Secularism requires a leap of faith, too

January 17, 2002|By Alexander E. Hooke

LEARNING THAT more than 6 million Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, numerous survivors understandably became atheists. For many others, their religious beliefs were surprisingly strengthened.

Are those who have been subjected to the cruelties of their fellow humans also victims of their own self-delusion and manipulation by clever priests? Yes, according to philosopher Crispin Sartwell.

In a Jan. 3 article sparked by reflections of a funeral for an acquaintance who committed suicide, Mr. Sartwell is dumbfounded over how otherwise rational persons still embrace religious convictions. History teaches us, and current events remind us, of the many horrors inflicted by those with contrary but impassioned convictions. Even alone, Mr. Sartwell observes, "systems of religious belief are ... arbitrary and obviously ridiculous."

Given how bizarre these systems are, Mr. Sartwell asks, "Why should you believe?" Since antiquity, thinkers of various stripes have counseled us to consider this question. Moreover, they also expect us to live according to our answers.

Religious answers are often tempting. They offer a purpose in life, speak to ordinary hopes and fears, raise the prospects for justice and goodness and give a sense of the sacred. However, answers based on immeasurable, intangible and sometimes fantastic notions certainly make believers seem gullible.

Nietzsche, an inspiring thinker and vociferous critic of Judaism and Christianity, would share Mr. Sartwell's skepticism. But he cautioned against skepticism as an end in itself, for people need to believe. Indeed, what matters for most people is not that they muster the will to believe what is true, but simply that they have something -- indeed, anything -- in which to believe. In Nietzsche's sardonic words, most of us would rather believe in nothing than not to believe at all.

Does secular society offer an adequate alternative, as Mr. Sartwell suggests? Its record is not particularly enlightening. We can chuckle smugly over stories about sacrificing virgins and resurrecting messiahs, but the story of secular societies is equally numbing. Many thrived only on the wave of slavery, colonialism and jingoism. The bloodbaths that highlight recent memory have little to do with the monotheism skeptics find incredulous. Ten million or so in Stalin's Soviet Union, 2 million plus in Pol Pot's Cambodia, millions more in Mao's China.

Secular society today entices us with high-priced politics, global economies, scientific research and communication technologies. Still, these are not entirely rational enterprises. Rather than replacing irrational religions, they have ushered in new gods. They too demand our faith -- faith in the legitimacy of presidential elections, the blessings of NAFTA, the miracles of medicine and the lords of Microsoft.

How many of us, though, can really offer an informed and rational case for this faith, other than it promises you or me good things? Is the promise, for example, of more choices for a consumer at eBay or the mall more compelling than the promise of paradise or justice for all?

An outsider who surveys our prison, transportation, marketing and public education systems could easily conclude that they are, in Mr. Sartwell's eloquent terms, "just a wee bit cracked." These irrational systems nevertheless draw millions of believers. And when pushed or challenged, their staunchest supporters easily proffer justifications for sacrificing the well-being of many other lives. Secularism, in other words, could just as well be another religion, but on the pretense that it is not.

So, backatcha, Mr. Sartwell. Perhaps the recent and fiery explosions arising from the great monotheistic religions are only surface tremors lingering from the convictions of our ancestors. To explain this mess as efforts in knitting together the erratic threads of the world hardly suffices. More likely, the real gods are the ones still disguising themselves. More power to you if you believe in them. But why should you?

Alexander E. Hooke teaches philosophy at Villa Julie College.

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