Thursday, September 29, 2005

Varieties of Secularism

In an earlier post, Lorenzo drew attention to a recent paper by Thomas Nagel on 'Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament' on the NYU website. The paper deals with a range of issues relevant to the debate on whether European constitutionalism requires a religious or secular ethic. One of the striking themes of that debate (amongst many others) is the fact that the 'secular' alternative to the relatively well defined religious agenda is often underelaborated or even elusive. Nagel's paper sheds light on this debate by looking at whether there is a secular alternative to religion that is capable of answering what Nagel terms the 'cosmic' questions, normally posed and answered within religious traditions. The interest of Nagel's paper is that he looks to see whether secularism is capable of answering the sorts of questions relating to the deeper purpose of human life and its relationship to the cosmos that underpin religion's claims to public attention. In that sense, Nagel looks at whether secularism can play and win 'away' against religion. Not surprisingly, many possible secular combinations don't come away with a win - at best existentialism emeges with a 'no score' draw - heroic resignation to the weight of the 'big' questions combined with a sober recognition that there are no real answers to it, at least formulates a plausible and intellectually coherent 'unit' of attitude and belief. Humanism is perhaps controversially rejected, though ultimately I think plausibly, on the grounds that its human-centred concerns arguably do not provide a broad enough canvass on which to develop a suitably 'cosmic' secular ethic. One of the options that Nagel surprisingly doesn't discuss is the Hegelian-Marxist tradition of secularism. No doubt Nagel, like many others, would view Marx's triumph of the proletariat in the same light as the religious responses to the questions he raises. Certain of those operating within that tradition feel the same way. Most notably, the Frankfurt school. What is worth noting though is the fact Theodor Adorno, one of the leading lights of the Frankfurt School, also launched a critique of the existentialist movement. In The Jargon of Authenticity he warned against the dangers of embracing existentialism as a viable ethical alternative to the sociological failure of Marxist theory. For him, the Marxist ideals that underpinned the critique of capitalist modernity remained valid; existentialism, faced with the same problems, was an attempt, especially in its German varients, to retreat into a concern with the 'interior' life-world of the individual that was just as illusory as the 'happy endings' contrived by the culture industry. Where does this leave us? If we accept the Hegelian-Marixist critique of current structures but find the solutions it offers implausible or inadequate then an individualistic existentialism seems a less than heroic ideal. Perhaps secularism's elusive away win is further off than some might have thought!

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