Friday, December 23, 2005

Secular Wonder

Goodness only knows, as home educators we get used to being sniped at for no good reason whatsoever. It's very easy to conclude that all this flak is a specific side-effect of being a home educator, and yes perhaps we do get more than our fair share by the nature of being odd-balls, but it is actually the case that whenever you subscribe to some idea, however mainstream and apparently inoffensive, someone out there is sure to be lining up to try to trash it.

The sad thing is that so much criticism is so woefully bad. Opponents of ideas frequently make the mistake of either missing the mark entirely or attacking a very poor version of their target. John Gray made both these mistakes with his attempt to critique rationalism, science and secularism in "Straw Dogs". The critical aim was so wayward it was possible to write the book of entirely. Harder to take is the attempt on the same subjects by a usual comfort read - Mark Steyn here in the Spectator or if this refuses to link here at the Free Republic.

The thrust of Steyn's argument is that secularism has flaws which are fatal to it. For example, he claims that rational secularist Europe will breed itself into non-existence because secularism, by not adhering to beliefs about the transcendental significance of life and the afterlife, does not provide for a basis for taking life seriously enough in order to inspire people to have kids.

Given Mark's usual bugbear anxiety about the demographics of the Western world versus the Islamic one, you can't help thinking that his tirade against secularism is more about putting a stop to terrorism than about seriously thinking about which are the best and most credible ideas. But putting aside all speculations about his motivation, it seems worth saying, (if only for my sanity), that secularism needn't necessarily be written off so easily. The good news for Steyn is that the secularism he attacks is a very poor variety that could indeed well end up in nihilistic misery, if not total self-annihilation but that there is, in fact, a much better variety out there that would make his criticisms redundant.

Steyn must accept that he is unlikely to succeed in calling people to a faith simply on the basis that life becomes very difficult if they don't. People will apply other criticisms other than the test of efficacy. They will need to know that the idea to which they are about to subscribe is credible, has some possible good explanations, seems to match the data. In these regards, secularism remains the most credible choice for many and the other good news is that secularism could be up to the efficacy task as well since secularism can easily provide sufficient motivation for taking human life very, very seriously...way more seriously than we take the life of gibbons or pumpkins, for example.

Humans are quite capable of appreciating the truly extraordinary nature of being alive (and just in case you have forgotten this, try a genuinely near-death experience for prompting you into remembering.) Our perception of the immanent wonder of life is quite sufficient to the task of making us want to propagate.

So rather than calling us to a faith that cannot work for us, it could be much more constructive to call to secularists to appreciate the truly extraordinary fact of human life - the fascinating insight that 1.5% difference from chimps means that we send space craft to places outside our solar system, can think through the limits of our perception and on into the multiverse, can speak with enormous complexity and subtlety to our extraordinary children.

It's a wonderful world. Have a wonderful day.


Anonymous said...

Isn't all criticism people justifying their own ideas by pushing them onto others?

Carlotta said...

Mostly, I should think, but aside from the fact that we can never, ever justify our ideas, the two activities aren't intrinsically linked.

Also one would hope that some ideas are better descriptions of reality than others, and that those with the more truth-like ideas would be right to offer up their crits...

Anonymous said...

What do you mean we can never, ever justify our ideas?

I know what you mean about better descriptions of reality, but sometimes criticism can actually replace a good idea for a bad one. Some people are experts in the arguing art.

Carlotta said...

re the justification issue...I mean that it seems that we can never be certain that our knowledge is right, even when it stands up to extensive criticism and in the case you mentioned, say, that almost everyone is persuaded to think in similar fashion. David Miller expounds at length on the issue of the impossibility of justification of knowledge in his book about Critical Rationalism and its Defence.

And re your second point, yep, I think you're right that it is very easy to be led in the wrong direction, but that a habit of truth-seeking combined with accepting that even our most dearly held and well-argued beliefs could potentially be wrong, (but that they are probably worth defending until better argument is produced), is likely to protect one against the problem of clinging to bad but rhetorically well-presented ideas.

Anonymous said...

I see what you mean now (I am not a reader of those heavy books, perhaps later). What I meant about justification was more the need of having followers, having other people doing the same for the sake of feeling right about doing it.

Becky said...

"calling people to a faith simply on the basis that life becomes very difficult if they don't"

Unfortunately, that seems to just the ticket for a number of those attracted to organized religion, especially of the North American evangelical Christian sort.

Nice to realize that it *is* a wonderful world, isn't it, in and of itself :). Wishing you and your family a wonderful New Year!