History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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The confusion over the term ‘secular’

June 4th, 2011 · 2 Comments


From a useful set of notes on ‘secular buddhism’ at about.com.
Here is Harris on ‘secularism’: we are near the source of the confusion. This is a false definition of secularism.

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and advocate for atheism, wrote an insightful column for Free Inquiry, a journal of Secular Humanism, in which he said,

“As a worldview, secularism has defined itself in opposition to the whirling absurdity of religion. Like atheism (with which it is more or less interchangeable), secularism is a negative dispensation. Being secular is not a positive virtue like being reasonable, wise, or loving. To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists. … Criticizing religious irrationality is absolutely essential. But secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice.”

The first sentence is wrong: secularism is perfectly compatible with religion, witness the onset of ‘secularism’ with the Protestant Reformation. The term arose from ‘saeculum’, or ‘age period’ in the sixteenth/seventeenth century because people began to notice that a new era had emerged, one in which the Protestant challenge to Catholic theocracy had triggered a ‘new age’. This new age period (saeculum) was defined by the Protestant ‘revolution’ and the rebirth of science, soon followed by the enlightenment, the rise of liberalism, then the democratic revolution. The reign of science was challenged and refined by Rousseau, then Kant and the German Classical Philosophy phase, plus the Romantic movement. Etc… Note that the rise of positivism occurred later in the nineteenth century and seems to have forgotten what modernity, hence secularism, reallyy is. The later ‘new age’ efforts to produce an anti-modern ‘new new age’ is another confusion.
So now we have the standard confusion that, e.g. secularism means atheism, reductionist scientism, and darwinism, etc… If just doesn’t mean those things, as such. The Quakers, we should note, are good example of a secular outcome to Chritian tradition.
The current cultic new atheism is peddling a misreading of history and the term ‘secular’. Now it may be that religion as such should be challenged in this modern secular phase. Fine. But the attempt to narrow the secular range after the fashion of the new atheists, or the secular humanists, is likely to backfire, because of its mediocre rendition of its own starting point, e.g. the lead up to the enlightenment. If anything the study of Indian religion (which began in the enlightenment) is a potential clue to a true modernity. We would have to wonder is modernity has even gotten started yet, in the confusion of the modern transition.

Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer were all critical of religion, but they stood beyond the mediocre rendition of the positivistic period. They represent the last pase of the Reformation in Germany, as Hegel noted. Religion, as Hegel noted, will tend to devolve to philosophy.
The rise of positivism was like an abrupt derailment of the enlightenment’s breadth. If effected even Nietzsche, whose influence was disastrous. We can see the tragic result in the way Marx/Engels embraced the rise of positivism, which confused every discussion of culture. As Max Weber noted, something had gone wrong.

That doesn’t mean the secular period is either for or against religion. All it really means is that the religions of the Axial Age will undergo transformation, whether to new religions, or to something beyond religion. But something ‘beyond reliigion’ has to be something deep and profound, or the attempt will backfire, and refueled religious traditioin. The whole issue is up in the air, but the chances of getting it wrong are severe, and therefore, as Hegel suggested, we should embrace a ‘dialectical field’, a sprectrum in a broad philosophic range. The new atheism is a perfect example of the way that the attempt to narrow this range backfires and produces a result that is in reality anti-secular.

In this current debate here, the suggestion that buddhism should be secular misses the point. It is secular already in the sense that it has persisted into the modern age with a perspective that modernity should reckon with, etc…

In any case, the whole idea of a secular buddhism is false, and misses the point.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Barbara O'Brien // Jun 4, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    I am the author of the About.com article. I agree with you about the broad definition of the word “secular.” I consider myself to be both secular and religious.

    However, there is a movement that defines itself as “secular” which sees itself as Harris defines it. I didn’t name the movement that; it’s what the people in this movement call themselves. And my point in the article was to point out that living in perpetual opposition to anything “religious” causes those in this movement to “reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice.” This is a Big Hotly Debated Deal in western Buddhism right now.

    I concede that I probably shouldn’t allow them to co-opt the word “secular” for a narrower purpose without protest. But while I agree you have a point, I must say that you missed mine.


  • 2 nemo // Jun 5, 2011 at 5:33 am

    We move a bit fast here: would be happy to clarify your point: we could quote at length with a link.

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