As I attempted to show in Chronicle 326, what we call religious belief is adherence to an institutional dogma, which is always implicitly or explicitly an account of human origin. (Anterior to dogmatic belief is obedience to a ritual procedure that embodies this account of origin; in such a universe the only conceivable “secularism” is individual disaffection.) The real question is not whether one “believes in God” but whether one believes in the virgin birth or in the uncreated Koran. In the Enlightenment, when it first became acceptable to reject dogma altogether rather than fighting over its content, the contingent of philosophes included both deists such as Voltaire and Rousseau and atheists such as d’Holbach and La Mettrie.
The affirmation or denial of the existence of God is really the choice between two communities whose point of contention is their attitude toward organized religion. The self-identified atheist tends to be hostile to god-talk and may wish to banish it from the public sphere, whereas the deist is willing to engage in such talk in the form of “natural theology.” The term agnostic is meant to refer to the epistemological black hole that lies between these two positions, but taken literally the term is meaningless: to claim “one does not know” whether God exists implies that this existence is a factual matter that could in principle be ascertained, whereas the believer knows God’s existence through faith alone. Awaiting the enlightenment of faith and awaiting the progress of knowledge are very different epistemological attitudes; the first is implicitly focused on the originary event as the source of religious faith, whereas the second relies on the accomplishments of natural science, which ignores or at best “brackets” this event.
We can avoid the fuzzy deism-atheism distinction by distinguishing instead between two modes of secularism. Strong secularism may be defined as the combination of non-acceptance of any institutional dogma with the rejection of what dogma is ultimately about, the eventful origin of the human. The strong secularist believes that the entire anthropological content of religious accounts of the creation is contained within the Darwinian descent of man; in this view, neither the transcendental “verticality” of symbolic language nor the notion of transcendence itself as expressed in the concept of God differ in kind from other biological adaptations. In contrast, weak or minimal secularism consists in the non-acceptance of dogma independently of either belief in God or the originary anthropology implicit in religious discourse. The non-acceptance of institutional dogma is not in itself a dogmatic position, since the anthropological hypotheses that can be extracted from such dogmas are judged on their explanatory merits. For example, René Girard’s Christian anthropology can be evaluated independently of its creator’s–or one’s own–belief in Christian doctrine. In the general case, much anthropological truth can be found in religious discourse–theology being bad cosmology but good anthropology.
Despite its theoretical coherence, weak secularism is a difficult position to maintain politically. Those on the left tend to be strong secularists; conversely, most conservatives, including neo- as well as traditional or paleo- conservatives, are hostile to secularism across the board, and many are sympathetic to the “theory” of intelligent design. In the Burkean tradition, conservatives are suspicious of radical theorizing, in both the etymological and the political senses of radical.
A forceful statement of the anti-secularist position by a neoconservative polemicist whose insight and forthrightness I greatly admire is Mark Steyn’s article, “O come, all ye faithless” in the December 17, 2005 Spectator (UK). Steyn notes that in comparison with secular societies, those held together by religion are more concerned with the human community in the present and above all in the future; they are consequently more successful demographically. Steyn contrasts secular Western Europe’s demographic suicide with the increasing populations of religious societies, particularly that of Islam, which he sees transforming Europe into Eurabia. Blind or indifferent to the link between religious observance and demographic success, Europe becomes increasingly alienated from religious dogma, its marginalized churches consumed with such issues as gay marriage and divesting from Israel. “Rationalism is killing poor childless Europe,” Steyn claims; religious dogma, mythical or not, gets results:
If Steyn’s view is correct, the “return of the sacred” is the result of superiority in a Darwinian survival competition in which religious societies display greater reproductive fitness than “secular rationalist” societies, which are fast unbreeding themselves out of existence. In this perspective, the increased influence of religion in American politics would be less the result of the conversion of former secularists than of a growing demographic disparity between members of organized religious communities such as Mormons and evangelicals, and urban secularists whose low birth rate reflects their emphasis on individual success, both their own and that of the few individually nurtured children on whom they lavish their parental resources.
The Darwinian explanation of the “return of the sacred” is like that of the origin of the sacred: true but superficial. There is nothing wrong with Steyn’s correlation between religiosity and fertility, but demography does not suffice to explain the changed configuration of ideas. Even among generally secular academics, the past generation has shown a new appreciation for religion’s adaptivity that goes beyond the traditional secularist view of religion as the guardian of morality. The work of sociologist Rodney Stark, anthropologist Roy Rappaport, or evolutionary psychologist Pascal Boyer exemplify from a variety of perspectives a quasi-Durkheimian respect for religion’s structural contribution to the social order, a respect rarely encountered in the academic social science of the preceding generation. Broad intellectual developments of this sort reflect equally broad changes in attitude that are conditioned by deeper factors than the observation of population shifts.
In the world of ideas, the return of the sacred is a reaction against the victimary paradigm that dates in its modern, all-inclusive form to the postwar era and which has become more radical since its original goal of de jure equality was achieved. Victimary radicalism has surged since the demise of Western communism has removed the constraint on victimary thinking exercised by Marxist class analysis. In its radical form, the victimary paradigm is asocial, which effectively means antisocial. Its condemnation of hierarchical difference or firstness goes beyond any rational (e.g., Rawlsian) notion of egalitarianism to ethical nihilism; on the pretext of uncovering the hidden oppressiveness of all human institutions, the victimary thinker abdicates all concern for the actual functioning of these institutions. Book after book denounces the political, economic, civil, and familial institutions within which the denouncers live and within which their denunciations are generated and publicized. The failure to acknowledge the anthropological basis for the moral model that stands behind these denunciations allows this deconstructive discourse to resist its historical localization in the postmodern era and in the ideological context of a critique of the market system that no longer has a socialist alternative to propose. This discourse, no longer confined to the academic world, is dominant in Western European politics, and in the United States it has been adopted by the dominant Left faction of the Democratic Party. The right-left opposition that has characterized Western politics since the turn of the 19th century no longer opposes alternative means for strengthening the social order, even revolutionary means. For the Left, modern market society is essentially evil, not as a historically necessary prelude to the utopian realm of socialism, but from a timeless moral perspective. No doubt in everyday politics the Left’s nihilism is tempered by the desires and resentments of its constituency; but its lack of an alternative to the “Western” market system testifies to the strength of the association between strong secularism and untempered victimary thinking. Not even Noam Chomsky is a pure nihilist who denies a priori the possibility of ethical Being. But pure nihilism is a Dostoevskian fantasy. Practical nihilism begins when one comes to place the denunciation of the oppressive structure of institutional relationships over the affirmation of their human usefulness. The Left has come to occupy the resentful position of young Hamlet in Claudius’ court, denouncing the inequity of the reality he depends on for the occasion of his resentment.
Both the American and the European experience suggest that secularism is incapable of sustaining Western civilization. The pragmatic paradox inherent in such a statement is that it can be made only in a weak secular context, where non-adherence to dogma is not itself dogmatic. What is more, it can be made coherently only within the context of a generative anthropology that traces both dogma and secularism to a common origin. In this post-Durkheimian version of Voltaire’s si Dieu n’existait pas il fallait l’inventer, the institutional sacred is posited as a permanent necessity of the social order not against but within the heritage of Enlightenment rationalism that permeates mature market society.
The secular Left’s fear of the Islamists, so graphically illustrated in the 2004 Spanish election, indeed reflects confidence in dogmatic religiosity, but only in that of the “Other.” This is more than a merely demographic issue. The European secularist is willing to sacrifice the quest for future victory to buy time before his civilization is submerged by the unstoppable power of the sacred. In contrast, when George Bush affirms the universality of the desire for democracy, he is proposing a model of mature market society in which religion–any religion–is essential to the social order. This model resolves the Durkheimian problem of anomie by denying the necessarily alienating nature of modern industrial society. Recent history has scandalized the Left by demonstrating, as well as history can demonstrate anything, that after two centuries of “revolution,” both market exchange and religion’s “pie in the sky” remain permanent features of the modern human condition, and that the alternative to religion and the modern economy is either religion and the medieval economy, or worse.
Religious dogma is a reconstruction of the originary event and as such an affirmation of Being, which pace the philosophers has no other source than this event. Generative Anthropology is an explicit affirmation of this scene, a minimal faith. It is not necessary, in order to avoid contradiction, that GA affirm its own triumph. On the contrary, if faith in the scene’s expression in ritual or dogma is a necessity of social organization, GA in its minimality can never be a social organizing principle. As a theoretical anthropology it recognizes religion as a practical anthropology. The minimal faith GA shares with religious dogma is not enough to create an ethos, an common “emic” internality of conceptual vocabulary, but it is sufficient to permit the religious believer to understand GA’s analysis in his own terms. This seems to me the greatest conceivable ambition for anthropological thought in our time.