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Wednesday, 27 December 2017

A secularist manifesto

I was talking with my brother about a spiritual side for secularism but he objected saying that the difference between those who believe in God and the rest of us is that only one of these categories of people gives credence to an ephemeral and completely disembodied force in the universe. According to him, secularists must also be materialists, people who lay the blame for and identify the roosts of all phenomena – from the birth of stars in far-flung galaxies to the emergence of ideas inside the individual human brain – in causes rooted in the laws of physics.

I had been talking with him about dad, who passed away seven years ago next March, and mentioned a book titled ‘The Songlines’ I reviewed on this blog on 29 May 2010. It was published in 1987 by British author Bruce Chatwin. Dad gave it to me in 1988 for my birthday when I was 26 years old and inscribed it in the front. The book was among our first postmodern cultural products to examine the unique mythology of Australian Aborigines, whose culture we know now goes back 65.000 years after their ancestors emerged from Africa as part of an outlandish migration.

The “songlines” of the title are the stories told by Aboriginal elders about the country they live in. They believe that the country will disappear if the songs are not recited. The book compares the lifestyles of the Aboriginal inhabitants of an outback settlement with those of the white inhabitants. In the second half of the book Chatwin does an about-turn and looks at the cultural processes that formed his own personal mythology, those points of reference and ways of thinking that contrived to make him who he was. It was a self-conscious and reflective response to a challenge laid down by an ancient race of people who he identified as foreign to himself.

Chatwin wrote several travel books and had a special interest in nomads. Although the book occupied him for several years leading up to his death in 1989 from HIV-AIDS it wasn’t his final publication. In a way, it functions as a map defining belief among the inhabitants of the settlement. Whereas the white inhabitants seem to have lost the anchor point for their moral compass, the Aborigines retain vital connections to the land that sustain them. Or most of them.

Those who profess belief in a religion and thus belong to a religious tribe tend to emphasise the dangers lying in wait for the unwary in a putative world where value is allocated purely on the basis of material worth, an imagined place where belief in a God is entirely absent and there is no spiritual aspect to a person’s life. But these are merely self-interested attempts to buttress belief in what is more and more evidently a superfluous deity. Like Chatwin, each one of us carries within him- or herself the traces of our own personal mythology. We recognise fellow travellers or enemies based on the patterns they inscribe in the fabric of shared discourse and through the personal points of reference they evidence. We have lists of benevolent spirits – artists, writers, performers, singers, statesmen, elders – who serve to embody the ways we allocate value in our lives. We worship at personal shrines.

People take the measure of us by the points of reference that we recite as we lay out the markers of these tribes in public. We might give a special value to a couple of lines in a popular song, or a theme spelled out in a book by a favourite writer. We pledge fealty to such moments in our personal songlines by invoking arcane words in our conversations with others, who we meet on our diurnal rounds, and who might recognise shared experience thereby. We also might define who we are by reference to tribes we do not belong to, and describe them in less than flattering terms. People are sensitive to the presence or absence of such markers and respond with approbation or censure based on indices that reflect their own personal value systems. We validate our personal Gods through such discourses.

But whichever tribe we belong to we all still need to live together in one society. In a secular democracy individual agency is implied in the vote, and rules are made by the majority of the people in the jurisdiction. All that is required is to describe the boundaries of the electorate, to formulate the criteria according to which we include or exclude who is entitled to cast a vote. In such a world, people decide in the absence of an all-knowing deity. God has been supplanted by the majority.

In the secular West, important points of reference for democrats can be found in the 17th century in the United Kingdom. It was a period of great change and a time when the boundaries between religious and the political concerns were being drawn, sometimes by force of arms and at other times through public debate. Notables at the waystations in the development of the institution of pluralist democracy are such men as William Tyndale, who made the first accurate translation of the Bible into English, and William Harvey, who confirmed pulmonary circulation, and women such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who advocated strongly for the rights of women at a time when they were treated as less than men, and Mary Lee, a suffragette who demanded the full participation of women in the political life of Australia.

But remarkable icons collected in our procession through life are not the only things that serve to identify us as true-believers to others met on the journey. A crucial date is 1620, when Francis Bacon’s ‘Novum Organum’ was published. This is a philosophical treatise advocating for the first time undertaking what we know now as the scientific method. An openness to varied experience and a concomitant willingness to deduce the true causes of things from accurately-observed evidence rather than sophistically rely on old formulations inherited as received ideas, also serve to characterise the secularist. We demonstrate our commitment to secularism by privileging a plurality of viewpoints and being open to new inputs. We don’t stubbornly circumscribe our experience in order to bolster within it any particular set of referents. Credible value can be assigned to countless objects within the limitless boundaries of our purview, as Chatwin discovered in his travels. As is true for sexual reproduction, diversity in the demos equals strength.

Such an open and inclusive way of living truly characterises the attitudes of a community that is ever on the point of discovering things. It is equally not limited to a particular land or environment, but instead uncovers nourishment wherever it finds itself and in the bosom of every people. It is the way of explorers, like Australia’s first people, always on the verge of stumbling upon a new haven to fold into its lore.

Rather than insisting on an origin in a specific place, the true secularist yearns for an ephemeral goal: to be able to identify, name, talk about, and understand every new thing. Rather than a mere thirst for novelty this is a profoundly-relevant admission that the boundaries of experience are forever growing in an endlessly-expanding universe.

I mentioned to my brother that the ultimate origin of the universe – a time that might be delineated by describing the moment just before the big bang – was still obscure, but he said that the concept of time itself is a secular phenomenon, just as much as the concept of space is.

What lies outside the universe remains still to be revealed, however, if it ever can be discovered by people living and using tools that lie entirely within the material realm. But since everything comes from the arts perhaps help is at hand. In order to prove that God does not exist we might therefore need to work to invent an instrument that has as its sole purpose the observation of Him. To build such a device you might need to define from scratch a whole terminology with at its core the ability to give names to and describe the behaviour of invisible things, a panoply of ephemera, a whole world replete with insubstantial desires and faint aspirations. You would need a new set of words equivalent to the first person singular or the notion of “want” or to the idea of “help”. Who would you ask for help if you wanted to start out on such an enterprise?

As a note on the theme of “diversity is strength”: it’s worth noting that another consequence of the religious strife of the 17th century was that Australia was created at Federation with no state religion. This had as much to do with the collective memory of the turmoil of those distant years as it did with the like decision of America’s 18th century founders to eschew an official religion. Even though most people alive at the time would have considered having a religious link necessary to living a good life. If only Australia’s founders had taken a similar view in relation to Asian immigration. In the late-1880s there was popular resistance in the colonies to Chinese immigration and as a result it virtually stopped. The economic depression that beset the colonies in the 1890s may have been milder had their borders been more open. The White Australia Policy introduced in 1901 to keep Asians out survived two world wars. It wasn’t until the 1960s that moves were made to abolish it, and then in 1974 multiculturalism was adopted as official government policy. Not a moment too soon. With high immigration levels Australia now has one of the strongest economies in the world. The photo below shows the Newtown Baptist Church, in Church Street, Newtown. It was open for use in 1870.


1 comment:

Resuna said...

I wasn't talking about theism vs secularism, but about spiritualism (or dualism) vs materialism.