Tuesday 13 May 2014

A Short History of Secularism - A Book Review

A Short History of Secularism - A Book Review

A Short History of Secularism by Graeme Smith

There are a number of interesting things in this book, but first let me begin with the title, it is short at abit over 200 pages, but it is not a history nor is it really about secularism. A better and more accurate title might have been "The Ethics Society" as it is this idea that informs the book and gives it it's main arguments, of which there are two.

The Author Graeme Smith is interested in how religion fits into the modern world and he makes some interesting insights. He makes an attempt to show how Liberalism is an offshoot of Christianity, a claim I myself have made. But it seems to me that he cannot decide whether he believes they are one and the same, Liberalism being the modern version of Christianity or whether he believes they are related but still distinct.

But before he gets to this point he looks at the question of just how religious are modern people? He is British so much of the information is about Britain, with that caveat I still think it is of wider use. He points out that just because people are secular does not mean that they are Atheists or Agnostics. In fact he points out how resistant people have been to both trains of thought as most people still believe in God. What they have a harder time supporting is not God but religion, particularly organised religion. Here he makes another claim that is quite interesting, he asserts that we have a false view of the religious past. The first reliable surveys on church attendance took place in Victorian times and he asserts that the Victorians were bigger church goers than either the people who came after them or the people who came before. So what we are seeing is not an Atheistic society but a return to a more "normal" situation. And that we are confusing church attendance with faith, when they are two separate things.

 He also claims that modern people still have faith in God and still try to live their lives in a "Godly" way. They still live with Christian ethics in both their private and public life, even if they do not acknowledge it. The Enlightenment changed the "technology", or how people saw and thought about how the world worked. The old "technology" was that God made everything and that religion and science were regarded as basically the same thing. The new "technology" that arose from the Enlightenment was that science could explain how the world worked and that religion had either little or no place in this arena. Religion was only to be about God and not about how the world was ordered. Those who support a secular world have asserted for centuries that we no longer need God to explain the world so he is no longer needed and that in time people will realise that they do not need God and that he will die a natural death. But instead people have accepted the new "technology" and they still believe in God, even if they are not particularly religious.

Smith then looks at what he calls "the ethics society", that even though God doesn't provide answers as to how the world came to exist or even how it currently exists. People still not only believe in God, but they still believe that ethics are important. That some behaviour is good and that other behaviour is bad and that for most people what they regard as good is Christian. In other words a peoples history is very deep within them and the Christianity of our ancestors lives within us. Including their ideas about Christian ethics and the reason is because while the new "technology", secularism, might be able to inform us about how to, for example, amputate an arm, it has not provided the reasoning behind the decision. Instead secularism, often called Liberalism, simply took Christian ethics and made them it's own. Modern Liberals are using Christian ethics to explain how and why things should be done or conversely not done.

Only 4 pages from the end of the book Smith writes this paragraph, which he entitles The Good Liberal Society:

"My main contention has been that Western secular society should be thought of as the ethics society. As such, it is a society primarily concerned with ethical issues, and the concern for ethics is discernibly Christian, but I want to argue more than this. Many of the conclusions reached by Western liberal and secular society are recognizably Christian. By this I mean that the situation of marginalized and excluded people cannot be ignored by social and political leaders. This is not an easy case to argue. There is a dilemma of how to speak well of a society that knows itself to be failing. It would in many ways be better not to have to make the case. But the strength of criticisms made by those who regard liberal society as anti-Christian mean the attempt is necessary. So it is necessary to take the risk of praising that which could be far better. This is the dilemma of the ethics society. It is not meant to lead to political complacency; quite the opposite. The Western liberal political order is capable of good, as well as bad and so deserves our serious attention."

Here Smith acknowledges that society is failing but he still defends it. I am abit confused as to why, but I accept that my own prejudices may be too blame. If your interested in a history of secularism don't read this book because it is not that. If you want to read about Christianity and it's connection to modern Liberalism then it's quite interesting.

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