Does secularism truly foster equality?On October 25, 2020 by Usama
After the end of the second world war there was an increasing distaste for ideology. Meanwhile the world-economy had entered a new era of industrial growth and the standard of living quickly improved among the previously war-stricken countries. As the two developments coincided it became gradually assumed that secular nation states were the most appropriate type of government if prosperity was to be maintained and future wars were to be avoided. As human rights flourished and were extended to previously disenfranchised segments of society the relationship between secularism and humanism came to be viewed as self-evident. The question however is whether this historical turn of events was an inevitable outcome of secularism or if it simply was fortuitous. One way to answer this question is by designing a microcosm where a dilemma needs to be dealt with from the vantage point of either a secular world view or a theistic world view.
A thought experiment…
Imagine that there is an asteroid that is expected to crash into earth within 2 weeks. The prognosis is that anyone on earth will perish as it strikes. There happens to be a space shuttle that can help 1000 people escape. In a society where people were truly equal in value you might expect that a random person’s chances of being evacuated were comparable to every other person. The question is whether secular societies would solve this problem in a manner that supports the notion of equality.
If the dilemma would be answered from a classic monotheistic point of view then it would suffice as an acceptable solution to have a lottery decide who gets to board the shuttle. This is possible because the theistic understanding of the world sees each individual as being embodied with a divine seal that makes them truly equal in value. The seal can therefore not be broken for the sake of a worldly benefit sought after by another person. Everyone is seen as an equal share-holder in death and the value of an individual life is not automatically elevated by acquired status.
One immediate issue that arises from a secular understanding of the world is that however you chose to deal with the situation there awaits only other people’s leverage against you as the expected repercussion. Furthermore, there is within the science of life that is evolutionary biology no support to be found for the notion of individual organisms sharing an identical value. When a finite life is all that there is and individual organisms are just variously successful iterations of a process devoid of meaning there arises a rationale for individual organism atop the food chain to prefer their own survival over the replaceable existence of others. Secular societies hold back these inclinations by embedding traces of theistic moral reasoning into their institutions – “actually every human life is equally valuable”. This pragmatic approach is a means of stabilizing society by lowering the “transactions costs” of cooperation. It remains however that a secular understanding of our species considers unscientific the theistic idea that every human being represents an individual act of creation and therefore would be imbued with inviolable rights.
Once a commodity becomes scarce in society it becomes apparent that the “placeholder ethics” used by secular societies lack rooting in the non-theistic understanding of the world. Under such settings the infinitely malleable ethics of atheism give in to the momentum of power in society such that “might makes right”. Although this does not imply that social life in secular societies is a zero-sum game at every occasion – it does however imply the ultimate denominator of value is not equality and that more asymmetric means of arbitration can remain submerged underneath the surface whenever they don’t need to surface. Secularism simply lacks a resolute standing on the value of individual human lives. Once this is understood it cannot be considered bewildering that the modern secular world recently embraced eugenics en masse as a logical continuation of the utilitarian quest for the “objective betterment of mankind”.
Without the theistic remnants that guide moral decisions in secular societies science alone wouldn’t discourage the 1000 most powerful people from boarding the shuttle due to their self-enforced entitlement. As a matter of fact there is besides the risk of failure no non-theistic deterrent that would indisputably hold back a secular actor from killing off every manageable opponent even before the asteroid strikes – “since they were going to die anyway”. In a secular system justice can follow personal inclinations wherever power can provide arbitrage – “to the victor go the spoils”.
Rather than equating secularism with human rights there is good reason to believe that economic surplus – almost regardless of the system of governance – tends to make leeway for an extending of prosperity and opportunity to a larger circle of people. This is in part reflected in a large body of empirical data that makes clear that it is an exception to find a country with poor economic performance that successfully makes the transition into a secular democracy. It is also reflected in statistics regarding trust in government and approval of the governments policies – secular democracies have been severely underperforming during the 21th century compared to countries like China, India and Turkey. Rather than being gifted with special powers it appears that the success of secular governance appears to be driven by factors that are not exclusive for secular governance, the morepart of which can be disassemebled from that type of governance and reintegrated into alternative forms of governance.
It is probably more accurate to argue that the humane sensibilities associated with secularism are an optional adjustment for a secularism performing under ideal circumstances. Such was the case for postmodernist ideation which tried to fill the gap that was left behind once religion was pushed into the periphery. By suggesting that every sign of underperformance could be explained by socio-cultural contingencies postmodernism argued that “human beings are imbued with potential” and presented this as an alternative rationale for an equality that previously had relied on the religious notion of the sanctity of human life. All of this matters because as the standard of living in the western world is starting to lose steam and at places even regressing the political response has increasingly come to view postmodernist as make-believe. The question is what is left to safe-guard the value of individual people in secular societies if the economy were struggling and they were to fail in carving out a decent living through their own achievements.
About the content
Modern societies are a noisy mess composed of the intersections between a plurality of needs, instincts, desires and hopes. Within this shared space people of all varieties seek ways of settling their differing outlooks – the outcomes are often to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. The texts on this blog are my personal effort of trying to make sense of the friction within human society.