Secular Reason vs. the Sky King

February 23, 2010

The nonreligious are used to hearing that a society without God’s Laws in command will speedily decay and perish. “You’ll return to religion eventually,” the religious keep taunting. 

It’s a familiar phrase. 300 hundred years ago, friends of democracy were taunted by monarchists forecasting how the confused masses would hate freedom and crawl back to God’s enthroned kings. Monarchists argued that a society must have a “decider”, a final authority to silence debate with a loud dictate. No final decider, no civil order. Dictatorial religion aligned with dictatorial politics: the Sky King supported the human king. 

This monarchist argument was completely debunked by some bold experience. In the democratic experience, there is no final decider. There are only temporary majority compromises, formed by long debate and reconciliation. Swirling, ever-changing coalitions gain and lose power in rhythmic pulses of history. Democracy is a political pluralism of many voices, replacing lone dictators. 

Democracies came to understand how people don’t need a king — people can come to trust their collective wisdom, frail and faulty as it is. Monarchists still complained that a democracy really just consists of the traditional laws and rights after subtracting the king. That thin monarchist argument accused democracy of a self-confessed inadequacy: democracy still relies on belief in a king, since it just deletes the king. But that is a ridiculous argument, and there is no inadequacy. The founders of America admired the rights of British citizenship, and judged that those rights were better protected under a democracy. It is absurd to argue that admiration for rights implies any need for a king — quite the opposite is true! And then America advanced more inclusive rights in the centuries since. Today, we can believe that all people are equal without having any king around to dictate to us.

America’s founders exercised their “secular” reason — they judged that they valued their rights more than kings, and they stopped listening to preachers threatening hell for evicting God’s kings. And they valued their rights because they were rational — wise reason itself can judge, without any scriptural warrant, that it is better to live with rights than without them. (And democratic rights are nowhere endorsed in the Bible, anyways.) America’s founders were suspicious of all kings, earthly or heavenly. That suspicion has only spread, even to most religious people, who prefer both religious pluralism and political pluralism. People like choosing their own church, their political party, and their elected officials. It’s about freedom, remember?

Of course, secular democracy has worked, and the nonreligious have little trouble conforming to common moral decencies and civil laws. In fact, more religious societies tend to be more immoral and uncivil. The eminent researcher Gregory Paul has tracked the positive correlations between greater social disfunction and higher religious belief for years. The moral argument that we need God to be good is thoroughly refuted. As I’ve explained before, it’s really no mystery how nonreligious people are good citizens .

Secular reason has guided America’s progress towards greater freedoms. Secular reason is wise judgment on the best methods for realizing the ideals of freedom. The ideals of freedom are inherited from past experience, to be sure. Concrete protections of freedom ensured in any one era are but little steps beyond the last generation’s reach. But these are real human steps advancing vague human ideals. Secular judgment (no dictator) on realizing freedom (for humans) is precisely the quest for humanistic progress. Secular reason is never reason in a vacuum with nothing to think about. Secular reason thinks about our inherited values, how to advance them, and where necessary to compromise and readjust them. No values are sacred and beyond reevaluation. Everything is up for empirical judgment. While empirical and concrete, secular reason is NOT simply scientific reason (as some rashly suppose), NOR is it any nihilistic denial of values. Secular reason does not ignore scientific knowledge, but it is not a department of natural science. Rather, secular reason is humanistic ethics becoming scientific in this sense: we must take an evidence-based and experimental approach to our inherited values, asking whether social structures in fact advance human freedoms (and changing them when they fail). Democracy, when it works well, is the political realization of this scientific ethics. 

The notion that there are no final dictates over values still frightens some people. Friends of dictatorial religion don’t advocate political monarchy anymore, but they still advocate moral theocracy. Dictatorial religion doesn’t like too much freedom, wishing that God’s moral rules were our civil laws. We now hear the same sort of thin argument: Secular reason must confess inadequacy, because it thinks about values inherited from more religious times. You can read how Stanley Fish is the latest to be fooled by this thin argument , perhaps because he overlooks humanism’s secular progress. It’s a thin argument indeed, and just as flawed as the monarchist argument. We admire our shared human values, we use democracy to advance them, and we don’t need a Sky King anymore. Besides, the days are long past when religion spoke with a clear and consistent voice. After the vague ethical platitudes, religious people deeply disagree over concrete moral issues as much as anybody. Democracy is the only option left, and friends of democracy try to make it more secularly reasonable and more humanistically ethical.

Secular reason and humanist ethics are well-designed for productive cooperation. Humanist ethics has many debts of inheritance from past and present civilizations all over the world. However, humanist ethics and its use of secular reason liberates the human quest for freedom from any particular religion, and it transcends religion’s dependence on the supernatural. The time of dictators must be put to rest in the history books. The many voices of humanity are not to feared, but celebrated.