May 9, 2013

The Myth of the Secular Society

Yesterday I posted on my presentation at Hong Kong University on Truth, Justice, and Pluralism. 

I'll elaborate on my first point, that we are mistaken if we believe that "pluralism" means that there can be such a thing as a purely secular society, where religious neutrality reigns.

As Lesslie Newbigin eloquently established in his 1989 classic, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, the idea of a "secular society" is a myth, and the pluralistic ideal is misunderstood.  To begin with, one of the key elements in a supposedly secular society is the separation between the private and the public human being—“a concept of the human person which separates morals from public life.” Proponents of the secular society envision two worlds: a world of “facts”—that are knowable by all and shared—and a world of “values”—opinions and choices that are private, personal, such as faith and morality and religion.

This is impossible, for at least two reasons. First the nature of society itself:

Renouncing the quest for metaphysical knowledge need not be cause for disappointment, however, because it means that . . . there is no deep mystery at the heart of existence.  Or at least no deep mystery worth trying to dispel and thus worth troubling our minds about. (4-5). 
The way societies behave, and the policies they accept, will be a function of the commitments the members of society have, the values they cherish, and – ultimately—the beliefs they hold about the world and their place in it.” (218)
Second, “There are not two separate avenues to understanding, one marked 'knowledge' and the other marked 'faith.' There is no knowing without believing, and believing is the way to knowing. The quest for certainty through universal doubt is a blind alley.”

In short, all of our aims and policies—seemingly neutral positions of the culture—are based on deep-seated beliefs and values.  Fundamental notions of the nature of the human person and its place in the universe, the nature of law, and the obligations of the state all flow from moral and religious convictions supposedly outside the competency of the secular society. 

Consider, for example, the work of committed secularist Richard Posner, a prolific and eloquent legal theorist at the forefront of law and economic theory.  In Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy, he begins by explaining that philosophical pragmatism is the best foundation for pragmatic legal theory, and he explains why he finds certain fundamental theses “most congenial” to his approach:
Since we are just clever animals, with intellectual capabilities oriented toward manipulating our local and physical environment, we cannot be optimistic about our ability to discover metaphysical entities, if there are any (which we cannot know), whether through philosophy or any other mode of inquiry.  We cannot hope to know the [metaphysical] universe as it really is . . . .
Judge Posner, in just these few sentences, makes religious pronouncements on the nature of the human person, the end and limits of human knowledge, and the value of seeking the mystery at the heart of existence.  This is not “secular” legal theory, it is moral anthropology and theology.  And this is just one portion of one paragraph of the introduction!

In addition, the fact that supposedly neutral “secular” points of view are rooted in fundamental beliefs and moral values is rarely articulated. Newbigin again:
It is widely believed in our society that to introduce the name of God into the discussion of a public issue, or into an academic study, is to intrude a private opinion into a sphere which is governed by other criteria.  These other criteria are not normally brought into the open for scrutiny. (217).

This is certainly true in law, where at least in the American academy, the prevailing view of the nature of the law is that it is purely a human artifact and merely an instrument for social engineering. Yet this view is almost never openly articulated, but simply lurks behind all that is said and done.  The value system is taken for granted, yet never discussed.

On that score we should be invigorated by Judge Posner’s approach.  It is refreshing to read, for a change, an honest articulation of the importance of moral anthropology, epistemology, and theology as a foundation for legal theory!  What a strong testimony to the metaphysical nature of our inquiry into the true purpose of the law.  What a great invitation to discuss the nature of the human person and our ability to grasp metaphysical problems and bring reason and faith to the law.  What better example of the necessity of religious commitments to legal inquiry than Posner’s own statements?

For there is no such thing as a secular society, and one of the tasks of the Christian – or any religious—scholar is to identify and challenge the unspoken assumptions of that myth.

(Update) Here are some resources on this topic:

Albert W. Alschuler, Law Without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes (2000)
Hunter Baker, The End of Secularism (2009)
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989)
Brian Tamanaha, Law as a Means to an End: Threat to Rule of Law (Cambridge 2006)

No comments:

Post a Comment