Babbling Brooks

February 3, 2015

David Brooks today attempts to aid the secular world with a screed entitled condescendingly "Building Better Secularists." In doing so, he betrays almost complete ignorance about how many of us live, and who we are. As far as I can tell, Brooks isn't grievously wrong so long as he summarizes the Zuckerman book, but as soon as he veers into his own observations, he jumps the shark. Point by point, he argues we have it so very hard because of the following burdens for living well:

1. We must "build our own moral philosophies" This is historically and practically untrue. Not even close. Numerous philosophers aside from George W. Bush's favorite philosopher Jesus, have described secular ethical systems. Confucius, Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, and even Kant attempt to describe systems of ethics apart from divine system of commands. We have a long and deep set of philosophers to draw from in deciding how best to behave without any recourse to scriptures or faiths. Moreover, many of us are taught about morality from our secular parents. We aren't cast adrfit in some existential moral wasteland simply because we have no faith or church.

2. We have to "build our own communities." No, we don't. Like most people in the world, our affinity groups and employment usually bring us together with people with whom we have some commonalities. We play pool, tennis, attend concerts, lectures, sporting events, cultural events, attend events for our children's schools, develop deep and lasting friendships, and sometimes even choose to hang out with other secularists because of that shared world view, but not always and not necessarily.

3. We have to build "our own sabbaths." This is of course not true. Even secularists get the weekend off, and as discussed in point 2, above, we often choose to do things in groups. Sometimes too we hike in the woods, or read our books, or write poetry, or any number of "meditative" activities, none of which have anything to do with worship, and have everything to do with simply being a balanced human being. Sometimes these activities involve charity, motivated by human altruism, and sometimes we just enjoy peace and quiet. Again, no great burden, just a part of life. 

Brooks alleges charitably that we aren't lesser creatures than the religious, but claims without any support that we may "suffer from a loss of meaning and unconscious boredom with our lives..." which sounds like what happens to any teenager or those suffering midlife crises, faithful or not. Again, nothing unique or special, just part of being human. In which case, many of us find solace in activiites discussed above. He then alleges that the 18th century precept of "rationality" as the center of humanist and secular salvation is somehow wrong, and that because we are emotional creatures we have an extra burden to overcome. Even if this were somehow an argument against Enlightenment philosophy (it isn't, reason is still a unique human trait that can be used successfully even in conjunction with our emotional tendencies), Brooks doesnt explain how this is not also a burden for post-enlightenment religion, much of which is founded upon the notion that religious belief can be approached through the use of reason.

Finally, in the last two paragraphs, Brooks lays bare his prejudice and suggests that we need an "enchanted" secularism that can arouse the same sort of passions that religion does. Why? It's unclear and unstated though he recites a fair amount of religious sentiment to attempt to justify it. It seems to me that the sort of passion and enchantment that can erect temples, enrapture believers, and move millions can also bring down buildings, provoke genocides, and justify horrors. I'll take my unenchanted secularism, be content with being moved deeply by the world as it is and with humanity's possibilities when motivated and informed by science, art, and philosophy, and save the enchantment for Disney... once I get my booster shots. 


#1 John Sullivan (Guest) on Thursday February 05, 2015 at 8:55am

Well said, Dr. Koepsell.  David Brooks’ column was annoying in the extreme. Thank you!

#2 tpost7 on Friday February 06, 2015 at 10:08pm

I normally find David Brooks’ columns to be arrogant and sanctimonious. But I agree with the gist of the present column’s point. Like Koepsell, I disagree with Brooks’ statements about secularists needing to compensate for their lack of religiosity by finding a moral tradition to follow or create their own moral system, establishing a moral community of some sort, and building a system of devotion and ritual, etc. However, I agree with Brooks that secularists place too much emphasis on reason & rationality at the expense of emotion. As Brooks states, humans are very irrational and base most decisions on (often unconscious) emotional reactions. Compassion and empathy are more important than intellect, and the welfare of the community is often more important than individual freedom & satisfaction. Secular humanism seems to minimize or even negate this. I for one am an atheist but not a humanist. I believe the world would probably be a better place were it not for humans. We have really made a horrible mess of things, and we are in large part a brutal and selfish species. All the reason and rational thinking in the world won’t change this. Rather, we will overcome our destructive and stupid nature by forming emotional connections with others, empathizing with their pain & struggle, and acting in a selfless and compassionate manner. Secular humanism has not, in my opinion, been very successful in this regard.

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