Secular Gods

Is there anything we humans love that doesn’t have a downside? I don’t think so.

Since the Enlightenment, naturalists have sought nonreligious, rational answers to our unending quest for optimal living. But it was one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, Isaiah Berlin, who deflated rationality, one of humanisms’ sacred icons, as the best tool to tell us how to live the good life.

Berlin popularized the notion of pluralism. He sees, as British political philosopher John Gray puts it, a “value-pluralism, that ultimate human values are objective, but irreducibly diverse, that they are conflicting and often uncombinable, and when they do come into conflict with one another they are incommensurable; that is, they are not comparable by any rational measure.” Further, Gray theorizes: “The idea of a perfect society in which all genuine ideals and goods are achieved is not merely utopian; it is incoherent. Political life, like moral life, abounds in radical choice between rival goods and evils, where reason leaves us in the lurch and whatever is done involves loss and sometimes tragedy. Berlin’s is a tragic liberalism of unavoidable conflict and irreparable loss among inherently rivalrous values.”

We all have multiple needs and values and to start with only one as the ultimate first principle is simplistic, irrational, and nonempirical. As H. L. Mencken said, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

Berlin sees human diversity as a rational outcome and says that we don’t need, nor should we expect there to be one rational way to live our lives. While science and reason can help us in understanding the world and may help to make decisions about potential outcomes, they nevertheless cannot provide certain grounding for living our lives as individuals or as a society. The reality is that there are many ways to live the good life. There are indeed many high values, but none of them provide the ultimate answer.

A mature understanding of life, ethics, and politics demands that sometimes we have to compromise some of our cherished principles. This is necessary because many times our values will be in radical conflict in the decisions we make. An ethical life is then a balancing act to increase our welfare and minimize suffering, often involving tradeoffs between necessary gains and losses. Idolatry, using any single-minded grand scheme to solve the problems of the world, can be as dangerous as a religion in its certainty. Thirty million died in Stalinist Russia for an ideology of economic justice that consumed and subsumed all other values including freedom. Forty-five thousand people died last year for lack of medical care in the United States because of an ideology of freedom that ignored all pragmatic, economic, and moral arguments.

Ideology raises admittedly great values such as economic justice and freedom as secular “gods” over all other values, using fully rational arguments if one accepts the single-value premise. Ultimately, ideology kills.

When our lives are caught in the certainty of single-minded rationalism it appears to be as comforting as belief in God. In actuality it is a crypt of the mind. Its stone-like edifice rejects real critical thinking and allows only narrow pathways of thought based on the original premises. Can we, as humanists, uncover our own ideologies? Ask yourself, “What are the secular idols acting as touchstones in my own life?” What are the values you choose to elevate over all others?  What are the values you simply ignore? In effect, what great humanistic values have become poisonous to the ultimate good life we are trying to achieve? Is it freedom? Is it tolerance? Is it compassion? Reason itself? Justice? Love?

As Berlin says, “Every choice may entail irreparable loss.” Are we wise enough to see we have many high values, none of which is the ultimate answer and that all have the potential for cancerous growth?

Human beings long for simplicity. We long for certainty. We long for a clear path to follow that will guide us to the good life. The sweet surrender of letting ourselves embrace a simple path for the grand questions in life that doesn’t require ambivalence or doubt has always been alluring whether it is secular or religious. It relieves us of anxieties or ambiguities. Self-righteous certainty follows and it’s a heady brew. But it’s also a dangerous lie.

This is a realization at once alarming and exasperating yet is also the beginning of hope for a realization that sets our life on a better course of humility, irony, and dialogue where we see everything we do as a tradeoff. Maybe we also need to therapeutically laugh at ourselves a bit more when we get too cocksure. Ambiguity is an unavoidable reality in human life.

Mike Werner is past president of the AHA and remains active in many humanist organizations.

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