The Chronicle Review

How Secular Are Secular Ethics?

February 21, 2016

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Bernie Sanders recently told The Washington Post that he is not actively involved with a religion, and that his idea of God is that "we’re all in this together." He added that we live better lives when we are compassionate and fair. It is surprising for a front-runner in a modern U.S. election to be saying such secular things. But it is not shocking that he can formulate an activist morality without invoking, say, Jesus as his inner guide. When we hear Sanders, we hear morality in the tradition of Karl Marx and Emma Goldman, as well as Socrates, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom advocated a vigorous dedication to what is fair and good, and belonged to no church. We need, more than ever, to remember the diversity of context for moral feeling and action.

In his new book, The Soul of Doubt, the theology scholar Dominic Erdozain argues that secular ethics, not intellect, were the primary force that challenged Christianity, and that secular ethics are essentially just Christian ethics used to fight the immorality of the church — especially its violence and its quiet protection of established privilege. A byproduct of this argument is the troublesome assumption that Christianity invented trying to do the right thing.


The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief From Luther to Marx

By Dominic Erdozain

(Oxford University Press)

Erdozain draws on the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his claim that secular ethics were derived from Christian ethics. However, where Taylor speaks to the general context of religious faith, Erdozain seeks to show that key leaders in secularist morality — Spinoza, Voltaire, Darwin, and Marx — were motivated not by science and rationalism, but by a moral conscience that had Christianity at its core. In their secret hearts these heroes of secularism harbor a zeal for ethics and empathy that, for Erdozain, look so much like Christianity that it must be of Christian origin.

Erdozain can find Christianity anywhere. He reports that everyone’s favorite 17th-century Jewish atheist, Spinoza, "clung" to his friendships with pious Christians "as a spiritual lifeline." As a Jewish atheist, I’ll have to ask him to get his own Spinoza. The excommunicated Jew and author of the Ethics, founder of modern philosophical rationalism, is shown, in The Soul of Doubt, as believing in miracles and so frequently enjoying discussions with Christians that we can, with a wink, call him one. Erdozain accepts that "scholars continue to identify the sixth chapter of the Treatise as a ‘sweeping denial of miracles,’ " and that authorities on the subject accept Spinoza’s denial of the supernatural. But he disagrees: "Spinoza did not ‘deny’ either miracles or the supernatural. He voiced skepticism about events perceived to have been miracles, urging that signs and wonders are typically natural events. … Far from a denial of providence, Spinoza’s metaphysics emerged from a positive and fervent understanding of divine activity in the world."

This sort of reasoning happens again with Voltaire, as we are told that, admittedly, "one thing scholars have agreed upon is that Voltaire was a destroyer; in philosophy a skeptic; in theology an enemy of every dogma." Erdozain grants that "Voltaire can be read this way" but suggests that "there is more vigor, definition, and purpose in Voltaire’s criticism than such interpretations allow. … Like Bayle and Spinoza before him, Voltaire launched his volleys with the elemental poise of someone who knew that some truths are eternal." The suggestion is that the righteousness for doing good that Voltaire brought to his activism must be a kind of religious knowledge, proving wrong interpretations of him as an enemy of every dogma.

Erdozain makes the textbook observations that Voltaire cited Christian ethics in his fight against church brutality and that when people are tortured for their religious beliefs, it is an obvious contradiction of stated Christian ideals. Of course, Voltaire quoted Jesus where he advised gentleness, but he also cited many other sources, including Jewish, ancient Greek, and other pre-Christian moralists. The "discovery" that he quoted the New Testament is sensible only if your audience thinks that Voltaire was a demon created by Newton who satanically laughed at Christianity and brought on the Enlightenment to kill religion with science.

Erdozain continues, telling us that Darwinism didn’t invent secularism, and that secularism didn’t invent humanist morals. Instead, for him, secular morality came from Christians protesting an authoritarian Christianity that morally offended and personally belittled them. When these frustrated Christians moved away from religion and began demanding broader rights and freedoms for all, they were taking their ferocious passion from Christian morality.

There’s some truth to all these claims, but they are just a fraction of a much richer story. The real roots of secular ethics in the 18th to 20th centuries are to be found in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Star Trek. They come from Plato, Ecclesiastes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Dr. Who. Furthermore, some element of personal ethics seems to be hard-wired in humans. When we think of passionate moral feeling as necessarily derived from Christianity, we do violence to reality. To think this way today is particularly galling because so many traditions of being good in the world now crowd our common culture.

But mostly it is just naïve. It makes me think of the schoolroom map of Siam in The King and I. Christianity is there, on the map of moral influences, but it is just not that big. As we move into the future, it is important to remember the myriad nonsupernatural models for dedicating oneself to being good. And, of course, the complexity of the real story is much richer than the simplistic one.

The Soul of Doubt goes on to offer long-accepted aspects of Darwin’s story: Darwin did not fight against religion, and when his "Bulldog" T.H. Huxley and other activists did, their rebellion was "less the product of ‘untrammeled’ scientific consciousness than a form of righteous anticlericalism." Yes, sometimes Huxley and his like were gentle about religion, and some of them did sometimes posit a kind of distant deism that could fit in with an agnostic intellectual position. They also often rejected religion and forcefully turned to secular humanism based on the ancient philosophers, or the values of art and human possibility in Renaissance civic humanism, or nontheist Buddhism, or any number of modern moral causes, some of which grew out of insights that occurred in quite unchristian minds.

Gandhi, for example, drew his nonviolence from Jainism and his ideas of love and individual responsibility from Hinduism. He found inspiration in some Western books, too, but his example should remind us how silly it is to find an inner "Christ" as the source of modern secular humanism.

One final stunning summation from Erdozain’s conclusion: "The ‘reason’ with which the Enlightenment assailed a persecuting religious culture was neither secular nor primarily intellectual. It was the direct heir to the ‘inner light’ of spiritualist Christianity, rooted in the exalted terminology of the first chapter of John’s Gospel."

My inner light protests.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a historian and the author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (Yale University Press), among other books. She is working on a book called "The Wonder Paradox: Poetry and Ritual Among the Post-Religious."