Eve links to a column by Stanley Fish disputing the idea that there are “secular reasons” for moral and political positions, and rounds up her own thoughts about the issue. She asks, “What are the possible objects for the philosopher’s eros, the nuptial meaning of the mind, in a fully secular worldview? I dunno, because I’ve never done it, but I welcome your thoughts.”
Well, I’m not sure I entirely understand the question, but here are my thoughts about Fish’s column. I think that first, we need to define “secular.” The way Fish describes it, it comes across as “logic without emotion.” For instance:
While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it. No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.
That’s true of course, but that’s simply because you have to add emotions to your facts to be motivated to do anything. Eve is right that love is the driving force here — both convictions and actions are caused by people caring about things. But I don’t see how that is opposed to secularity, unless you’re claiming that caring is inherently religious. It’s true that love of anything can probably take on religious qualities if it gets strong enough; but I don’t think that’s what people mean when they talk about religion as in “religion in public life.”
I suspect that what Fish is really getting at here is not that you can’t make decisions without religion, but that you can’t impose your decisions on other people without it. This is why he approvingly quotes Smith as saying that “truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of ‘public reason’ are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue — abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture . . . .” I must admit, after having been to as many churches and theoblogs as I have, my immediate response is, “It’s not like religion has settled any of those things definitively either!” Sometimes in these discussions, it sounds like what people mean by religion isn’t religion as it actually exists, but the dream (or nightmare) of an authority who has an answer for literally everything.
But, overall, Fish has a point. When people complain about religion intruding into the public sphere, they are usually complaining that their opponents are invoking sources of authority that they haven’t agreed are authorities. Yet what, really, is a secular source of authority that everyone can agree on? The appeal to material facts stems from a hope that we can, at least, agree on those, since we all live here in the material world. But the motivating principle — emotion — is more elusive. How do you get other people to care about what you care about? And if you care about God more than anything, what do you do if you’re not allowed to talk about him?
Whenever I think about this question of how people have moral beliefs without God, strangely enough, I flash back to the movie City Slickers. I’ve never actually seen it all the way through, but it played at a theater where I used to work, so I saw bits of it when I did screening-room checks. At one point, a man goads his friend about his fidelity to his wife, demanding to know if would really refuse to cheat on her if he could be absolutely sure she wouldn’t know. The friend eventually says, “But I would know. And I wouldn’t like myself for it.”
This is, as I recall, a version of the question that starts off Plato’s Republic: why be good if you can just seem good? Plato somehow answers this with the hypothetical creation of an ideal state, but I expect most people would better understand the movie character’s more concise version. This experience of looking at yourself as if you were someone else, and liking or disliking what you see — in other words, having a conscience — is essentially a brute fact for nearly all people. They have varying explanations of why it exists, or they may have no explanation, but still it’s there. And this experience compels at least a rudimentary morality; if you like people who are good to you, then you must be good to them, if you are going to like yourself. By the same token, if you respect people who don’t take crap from you, you’re going to be uncompromising towards others if you want to respect yourself. I didn’t say this was all warm and fuzzy. But it’s also why I don’t entirely agree with Fish’s claim that ideas like justice and equality are totally empty without God. The ability to see yourself as a person among persons, to put yourself in another’s place, implies a certain equality, or at least similarity. There’s a certain justice that comes when you dislike yourself in proportion to the cause you’ve given someone to dislike you. And — this is the less obvious point — this identification with others also means that you assume other people have that capacity, and can therefore make claims on them. I think this is why these words have meaning for people, even if they can’t agree on precisely what they mean or how to apply them to a given situation.
Of course, you can readily object that this is an inadequate basis for morality, and I can’t really argue with that. But, like I said, it’s not like any religions have been able to overcome all these problems either. It’s why the gulf between the religious and the secular here may not be as great as all that. Without love of God, we still have each other; and that’s something.