Secular Reason vs. the Sky King

February 23, 2010

The nonreligious are used to hearing that a society without God’s Laws in command will speedily decay and perish. “You’ll return to religion eventually,” the religious keep taunting. 

It’s a familiar phrase. 300 hundred years ago, friends of democracy were taunted by monarchists forecasting how the confused masses would hate freedom and crawl back to God’s enthroned kings. Monarchists argued that a society must have a “decider”, a final authority to silence debate with a loud dictate. No final decider, no civil order. Dictatorial religion aligned with dictatorial politics: the Sky King supported the human king. 

This monarchist argument was completely debunked by some bold experience. In the democratic experience, there is no final decider. There are only temporary majority compromises, formed by long debate and reconciliation. Swirling, ever-changing coalitions gain and lose power in rhythmic pulses of history. Democracy is a political pluralism of many voices, replacing lone dictators. 

Democracies came to understand how people don’t need a king -- people can come to trust their collective wisdom, frail and faulty as it is. Monarchists still complained that a democracy really just consists of the traditional laws and rights after subtracting the king. That thin monarchist argument accused democracy of a self-confessed inadequacy: democracy still relies on belief in a king, since it just deletes the king. But that is a ridiculous argument, and there is no inadequacy. The founders of America admired the rights of British citizenship, and judged that those rights were better protected under a democracy. It is absurd to argue that admiration for rights implies any need for a king -- quite the opposite is true! And then America advanced more inclusive rights in the centuries since. Today, we can believe that all people are equal without having any king around to dictate to us.

America’s founders exercised their “secular” reason -- they judged that they valued their rights more than kings, and they stopped listening to preachers threatening hell for evicting God’s kings. And they valued their rights because they were rational -- wise reason itself can judge, without any scriptural warrant, that it is better to live with rights than without them. (And democratic rights are nowhere endorsed in the Bible, anyways.) America’s founders were suspicious of all kings, earthly or heavenly. That suspicion has only spread, even to most religious people, who prefer both religious pluralism and political pluralism. People like choosing their own church, their political party, and their elected officials. It’s about freedom, remember?

Of course, secular democracy has worked, and the nonreligious have little trouble conforming to common moral decencies and civil laws. In fact, more religious societies tend to be more immoral and uncivil. The eminent researcher Gregory Paul has tracked the positive correlations between greater social disfunction and higher religious belief for years. The moral argument that we need God to be good is thoroughly refuted. As I’ve explained before, it’s really no mystery how nonreligious people are good citizens .

Secular reason has guided America’s progress towards greater freedoms. Secular reason is wise judgment on the best methods for realizing the ideals of freedom. The ideals of freedom are inherited from past experience, to be sure. Concrete protections of freedom ensured in any one era are but little steps beyond the last generation’s reach. But these are real human steps advancing vague human ideals. Secular judgment (no dictator) on realizing freedom (for humans) is precisely the quest for humanistic progress. Secular reason is never reason in a vacuum with nothing to think about. Secular reason thinks about our inherited values, how to advance them, and where necessary to compromise and readjust them. No values are sacred and beyond reevaluation. Everything is up for empirical judgment. While empirical and concrete, secular reason is NOT simply scientific reason (as some rashly suppose), NOR is it any nihilistic denial of values. Secular reason does not ignore scientific knowledge, but it is not a department of natural science. Rather, secular reason is humanistic ethics becoming scientific in this sense: we must take an evidence-based and experimental approach to our inherited values, asking whether social structures in fact advance human freedoms (and changing them when they fail). Democracy, when it works well, is the political realization of this scientific ethics. 

The notion that there are no final dictates over values still frightens some people. Friends of dictatorial religion don’t advocate political monarchy anymore, but they still advocate moral theocracy. Dictatorial religion doesn’t like too much freedom, wishing that God’s moral rules were our civil laws. We now hear the same sort of thin argument: Secular reason must confess inadequacy, because it thinks about values inherited from more religious times. You can read how Stanley Fish is the latest to be fooled by this thin argument , perhaps because he overlooks humanism's secular progress. It’s a thin argument indeed, and just as flawed as the monarchist argument. We admire our shared human values, we use democracy to advance them, and we don't need a Sky King anymore. Besides, the days are long past when religion spoke with a clear and consistent voice. After the vague ethical platitudes, religious people deeply disagree over concrete moral issues as much as anybody. Democracy is the only option left, and friends of democracy try to make it more secularly reasonable and more humanistically ethical.

Secular reason and humanist ethics are well-designed for productive cooperation. Humanist ethics has many debts of inheritance from past and present civilizations all over the world. However, humanist ethics and its use of secular reason liberates the human quest for freedom from any particular religion, and it transcends religion’s dependence on the supernatural. The time of dictators must be put to rest in the history books. The many voices of humanity are not to feared, but celebrated.


#1 CybrgnX (Guest) on Wednesday February 24, 2010 at 8:51am

Actually I have to agree with some of the ideas here in that we may well go crawling back to g0d.  Look at the upsurge in religion we are seeing.
But more so look how our ‘democracy’ is returning to a royalty system.  The congress is controlled by rich (nobles) corporations & CEO in the background.  Were has the ordinary non-noble (ie RICH) person gotten elected to something higher then state level?  No our democracy is deteriorating into a type of monarchy based on wealth.  And all in power have a base in religion.  When a real atheist is elected to some HIGH office, I will feel better about not going to g0d as a society.

#2 JohnnyCrash on Wednesday February 24, 2010 at 10:23am

Interesting blog John.

As a strange coincidence I have been re-reading Burke’s arguments for monarchy, and his decrying France’s deposing of their king (“Reflections on the Revolution in France”).  Along with this I have been re-reading Thomas Paine’s response in “The Rights of Man”, as well as Paine’s “The Age of Reason.”  Include the radical (for its time) “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” by Mary Wollstoncraft and we see not just the common sense (no pun intended) logic, but also the secular bent that Paine and Wollstonecraft lend to giving more rights, more tolerance, and more morality to mankind - all without the intolerant, inflexibility of religion.

As you mention in your blog people used one argument for the other.  Burke used religion as his leverage for arguing that monarchies and pre-existing “absolutes” are better… he has been proven wrong both on the political and religious arguments - religion in its absolutism, leads to equal or worse morality than secularist morality.  “Thou shalt not kill” is stated in contrast to the much longer and glorious stories of the genocide of Canaanites (where even children were slaughtered), Jesus chastising Peter for “living by the sword” is contrasted by Jesus joy at judging others and sending them to eternal damnation where they “weep and gnash their teeth” forever.  With these confused morals of a Bronze Age book of myths, it is no wonder that almost all of history’s wars have a major religious component.

Religion is tenacious.  It’s borrowed, remoulded, and handed to new generations.  From Egypt to Greece to Rome.  With Paine, Jefferson and a new untamed land with such a small populace, America had the best chance in millennia to eschew the strong influence religion (pagan, christian, or otherwise) has held over government.  Unfortunately, the myth believers have had several resurgences.

Again, I agree with your cynicism CybrgnX.  Though I blame a few things.  The polls indicate a major distaste for our congress, but they also show a major lack of action.  Thus - people complain, but do NOT vote.

The folks who DO actually vote are the religious fundamentalists - especially when their pastor tells them who god would vote for and the rights of gays, atheists, and others can be blocked.  Wollstonecraft and her argument for women’s rights was shouted down by religious fundies in her day.  The same boneheads who voted for Bush (twice?!) because “Who Would Jesus Vote For?” would have barred women’s rights today, as they bar gay rights… their influence in politics led to an unnecessary and incorrect war that killed many people (WMD’s?).  Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” these same Christians would claim is “cut and run.”  They demand continued bloodshed, this is their superior morality?!

What we need is a massive campaign of secular bible education - if people actually knew what that damned book said, they’d see how immoral and full of fiction it is.

What we immediately need is getting rational secularists to turn out and vote.

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