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Modern Secular Religion

Published on 9 December 2021

Years ago, during the long summer of New Atheism, in a rarely frequented corner of the internet I found an essay which attempted to establish a religious framework that should be followed by a post-religious society. One that would be in line with reason, discovery and science, one that would cultivate the spirit of curiosity and would be free from the perceived barbaric nature of revealed religion.

I was young then, and my mind was easily influenced by new, radical and rebellious ideas. The New Atheists (of the Dawkins and Hitchens variety) were experts at swaying crowds of people by performing a clever bait-and-switch. They claimed to encourage their followers to "think for themselves" while at the same time spouted wise-sounding nonsense that convinced the crowd that this is indeed what they were doing. These snake whispers proliferated from mind to mind, crossing culture and language borders. I believe a large part of this was the advent of popular science blogs and YouTube channels, which rode this train — exalting science and denigrating belief in religion. I must sadly confess that I, too, was one of the victims of New Atheist mind virus.

Even though I searched for this essay again, I found that the site where it had been posted has since been removed from the internet. However, the points raised in it left a lasting impact on my memory, because I have since never seen a more accurate and succint summary of the Modern Secular Religion. It attempted to formulate explicit beliefs which satisfied the requirement of blind adherence to Science, presented in a religious framework, but ended up making moral assumptions with brazen ignorance.

There are four pillars of the Modern Secular Religion, each building on the assumption made by the previous one. The fundamental truth is that each human being desires personal good according to the natural pyramid of needs, at the top of which is the desire to live a curious and interesting life. The means to obtain one's personal good must not interfere with anybody else's and therefore one must tolerate whatever means another chose as long as they do not cause tension and conflict. One should use reason and rational argument in order to find out how these means should be pursued efficiently and with tolerance for others. Finally, the ultimate goal of all humanity is to inspire curiosity and creativity in each other so as to understand and explain the universe by means of scientific inquiry.

The stage is set then, and I believe that this is a set of beliefs that most of my progressive friends would have no issues with accepting. The four pillars of the Modern Secular Religion then are: individualism, tolerance, rationalism and scientism.

We have already picked at rationalism and scientism at length elsewhere. However, in this particular case, we can once again reduce the problem to the fact that we cannot derive moral values from scientific observations. Science and reason can tell us what is efficiently good (i.e. "a gun is good for killing people"), but cannot tell us what is morally good ("should I shoot the man who's trying to hit me through the head with a skateboard?").

Another heuristic I have found over the years of analysing this kind of thought is that where there is a façade of scientism and rationalism, which cannot produce coherent normative statements, one will usually find utilitarism not further behind. Utilitarian morality, thanks to its famous slogan: "the greatest good for the greatest number of people," sounds simple enough that it cannot possibly be bad. It is almost always taken as a moral default by people with no exposure to metaphysics.

Utilitarianism indeed is not just bad, it's also logically wrong. Every mathematician will tell you, that you cannot optimise a function with two variables. But ignoring the paradox of that for a moment, "good" is not a quantifiable metric. When taken as an end in itself, good tends to mean happiness, which tends to mean pleasure. Perhaps one day, with enough advancement in neuroscience, we might be able to measure how much pleasure or happiness a person is feeling, but that does not exactly mean that an increase in neural activity is an increase in felt happiness. We would have to be able to measure and assign a numerical value to every single individual feeling to determine whether it is contributing to one's "good".

We cannot derive a morality from rationalism and scientism, then. What about the other pillars? Perhaps we might consider some kind of utopian libertarian society that provides maximum freedom to everybody. However, to enforce tolerance between individuals with needs that eventually conflict, there needs to be a certain sovereign group above them which will enforce this non-aggression principle, only kicking the can further down the road. That group must either already have absolute sovereign power (or tend towards it if established recently), or be bound by another power which then is the sovereign. On top of that, there is no actual incentive for individuals not to oppress others, either overtly or covertly, because there is no objective morality.

It is also worth mentioning and dispensing with the myth of scientific progress — the idea that when it comes to science, the only way is up. A common belief, especially among people who haven't had even cursory experience with philosophy of science, is that the entire scientific epistemology was constructed from the bottom up, through verifiable and falsifiable theories which eventually lead up to conclusions that we may definitely say are true (this is called "logical positivism"). In fact, if we look at the history of scientific discovery, we will find numerous examples of not even individual theories (relativity, heliocentrism, continental drift) but entire disciplines (chemistry, astronomy) replacing antiquated beliefs which had been considered "true". These days it's mostly seen in pseudoscientific fields like economics and sociology, where we notice various competing models and theories, but this only shows how far we are from a truly "scientific" understanding of the universe.

Finally, let us consider a footnote regarding the afterlife. What most followers of this religion would likely want to believe is that there indeed is no true life after death, that the particles of the body are scattered, the energy is released and the person simply ceases to be — except in the memories of the living. This is also supposed to serve as motivation to do good instead of bad. The problem is, naturally, that biologically humans tend to remember bad things better than good things. This is perhaps why the deceased person that is most commonly mentioned and remembered, even if not fondly, is a certain aspiring painter from Braunau am Inn.