Friday, February 26, 2010

Fish Bait Redux

A further thought on the previous post: while Russell Blackford's main objection varies from mine -- even if we share the conclusion that Stanley Fish's recent anti-secularism twaddle-fest is bunk -- there is much to recommend what he says:

None of this is based on any fancy metaphysics, just on historical experience and good sense. We can see that the state does a reasonable job of deterring violence and theft, maintaining a property regime, and even providing a welfare system; but it does a horrible job when it goes on the frolic of deciding and imposing the "correct" religious views.
Fair enough, and I don't think it's open to serious dispute: as an historical matter, the state is demonstrably, hideously, disastrously bad at enforcing religious propositions; when governments do this, it consistently leads to the worst oppression, cruelty, and injustice, and for all that agony, it doesn't even succeed in cramming the "correct" religious thoughts into people's heads.

Still, I think it matters that not all foundational affirmations, moral or otherwise, are equal in their contact with observable reality -- we should pull a child away from an attacking dog because dog bites are painful, traumatizing, injurious, and sometimes deadly versus we should pull a child away from an attacking dog because a guy in a dress claims that a guy in a robe from 2,000 years ago claimed, before being crucified, that his dad was the creator of the universe and that caring about others is mandatory. One of these claims will strike any normal human being as self-evident; the other will please a small choir and then raise a mighty ruckus among endlessly splintered theological factions whose disagreements are as sharp today as they were some time before the advent of writing.

I don't think pragmatic-historical considerations are adequate as a defense of secularism. I arrive at this for pragmatic-historical reasons, e.g., the USA recently undertook a breach of secularism by giving tax dollars to religious bodies under the "Faith-Based Initiatives," and a chief argument for doing so is that religious organizations are really good at providing services. Whether they are or not, the argument framed in these terms hinges solely on what works, with the religious factions affirming that their supernatural attachments create the success -- we do good work because god is on our side, and god is on our side because we obey god's will. In this case, the harm done is fairly slight, but the door is now open to exactly parallel arguments with far higher stakes, e.g., we can't abide the equal rights of Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, skeptics, Baptists, Buddhists, Sikhs, and other assorted infidels because it would incur the wrath of the one true god.

Secularism exists to oppose this line of thought. Long, painful experience has shown the way to embracing some values through state power, but doing so, as Blackford says, as "lightly" as possible, with a clear mind to human limitations, and remaining always vigilant against the intrusions of faith-based passion. Secularism works and secularism hews closer to truths with which all can flourish.

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