesses to murder or rape, he cannot answer that these are wrong? And after attacking Churchland for her supposed relativism, he concurs that different religions reach different conclusions? One might excuse his confused and contradictory thinking here except that he then re-contradicts himself by saying that all religions "largely agree". In his world he does reach an "easy answer": infanticide and wife burning are wrong. But in MY world, so are women's enslavement, child marriage and genital mutilation.

The contempt for nonbelievers is palpable: one can only reach moral clarity through religion. Worse yet, we have a REFORM rabbi clinging to cloudy ancient human-created doctrines which later generations, Joffie's included, still think represent moral codes handed down from some supreme being and which they insist on regarding as definitive, overriding any subsequent moral or scientific discoveries. This blow to Enlightenment rationality, free will, human dignity, freedom of thought and moral progress is stunning, yet it represents one of the gravest dangers to humanity and civilization ever devised. Small wonder that churches and synagogues are emptier today than in earlier times. ]

Religious leaders, however, resist the notion of human-created moral codes even as their power wanes, this waning leading to ever more shrill exhortations about the "spiritual" life and how its purported lack has created a moral void and emptiness in everyone's lives that only religion can fill. But the audience continues to leave before the sermon is finished. The churches get emptier even as preachers grasp at straws and struggle vainly to recruit new believers.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2012. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at