Mormonism and the New Religion of Secularism

Secularism is a new religion that threatens to overwhelm traditional faiths in much the same way that Christianity and Manichaeism swept away traditional local cults almost two thousand years ago. Mormonism is far from immune to this process, but it is particularly well-suited (theologically) to adapt (culturally) and remain relevant and vibrant. If changes are made. The ship must be turned to face the wave head-on.

Since secularism is defined in opposition to religion, either I don’t understand what religion is or the secularists that I have in mind don’t understand what religion is. I’ll argue why it is the latter.

France Albert Camus 1956

Albert Camus

First, however, I want to specify that it is not secularism per se with which I have a bone to pick, but a specific subgroup: the New Atheists or New Skeptics (the term “scientism” also applies). I don’t think anyone can read Camus’ The Plague (just as a personal example) and think that atheism, broadly construed, is unreasonable or unlovely. I believe that there are good reasons to disbelieve and good reasons to believe, and also that atheists and theists can be unified on every fundamental value. Matters of fact do not divide true friends.

What provokes a reaction from me is not that some people do not believe that God exists or believe that God does not exist, but rather that some people claim that it is unreasonable for anyone to believe. It is that claim which draws my attention without any suggestion that atheists (disbelievers or nonbelievers) lack for integrity, intellect, charity, or any other virtue.

Now, onto my argument. Without providing a comprehensive or precise definition of religion, I’d like to observe that it has enjoyed a prominent place near the top of the social pyramid throughout human history and across human cultures. Standard economic theory can explain why the agrarian labors were at the bottom and the land owners were at the top, but the ubiquity of religion requires explanation. To put it crassly: what were they selling?

I don’t buy that it was comfort in the face of angst because religion has so little capacity to deliver any real relief from fear of death. One may as well suppose that religion was socially powerful based on its ability to supply miracles. Clearly religious leaders have been petitioned throughout human history, but this is how religions cash out on social capital, not how it is built up.

I’m equally skeptical of the notion that religions got powerful because they told the rich what they wanted to hear. This is incompatible with the teachings of all major world religions which invariably emphasize a universal need for virtue, restraint, and sacrifice. While it’s obvious that religion has been used to appease the rich or buttress the powerful elite, practices like the sale of indulgences have existed at the periphery of religion relative to teachings (however frequently ignored) about equality and justice. If religion was a collection of convenient fictions, their places would be reversed. This is, once more, an example of trading in rather then building up religion’s social stock.

Religion thrived for two reasons. The first is that while there isn’t a deep human need to know what happened before birth or will happen after death, there is a far more pressing need to understand what is happening right now (whenever now is). To the extent that we think about theology at all, it is first to dwell on questions of finding meaning today, of reconciling the conflict  between our ordered self-narratives and the chaos around us today, and of finding solace for an intangible but persistent ache that haunts us today. The need is real, it is universal (in culture if not in individual), and it is more pressing than curiosity.

2013 02 18 Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl

The second necessitates drawing a distinction between real and fake religion. Viktor Frankl wrote:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Authentic religion assists us in that struggle. Fake religion offers to take it off our hands. Real religion fortifies us for our wrestle with angels and lights our path as we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Fake religion offers to outsource the struggle and liberate us from the oppressive weight of freedom.

Which do you think has historically done better business?

The story of religion, in a very small nutshell, is that people have very hard questions and religion at first offered to help us answer them for ourselves. But then an impostor arose that offered to help us cheat, to sell the answers that could only be earned through precious tears for a few measly coins instead.

Thence derives the social power of religion, for you see, once someone has agreed to sell themselves for naught they are in the position of wearing the emperor’s new clothes.It is now in their best interest to protect and validate the authority of religion lest, in questioning it, they devalue the goods they have purchased. I don’t believe that the ancients were credulous fools who sought advice and blessing from impotent charlatans because they lacked the keen and penetrating intellect of a modern to discern whether or not someone did what they promised to do. I believe that (fake) religion has persisted despite its failure to deliver consistently because all who have invested must be complicit in the cover up.

And now that torch has been passed.

The connection between the previous discussion and secularism is simply this: none of my story relies on myths, the supernatural, or anything traditionally associated with the appearance of religion. I have redefined religion in such a way that (apparently) purely secular institutions or philosophies can perform the same social role and preserve the exact social dynamic. And so, these days, that is precisely what occurs. When I speak of modern secularism as a new religion I am not being metaphorical. I am being literal. (Although, once more, “modern secularism” refers to a particular subset of secularism broadly defined.)

One prominent and oft-cited example of this is the secular religion of environmentalism. The degree to which the green movement recapitulates all the high notes of Christianity is so brazen that it is ripe for parody. We all existed in a state of natural bliss and union with nature until the serpent of modern technology entered and we partook of the forbidden fruit of industrialization, thus causing us to be expelled from Eden and subjected to a barrage of artificial (cancer-inducing!) chemicals. Now all our children have autism from vaccines as the world labors under the weight of collective guilt. We are held, sinners in the hands of an angry Nature, over the fire of catastrophic global warming where repentance (carbon offsets) cannot purchase our freedom, but is due nonetheless. It’s basically Christianity without Christ.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. - Jonathan Edwards (or Al Gore)

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” – Jonathan Edwards (or Al Gore)

Please note that none of this discussion calls into question the science of anthropic global climate change. I’m merely pointing out that that issue has social weight not because of the science (practically no one understands complex climate models), but because of the narrative. We are disaffected. As Louis CK puts it: “Everything is amazing; no one is happy.” Something is missing, and we need a narrative to plug the hole. Environmentalism fits the profile. Whether or not it is factually true is beside the point.

This has been noted before, but what has been missed is that this is not just a new veneer for Christianity. It’s an example of the extent to which religion (properly defined) is deeply and completely compatible with scientific rhetoric.

Redacted because I don't feel like giving the killer more notoriety.

Redacted because I don’t feel like giving the killer more notoriety.

Another stark example of this was evidenced following the tragic Sandy Hook massacre. In the old days, we would have turned to religion to assuage our grief and pain and give us some explanation, but in the 21st century newspapers made sure to cover extensively the fact that the killer’s DNA would be studied. Scientifically this is meaningless. It’s as relevant as reading entrails or casting bones, and that’s precisely the point: science is increasingly being cast to fill the role that religion once filled. As this happens, the same split is emerging between authentic science and fake science (scientisim). Authentic science, tentative, boring, and expensive, stands as much chance of remaining pure against the interloper as authentic religion did against its ancient hijacker.

In subsequent posts, I’ll predict the future of the religion of secularism and speculate on the impact I believe it is already having on Mormonism, how Mormonism can respond, and why we are especially well-equipped to do so.

68 comments for “Mormonism and the New Religion of Secularism

  1. Environmentalism of the quasi-eschatological variety you describe isn’t compatible with science.

    Religion *is* about the fear of death and miracles. Timor mortis conturbat me. The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me. The notion that Christianity or Judaism or whatnot has taught us to be afraid of death and that religion offers nothing special in the way of solace is one that draws from me a derisive guffaw. There’s a book on my reading list whose name I can’t recall right now that’s all about dealing with death as an interpretative key to the early years of the Restoration. On the sidebar is a link to an atheist who converted to Mormonism and fear of death was a big part of it. In my own life I don’t suppose I could have supported the death of loved ones if it weren’t for the hope the gospel brings.

    I could give a damn whether Mormonism is particularly adaptable to secularism or not.

  2. Your understanding of “environmentalism” is similar to a militant atheist’s understanding of religion or a fundamentalist Christian’s understanding of evolution.

    In other words, it holds little in common with reality.

    Are there environmentalists who believe like you seem to believe they do? Probably. A few. Do most? Not a chance.

  3. Environmentalism of the quasi-eschatological variety you describe isn’t compatible with science.

    Of course it’s not compatible with authentic science. That’s a key point of the post: genuine science is being hijacked by the sham of scientism, just as genuine religion has historically been hijacked by priestcraft.

    Religion *is* about the fear of death…

    Of course it is. Perhaps I should have emphasized even more strongly that I hadn’t attempted a comprehensive definition of religion. Your examples highlight the role of religion in individual lives, but my analysis centers on religion as a social institution. The reality is that the assurances of religion about an afterlife are the very definition of cheap talk. It’s completely natural that we would turn to religion to seek solace from death, but it’s not plausible that this could be the basis of institutional religion’s social capital.

    …and miracles…

    Again: you’re confusing a characteristic of religion (miracles absolutely are) for an explanation of religion’s prominence. Religions have never been able to reliably deliver miracles (except perhaps in a personal, subjective sense) and so the provision of miracles by religious institutions is not an acceptable explanation for their social capital. But of course people have expected miracles, and that is a very potent reason for the downfall of religious institutions in the face of science. Jesus hasn’t turned water to wine at a party in 2,000 years, but every day you can talk on a cell phone, fly on an airplane, and read about Google’s self-driving cars.

    Religion couldn’t provide miracles, despite the expectations, but science can. In fact, science is also better at forestalling death, if that’s your thing, with people believing either in the singularity or a simple anti-aging solution in our lifetime. Failing that, the paradigm of materialist science also attempts to assuage concerns of death with Carl Sagan quotes about stardust.

    The point is quite simply that everything (fake) religion / priestcraft has offered the world, (fake) science / scientism can offer better, and so religious priestcraft is being supplanted by scientific priestcraft.

    I could give a damn whether Mormonism is particularly adaptable to secularism or not.

    We’ve weathered nearly two centuries of virulent anti-Mormonism and it has only made us strong, but in recent years we’re witnessing a truly tragic exodus of young Mormons converting to secularism. That concerns me. Not that they would phrase it that way, of course. It’s precisely the fact that secularism is seen as an alternative to religion that makes it such a successful proselyting juggernaut. But this will be the subject of upcoming posts. (Which I’m sure you’ll love as much as you loved this one!)

    Thanks for the feedback, Adam G!

  4. Nathaniel,

    I have to agree with you. In more work as a ward missionary (we knock doors in my neighborhood every Tuesday night) I find more and more who throw the “I believe in science, not religion” tagline in my face. At first I had a hard time taking it seriously; it seemed as though they’d taken the joke straight out of “Nacho Libre”. I couldn’t figure out why that was a choice, until I realized that for most of these people they had never considered “Hume’s Guillotine” and somehow thought that science (or scientism and the associated meta-narrative) could answer both the “is” and the “ought”. I suppose some of these might have been aware of arguments by Sam Harris that science can bridge the gap (though I stand unconvinced). I’m still working out better ways of explaining to the educated and less-educated that most of what the meaningful decisions they make in life (whom to love, what profession, where to invest time & efforts) aren’t hypotheses that can be tested in a laboratory, and that science has other uses (medicine, technology, and engineering), but not proscribing life meaning or social morality. I guess when it comes down to it, EVERYONE has a decision making framework and some meaning in life (whether hedonistic, noble, or otherwise); remaining a true nihilist is simply not livable or humanly-possible.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. Tim-

    Your understanding of “environmentalism” is similar to a militant atheist’s understanding of religion or a fundamentalist Christian’s understanding of evolution.

    I suppose our only disagreement is that I think in your example the militant atheist would be correct! You seem to agree with me that these irrational versions of religion and science exist, the only disagreement relates to the prevalence. I believe they are common. You believe they are rare.

    My argument rests both on observation (anecdotal, so not very convincing) and on the simple reality that people are not very rational creatures. We construct post hoc arguments to give our pre-existing prejudices a thin veneer or credibility. We do not reason; we rationalize.

    I don’t believe those statements are universally iron-clad, but I do believe they describe most people most of the time. Call me a cynic. It probably comes from reading too much sci fi (e.g. Sturgeon’s Law and the gom jibar).

    Trying to convince you of my viewpoint would be more of a tangent than I’m prepared to embark on today so, having acknowledged the difference and explained my viewpoint, I’m content to carry on for now.

  6. Atheism is – by definition – one of the intellectually laziest thought systems on the planet.

    You don’t have to believe anything, you don’t have to reconcile anything, you don’t have to work for anything.

    All you have to do is poke holes in the ideas of other people and practice your superior smirk.

    And as any preschooler knows – it’s always easier to kick over the blocks than to build the castle.

    Which I think is sufficient explanation for the popularity of atheism among those whose education is superficial at best (read – the majority of undergrads in America), but who wants to sound intelligent for his friends anyway.

    No easier and safer way to do that than by becoming a habitual critic.

  7. Of course, the counter to that is to say atheism isn’t a “thought system” in the first place.

    Which somehow doesn’t really incline me to respect it much either, but anyway…

  8. Seth-

    Your comments are certainly true about some atheists, but I don’t follow them in general for two reasons:

    1. The New Atheists and New Skeptics (the guys I’m primarily responding to) don’t merely not believe in God, they affirmatively believe in God’s non-existence.

    2. A world without God–whether by affirmative disbelief or passive non-belief–can be a very inhospitable place, and the philosophies atheists have developed to rescue meaning and even beauty and love from such a stark landscape are monuments to human courage and bravery. I’m thinking in particular of Albert Camus. (I referenced him in the post.)

  9. Nathaniel, the problem is – these rescue attempts leave you with something that isn’t atheism.

    I’m well aware you can go beyond atheism’s non-news event of “I don’t believe in god(s)” and wed the non-position to other thought systems that actually have positive things to say about the human condition. Like Buddhism, or Marxism, or environmentalism, or feminism or even Protestantism or Mormonism. Or just a general ethic of humanism.

    But at that point, you no longer have “atheism” – you have something else.

    I can often at least respect the “something else.” But with atheism – there is no “there” there.

  10. Seth-

    In that case we’re just using the term differently. When I say “theism”, for example, I don’t mean “belief in God, but not Mormonism, Catholicism, Islam, deism, etc.” I mean “the category containing all religious belief systems”. So when I say “atheism” I mean the same thing: the big category containing everything from Marxist-Leninism to Camus’ writings on the absurd. Using that definition, there’s lots in atheism to love.

  11. Nathaniel, I enjoyed this post and I’m looking forward to more. It has occurred to me, and others have also observed, that there are rhetorical and functional similarities between Christian apocalypticism and secular doomsday predictions. Which is not at all to say that we should blithely ignore the environment or nuclear carelessness, or delay the day of our repentance, but we can still recognize similarities in narrative and the role they play. I suspect that your average astrologer was about as accurate as your average stock tip purveyor, and the long success of both professions suggests that neither is (or was) in the business of selling what most people think (or thought) they were selling.

    That being said, I suspect you’re too quickly dismissing the inability of religion to supply miracles. One might dismiss it as only the human compulsion to find meaning in coincidence, but many people live in a miracle-filled world. I like and understand your distinction between establishing and spending the social capital of religion, but you’re probably counting miraculous experiences too heavily on the spending side.

    Finally, could we lose the Louis CK quote? I have no idea who the guy is, and the cheap vulgarity isn’t justified by a corresponding profundity that I can see. We’re running a family blog here.

  12. Nathaniel, that would be fine if people were banding together under the Marxist banner or whatever.

    But they aren’t – they’re banding together under the “atheist” banner.

    So I’m not really inclined to let them have it both ways.

  13. Jonathan-

    Apologies re: the Louis CK quote. He’s a very prominent stand-up comedian who makes what I think are insightful remarks that are relevant to the post. However, he’s not family-friendly (not even a teensy-tiny bit) so I’ve removed the image / quote.

    As far as miracles go, I’m specifically thinking of the kinds of miracles that are generally associated with powerful institutional religions: blessing weapons for soldiers going into combat (as recently as World War 2, I believe, for European nations) and going back in time things like forecasting enemy actions or blighting their crops or turning away hurricanes. These kinds of easily objectively-verifiable miracles would be the easiest to trade of cold, hard cash. And they don’t reliably happen.

    More personal, spiritual miracles do, of course, occur but are not as powerful an explanation for religion’s social capital. I’d be happy to to move the dial from “none” to “some”, but I think it doesn’t provide enough to explain their historically privileged place in society.

    (EDIT: I like the connection between astrology and stock-traders, by the way. Every time I hear a news announcer explain why the DOW went up or down that day, I want to throw something sharp and heavy at the radio / tv in response. It’s nonsense, and our society eats it up. Just. Like. Astrology. In fact, I’ve heard news stories that astrology is actually pretty big on Wall Street, but only delivered in plain manila envelopes, as it were.)

  14. Seth-

    Nathaniel, that would be fine if people were banding together under the Marxist banner or whatever.

    There are still plenty of Marxists around, but I think the banners the folks you might have in mind are increasingly banding together under are “New Atheism” and “New Skepticism”, which is why I mentioned those terms by name. (They don’t self-label “scientisim”, but it’s part of the same broad movement.)

  15. I wonder if the approach you’re taking to religion in the OP, Nathaniel, does not concede an awful lot to secularism. Adam’s (predictably grandiose) pushback strikes me as basically correct. I also don’t think that secularism = non-theism or that secularism = opposition to religion. Secularism, as I understand it (and as the social scientists doing what I consider to be the most interesting work on secularism and religion approach it) is not the opposition of religion but rather the configuration of social reality such that religion is tightly compartmentalized, shifted into the realm of the non-political. Secular religion is privatized, interiorized religion, religion qua belief/faith. Mormonism has been properly secular (though I would argue only in certain ways which give it the veneer of being properly secular) for as long as Mormons have been properly Americans (i.e. since the cessation of plural marriage and the concomitant abandonment of theocracy and economic isolationism and communitarianism).

  16. All the “New Atheists” are doing it drawing attention to the problems I noted. They didn’t create them. Atheism has always been a non-position. And as such, not really worthy of much consideration, one way or the other.

  17. Brad, that “compartmentalization” you speak of is nothing more than allowing religion as a tourist attraction, but making sure it doesn’t matter for anything important in society.

    Which is basically the same thing as anti-theism anyway. So I think you are making a distinction without a real difference.

  18. Adam’s (predictably grandiose) pushback strikes me as basically correct. I also don’t think that secularism = non-theism or that secularism = opposition to religion. Secularism, as I understand it…

    Secularism does not necessarily equate to opposition to religion. Historically, your definition (relegation of religion into a private sphere) has been the dominant one.

    But times change.

    These days there is an increasingly strident faction of secularism that is not content to abide by the old treaties. They are intent on reigniting an ill-conceived religion-v-science war and fighting it out to the bitter end. One major contention of theirs, for example, is that religion is not only foolish but dangerous. It must be expunged not only to allow human progress, but because it is a clear and present danger to peace and stability.

    Just look at the combative titles of New Atheist books: “God is Not Great”, “The God Delusion”, (or Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous”). There’s absolutely no indication that this particular strain of secularism intends to leave religious people alone on their private intellectual reservations. It’s a battle of ideological extermination.

    Thus, I’m making two claims:

    1. That the secular movement is morphing into an anti-religious movement (even though that is not logically necessary)
    2. That this movement is the culmination of the same forces that corrupted religious institutions. When an institution has great social capital, it becomes an irresistible target for those who desire power. Thus: scientism is the new priestcraft.

  19. I’d make pains to distinguish secularism from the current trend of scientism/New Atheism. I think the former has a lengthy future, while the latter does not.

    According to my (admittedly brief) reading into religious history, religious fundamentalism (as well as its reactionary partner, New Atheism) are relatively new phenomena, arriving only after the Enlightenment. And even though New Atheism poses strong challenges for fundamentalism, I’m pretty sure if goes away if fundamentalism goes away (which I hope is the case).

  20. “These days there is an increasingly strident faction of secularism that is not content to abide by the old treaties. They are intent on reigniting an ill-conceived religion-v-science war and fighting it out to the bitter end. One major contention of theirs, for example, is that religion is not only foolish but dangerous. It must be expunged not only to allow human progress, but because it is a clear and present danger to peace and stability.”

    I agree that this movement exists, though I don’t think it stands for secularism anymore than Mormonism or Anglicanism (two thoroughly secular religions) do. I don’t even think that opposition to religion or claiming that religion is dangerous is the New Atheism’s worst sin; the worst thing about NA is the profoundly unscientific manner in which it attempts to criticize religion. The sweeping, causal claims it makes about religion not only fail to even attempt to discretely define the relevant terms (like “religion”) but are wildly question begging. I don’t see what’s happening as secularism turning militantly atheist, or even atheism turning militantly anti-religious. What makes the New Atheism so, well, new is not that it is somehow religious, but that (like forms of contemporary religion that push back against the constraints of secular compartmentalization by engaging in politics), it is engaged in _politics_ in the name of science, rather than in actual science. The New Atheists might truly venerate science (a veneration I happen to share with them); but they are engaged in a profoundly non-scientific, and frankly un-scientific enterprise (attacking religion) in the name of the thing they venerate. It’s scientific fundamentalism, or a hyper-politicized scientism we’re talking about, I think, rather than science qua religion (or priestcraft).

  21. Venerating science makes about as much sense as venerating a tree stump.

    Both are completely morally neutral and indifferent to human reverence. And neither acknowledge human morality whatsoever.

  22. …not that I don’t appreciate your contributing an example of sweeping, totalizing, and question-begging claims about some extremely complex strand of the human condition.

  23. I don’t know Trevor, maybe I am unconsciously….

    Anyway Nathaniel, if you’re planning on exploring the way Mormonism can engage thoughtful secularists out there, I’ll look forward to it.

  24. Maybe someone more familiar with Sam Harris’s work can correct me, but I’ve seen him attempt to stake out ground for science to determine morality. The premise is that “not suffering” is the basis of morality, and science will probably get to the point where it can objectively measure suffering (sophisticated brain scans, chemical readings, etc.). Therefore, science can be used to ascertain what actions are morally acceptable.

    I dunno if I just misunderstood his argument, but I think this is a perfect example of utterly abusing and misusing science in attempt to fill in a gap that the absence of religion leaves. (Not that religion has never produced awful manifestations of morality…)

  25. Atheism has always been a non-position.

    Seth, the terms are all fuzzy in this thread, but you can’t possibly mean that Heliocentrism or Evolution for example are non-positions.

  26. Seth is merely demonstrating how this whole thought process works. The thing I scorn is X, Y, and Z, because I define it preciesly in those terms. Works with “religion”. Religion is harmful and irrationally superstitious. What do I mean by “religion”? All that which is both irrationally superstitious and harmful. What does Seth mean by “atheism”? Whatever set of ideas, thoughts, beliefs, etc, which excludes all affirmative claims and is totally indifferent to human morality. You think you have an example of an atheistic claim that makes an affirmative claim about the world and/or morality? Well look at the definition. That’s not atheism!

  27. Brad – I’m just going by how the atheists I’ve met SELF-DESCRIBE.

    They like to brag ad nauseum about how they have a mere “non-position”. They often compare it to “not collecting stamps.”

    Religions assert a positive. Atheism asserts a negative – but suggests no positive alternative. So I think the description is more than fair. Atheism and religious are categorically different animals.

  28. Secularism is a new religion that threatens to overwhelm traditional faiths […]

    not new, not a religion, not a threat to any faith since it’s entirely compatible. is there any reason i should read further?

    Since secularism is defined in opposition to religion […]

    *sigh*, i guess not.

  29. palerobber –
    I did the very LDS thing and looked up the definition of secularism and got, “a doctrine that rejects religion and religious considerations.”

    Now clearly, one definition is not the end all, Definition™ but come on. Secular is defined in opposition to religion.

  30. Got it Brad: the theory of evolution is straight from the pit of hell. Until it starts helping modern medicine treat terminal diseases. Then its all good in the hood.

  31. While I definitely can appreciate everyone ganging up on Seth once in a while, I have to say these things:

    As an atheist, all I do is “not believe in God”. you can’t figure out anything else from me just from knowing I’m an atheist. (Similarly, all you know about someone as a theist is that they believe in some formulation of deity…you don’t know what kind, the number, what expectations deity has [or if they even have expectations], etc.,) I would certainly say that atheists will have some sort of world view and belief system, but it’s not going to be the same, in the same way no one says “theists” share a world view just because some formulation of deity is somewhere in the mix.

    Nathaniel pointed out in some of the comments on that atheism (and theism) are supersets…they are umbrellas that may contain movements with them (e.g., “Mormonism,” “Catholicism,” “Shia Islam,” etc.,…or “secular humanism,” “Buddhism,” “existentialism,” etc.,) but you really have to address the specific movements, not the superset.

    I think it’s clear that Seth is really not talking the same conversation as other people are. This happens a lot, actually. Seth used to have a blog, but he doesn’t really use it anymore, so he posts whatever he wants on other people’s blogs if it’s tangentially related to the topic.

    …but notwithstanding all this, I think that Nathaniel is pretty loose with terms as well, and it’s just opening up for derail. Like, in the followup comments, i get what he’s trying to say, but when you start a post with:

    Since secularism is defined in opposition to religion…

    there are going to be issues. Brad mentions those issues in 19.

    I think you can actually go forward with Brad’s comments in 19 on secularism…the attacks from “New Atheists” (defined separately from the umbrella “atheism”) are really attacks on the publicity of religion. It’s not just baffling that people believe x…it’s baffling that we have public policy decisions, decisions on school curricula, medical decisions, etc., being made on the basis on claims that have extremely poor “scientific” or “rational” or whatever basis (according to whatever the new atheists define “scientific” or “rational” as). Oh yeah, and people who don’t believe x because of insufficient evidence are seen as worse/immoral/etc. people.

    So, really, religion (ugh, this is so amorphous…an umbrella…) has to make the case of why its precepts should be public. That’s how it “owns up to” the challenge against secularism. If religion concedes to a private domain, secularism “wins”. This is what I think Seth is getting at in 21. If religion isn’t a public force for the undergirding of (insert institutions here), it is just as inconsequential as a tourist attraction.

    …I guess the issue is that many religions don’t really tend to be doing a good job of convincing people why their precepts should be publicly determinative of policy. Even though you say Mormonism can remain relevant and vibrant, I don’t know how you plan on supporting that claim.

    (i’ll comment more on the post later.)

    (p.s., people who run T&S — It’s 2013. Can y’all get comment subscription notification by email, please?)

  32. Good post Nathaniel! Much more agreeable than the original one I read. Despite being an atheist, I too worry about blind devotion to atheist/agnostic/secular ideals replacing the deep contemplation that I believe brought about modern secularism.

    As for you, Seth R.

    “You don’t have to believe anything, you don’t have to reconcile anything, you don’t have to work for anything.”

    I don’t think that’s any more true of atheism and that it is of religion. A large number of religious people take their born religion without much or any deep thought, just as a number of atheists simply stop believing in religion and leave it at that. But for many atheists, the questions to ask are numerous when your universe now lacks deities. Is morality objective? If so, from whence do we derive objective morality? Is there any justice? To what end do I live my life? Etc.

    I suspect some people will interpret these questions to mean we’re a bunch of amoral beings without purpose, and that would be the wrong conclusion to reach. I believe in objective morality. I believe my life has a purpose. And I have reached my conclusions through deep contemplation and reading the thoughts of others, including men like CS Lewis whose non-fiction I actually enjoyed very much.

    “Which I think is sufficient explanation for the popularity of atheism among those whose education is superficial at best (read – the majority of undergrads in America), but who wants to sound intelligent for his friends anyway.”

    I smell bitterness :P. I do agree though that the ‘education’ imparted by many undergrad curriculums is laughable at best.

  33. Andrew-

    This juxtaposition made me grin:

    I think that Nathaniel is pretty loose with terms as well


    So, really, religion (ugh, this is so amorphous…an umbrella…)

    I don’t want to foist of any and all weaknesses in the post on the fact that terminology is intrinsically slippery, but it is intrinsically slippery. I’m sure that I’ll come up with better ways of formulating my case, and part of that process is paying attention to the feedback I get.

    So I don’t mind the criticisms at all (they are quite helpful), but I also hope that readers will be able to forgive the occasional shortcoming and interact with the ideas I’m proposing despite my sometimes unsuccessful battle for clarity.

  34. re 40,


    I don’t think this really addresses Seth’s critique. It’s one thing to say that someone doesn’t really think about their religion’s views on morality, etc., But atheism doesn’t say *anything* about morality. Like, your questions

    Is morality objective? If so, from whence do we derive objective morality? Is there any justice? To what end do I live my life? Etc.

    These are great questions to which you might derive answers from any particular worldview. but “atheism” isn’t going to answer those questions. (I’ll note that “theism” isn’t either.) You need to go to specific worldviews, like “Mormon Christianity” or “atheistic existentialism” for answers — in which case theism or atheism is but one part of the whole worldview.

    Like, you can be an atheist and believe in objective morality…but it doesn’t derive from atheism. Like, “Not believing in gods” doesn’t say anything about morality. At all. (I would say, actually the same is true of theism. “Believing in some form of deity” does not say anything about morality. But a religion is a bigger package than just theism or atheism is.)

    re 41,


    Right, I would rather be more specific than to talk about “religion”. Even though “religion” is more specific than “theism”, it’s not much so…so you don’t really know much about a person if they say they are religious.

    So, in my view, talking about “secularism” is pretty doomed from the start. Talking about “atheism” or “religion” or “theism” is also doomed. Like, talking about “New Atheism” is a better start — but then you’ll just have people pointing out, “But I’m not a new atheist.” (This is basically the response that thoughtful religious folks give to new atheist arguments anyway…”But I’m not a religious fundamentalist.”)

    As I said, when I don’t have to pretend to be working, I’ll make more substantial comments. From your comments, I think I get what you’re saying…but it’ll probably be late before I get to it.

  35. “[policy decisions] being made on the basis on claims that have extremely poor “scientific” or “rational” ”

    This post tangentially addresses what’s so frustrating about this approach. It’s not a post saying we have to do away with science by any means, but really how “science” is abused to justify whatever our gut instinct (or incentive) is .

    Policy decisions based on science is terrible, in my opinion because it gives so much power to manipulative statistics.

    It used to be said that when fascism comes it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a bible. I think we’ve prepared too long to fight that “war”. Instead, it seems likely facism will come wrapped in a confidence interval and carrying a copy of “Statistics for Dummies”.

    Notwithstanding the utility of flags, bibles, or statistics.

  36. Andrew, as I’ve said before, if you have positive beliefs, you have them as a humanist, as an environmetalist, or as an egalitarian or as… whatever set of positive beliefs you have dictates.

    You don’t have them “as an atheist.”

  37. re 43,


    one death, tragedy, million, statistic, etc.,

    re 44,


    right, right. You say this all the time. Even when it’s not really relevant to the discussion. Rage more on your blog, k? I’ll subscribe. I promise. [we are entering the terrain where even *I* will probably get to the point where I’ll stop threadjacking Nathaniel’s post and will write my own response post…because your railing does give me something to think about]

  38. re 49,

    Nathaniel, I guess the issue is that “religion” (however vague and broad a term that is) itself is the thing that has the bad stuff in it. So, if anti-vaxers directly are religious, that’s one thing against religion.


    Even in what your general thesis, you (probably unintentionally) paint religion to be an undesirable thing. So, secularism “gone bad” is secularism becoming a religion. Environmentalism “gone bad” is environmentalism gone religious.

    So, I dunno how you are going to do it, but it seems to me that as you describe “good religion” or “authentic religion” (in particular, a relevant Mormonism that can challenge “secularism”), you’ll do it by describing something that will appear to others to be less like a religion — which, to be honest, may be effective precisely because people these days don’t like religions and don’t want them. Like, it won’t seem like you’re describing authentic religion vs. fake religion. Rather, what you would say is “fake religion” is what other people would just call religion. (For example, ‘Eschatological environmentalism’ per Adam G’s comment is not a ‘fake religion’ in your system. No, the comparison works so well [e.g., is ripe for parody] because it is the quintessence of what people see as being religious. People don’t say fundamentalists aren’t religious enough — they see them as being the embodiment of religiosity. Liberal/thoughtful/etc., believers are seen as being suspiciously religious at best, and “not really” religious at worst.)

  39. I used to be an athiest, and my atheism was very different than Seth’s described “non-position.” Nevertheless, I think this is a long-overdue discussion on the ‘nacle. I want to propose that it is also worth considering how these movements define rightness or better-ness. I’m reminded of a claim made in (some small) education circles, that three -isms of decision-making exist and the failure to recognize the distinctness of these results in much talking past each other. 1) Rationalists – briefly defined as those who use principles to define better-ness (think of a sports writer who claims about the strength of the D-line and the ability of the QB to handle high-pressure downs); 2) Empiricists – those who define better by observed outcome (a sports writer who equates the better team with the winning team); 3) Stochasticists – a newer group that recognizes chaos inherent in the universe and so essentially eschews defining terms like “better” (to continue the analogy, a sportswriter who claims a single mishandled snap in week 3 fundamentally altered the entire playoff picture months later).

    Applying this framework to the OP suggests to me that Rationalists in some sub-groups of atheism are shouting at Empiricists in {pick your brand of exacting theism} and vice-versa. This makes sense because it is easier to gain converts by outshouting them than it is by reasoned transformation and, it is my conjecture, this largely explains how fake science and fake religion develop – as an effort to convince those laboring under a different decision-making paradigm.

  40. A redemptive narrative does not make a movement religious in the least. Neither do strong beliefs or potent social communities. Not only does the environmentalism/religion comparison do a real injustice to religion, but the fact that the comparison is made in an effort to make environmentalism seem silly and scorn-worthy only underscores my point about how much the OP concedes to secularism in it’s treatment if religion.

  41. Granted I don’t really know you, Seth, but for someone with so much disdain for the concept of atheism you sure seem to haunt a lot of ex-mo and atheist blogs (at least if LDMS is any indication). Seems weird to spend so much time battling people people you have so little respect for intellectually; kind of like spending your free time refuting Youtube comments. I’d just as soon not engage them…which is what why I don’t.

    But anyway, I’m not sure what affect this would have on the OP’s thesis but it seems to me that the practical consequences of New Atheism/scientism are probably overrated. Sure, they bark loud, and in some parts of the internet they are a formidable presence, but then, so are Ron Paul supporters and the Westboro Baptist Church. I just don’t the likes of Richard Dawkins and co. being as influential, for good or bad, as they’re given credit for.

  42. Nathaniel,

    Thank you for this post – very thought provoking. I have family members who now subscribe to a somewhat secular view of things, so this topic is important to me.

    I realize you have a series of posts on this topic, so you may already plan to cover these, but I would like your thoughts on:

    1. Humans seem to have an innate need for ritual, tradition, and a continuity of institutions that extend beyond their own lives. What role has tradition played in the social power / popularity of religion? Do you think traditions are becoming less important in our society, and does this have an erosive effect on religion?

    2. Is the rise of secularism directly linked to access to alternative ways of thinking that perhaps were only rarely available in times past? In other words, what role does the almost global/universal access to information play in the rise of secular thinking?

  43. Last summer I read several books about the fossil record and evolution. After I had finished several, I turned to Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. After several chapters his sour grapes about religion completely turned me off, and I set the book aside–which is a shame, because it prevented me from learning the scientific things I could have learned from him. But that religion is dangerous and absurd is one of his biggest messages, so science be d!@#$%d, he’s got to get that message across!

  44. @Nathaniel (46) Not to drop the old G-word, but secret combinations are alive and well in many forms. Not to drop a controversial book title, but ‘none dare call it a conspiracy.’ These things are known to happen in the space of ‘not many years.’

  45. @ Brad (52), I’d love to see a more comprehensive presentation of your thoughts on this matter.

  46. In answering the question of why the city-state existed, Aristotle opined that humans are political animals who by their nature desire living together. I suppose you could make a similar case as to why religion (defined as communities who identify with each other based on a shared worldview) exists; humans are religious/philosophical animals who by their nature desire explanations for their individual pasts, presents, and futures. We humans ask these questions during the early stages of our lives and are supplied answers by parents/guardians and community members. Some humans attempt to stick to the traditions of their individual communities and manage to gain a social status root by doing so. Others grow unsatisfied with the explanations given them by their communities and seek to challenge the traditions with different explanations. Sometimes those who pursue the latter path are met with stiff resistance and are branded as heretics and sinners. And sometimes they are welcomed as enlightened souls who possess the intellectual acumen to lead society to a enhanced state.

    So you’re absolutely right in saying that in many ways secularism is simply a passing of the torch. Furthermore I think you can argue that secularism fits the mold of fake and authentic. Fake secularism can be embodied in the communist regimes who, in the quest to liberate society from the “shackles” of religion, ended up functioning much like an oppressive religious institution that imposed new shackles on society. But there is an authentic secularism: one that is committed to finding truth in spite of painful human shortcomings and to bringing about greater justice for society. And I like to believe that secularism in the US is authentic, even if it is to be understood as a religion. For no human being has the time or resources to empirically test all claims. At some point we have to place our bets on a certain theory or school of thought as a sort of leap of faith. But I will say this, that many of the more secular explanations of life are better at withstanding scrutiny than religious. Consequently religion has been forced in many ways to reconcile themselves with secularism. Galileo’s theory of heliocentrism won over the traditional religious explanations because it could be established through reason.

  47. Casey, I get this observation all the time from those I interact with. Quite often, it comes from people who are usually used to being the ones dishing out the contempt – who are not accustomed to having the situation turned around.

    Secularism is a big social problem, not just for churches, but for society in general. As such, it is worthy of being confronted squarely.

    I’ve seen people try to shut down disagreement before.

    With devout Mormons, their attempts to shut out disagreement often take the form of “you can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone” (a refrain that irritates my ex-Mormon acquaintances to no end).

    With atheists I’ve debated with, it takes the form of “why do you waste so much time on this?”

    It’s basically the same argument – and it stems from the same desire not to be disagreed with.

  48. Well, whatever makes you happy, but from my perspective you come off as brash and pugnacious; a flip side of the same coin as hardcore Dawkins acolytes, who, I think you’ll agree, are possibly the most infuriating people on the internet. I knew elders on my mission who could never resist a good bash, including, for a while, myself…eventually, just got to seem a waste of time (a good satire, on the other hand, I still can’t resist..) Anyway, who cares about whether I approve of your tactics? Carry on and fight the good fight.

  49. Casey, I’m not entirely sure I approve of my tactics either. I try to keep things fair and civil. But it’s really hard not to let your debating company rub off on you – and I’ve been to some fairly rough neighborhoods in the last few years. I’m not pleased with that – just a self-observation.

  50. At the risk of commenting on a dead thread, I looked up the etymology of secular. Saecularis was Latin meaning “of the age.” That certainly puts a different spin on my understanding of the word. Rather than being viewed as opposed to or apart from religion, the key element of secular seems to be a primary focus on the modern era. Thus, present trends and opinions are privileged over any argument based on tradition of previous generations, whether “religious” or otherwise. Based on that definition, I’m not so sure secular is a bad thing. God asks us to heed the living prophets rather than clinging to the past. However, many truths remain relevant through time, and God is not required to reiterate all truth in every generation.

    The current iteration of secularism does privilege scientific or scientific-sounding arguments over appeals to traditional values or morals. However, other systems of thought are already starting to challenge that privilege. I appreciate your ability to place this preference for science/rational positivism into a historical context.

  51. At the risk of commenting on a dead thread, I looked up the etymology of secular. Saecularis was Latin meaning “of the age.”

    I included that in earlier drafts, but I removed it in at attempt at brevity. From what I read, the basic logic (when the term was originally used) came from the idea that God is timeless, so something that is “of an age”, that is to say, related to current temporality rather than eternal things, is “secular”.

    Which, of course, makes “secular” pretty much identical to some Mormon uses of the term “temporal”.

    Thus, the root of the concept is no more hostile to religion then the “temporal affairs” sections of the Church.

  52. Great insights, Nathaniel, thanks for sharing. My favorite part is: “Authentic religion assists us in that struggle. Fake religion offers to take it off our hands. Real religion fortifies us for our wrestle with angels and lights our path as we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Fake religion offers to outsource the struggle and liberate us from the oppressive weight of freedom.”

    So much of that describes quotidian Mormonism as well as it does militant atheism. Do we have the courage to identify those aspects of our faith tradition that we use to avoid the tough questions rather than face them head on?

  53. Not sure about all the angst over atheism. I take it to be a measure of disaffection from orthodoxy which us LDS should relate to easily.

  54. I also like that quote Carl (64).

    I might take issue with the labeling of secularism as new. I think movements happening now have happened many times before in cultures and civilizations throughout the ages. We’re just narcissistic enough to think that we’re more enlightened and have new ideas, because they’re new to us.

  55. My pet theory on the rise of secularism is the invention of the credit bureau. One used to need a religious community to vouch for ones ability to keep an obligation.

    Now there is Fair Isaac. The FICO score. Any of you secret combinationists think the name is a coincidence? The new 10 commandments: Though shalt not be 30 days late, thou shalt not max out thy cards, thou most sure as heck not be subject to a judgment, lean or collection.

    I think the terrestial/telestial kingdom split is at about 660, the 780 people think they are Celestial but I don’t given them credit for their beliefs.

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