Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a significant work on modern secularism. James K.A. Smith writes a helpful condensation and commentary in How (Not) To Be Secular. Smith reflects on our discomfort with pure materialism:
“There is a fundamental discomfort with materialism and its attendant reductionism that generates a resistance and unwillingness to settle for the closed account of materialism…Taylor identifies three ‘fields’ of cross-pressures to which he will keep returning in chapter 16:
- Agency: ‘the sense that we aren’t just determined, that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents’;
- Ethics: ‘we have higher spiritual/ethical motives’ that don’t reduce to biological instinct or ‘base’ drives; and
- Aesthetics: ‘Art, Nature moves us’ because of a sense of meaning; these are not just differential responses to pleasure.”
~Smith, p. 104
One example I have seen of #3 is John Gray’s The Silence of the Animals. Since we and the world are temporary, susceptible to decay and death, beauty is a shimmering vapor issuing from the pit of entropic death. Is that really all there is to beauty, or does beauty whisper to us that we are haunted by transcendence?
The problem of illiteracy perplexes American educators. One possible explanation for illiteracy is that Americans abandoned the old method that was highly successful (phonics) for a new method that has proven a failure (look-and-say):
“In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read, which explained precisely why the problem with reading instruction in U.S. schools. He said, ‘So, ever since 1500 B.C. people all over the world–wherever an alphabetic system of writing was used–learned how to read and write by the simple process of memorizing the sound of each letter in the alphabet…This is not miraculous, it’s the only natural system of learning how to read.’ Flesch notes that every single nation throughout history with an alphabet taught reading in this way–except ‘twentieth-century Americans–and other nations insofar as they followed our example. And what do we use instead?…We have decided to forget that we write with letters and learn to read English as if it were Chinese.’
“The educational establishment did not respond well to Flesch’s observations. For example, in the NEA Journal Flesch was accused of trying to ‘discredit American education.’ In November of 1955, the Journal published another attack on Flesch entitled ‘Why Can’t Rudy Read.’ It was apparent rather quickly that Flesch had hit a nerve. Although the NEA reacted to his criticism, the continued problems we have with illiteracy show that they did not learn from it. In 1981, Flesch published another book entitled Why John Still Can’t Read. He reported on the progress since his first book. There hasn’t been much. ‘Unfortunately my advice fell on deaf ears. With heart-breaking slowness, phonics-first crept into some 15 percent of our schools, but an estimated 85 percent of them still stick to old discredited look-and-say. The results of this mass miseducation have been disastrous.'”
~From Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Doug Wilson
Americans boast in democracy, but we are unaware of the ways it has biased and prejudiced our thinking in negative ways. Enter de Tocqueville, the Frenchmen who visited the United States in the 1830s. His reflections contained in Democracy in America give Americans a fresh, piercing perspective about our way of life. The benefits of democracy are obvious, but the dangers are subtle and often work themselves out over many years. De Tocqueville was something of a seer. By looking at the seed of equality, he was able to see the fruits, good and bad, that would develop even hundreds of years later.
What are the dangers of democracy today?
- The tyranny of the majority. Many people are unaware that America is a democratic republic and not a pure democracy. In other words, a government should pass and enforce just laws. When the majority passes unjust laws and enforces them through a powerful government, like in the French Revolution, the result is ugly: carnage, death, and the debasement of people. Hobbes says, “Man has a right to everything, including [to harm] another person’s body.” Against Hobbes, de Tocqueville says, “I hold it to be an impious and detestable maxim, that, politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything…The rights of every people [ought to be] confined within the limits of what is just.”
- Choosing comfort over freedom. Since the government is so powerful, Americans will increasingly rely on government to make them happy. But we need to learn the lesson of Greece quickly: while a government can protect everyone’s right to pursue happiness, it cannot make everyone happy. Notice I said cannot, and not should not. A government can try to make everyone happy, but it will always fail. Since human desires are so great, a government, like Greece, that tries to do the impossible—to make everyone happy—will bankrupt itself. A government should enforce justice equally. A government should not artificially enforce equal outcomes.
- Self as epistemological authority. De Tocqueville wisely points out that every epistemology has an authority. For example, modernists and Enlightenment thinkers choose Reason (capital R) as the authority. Protestants choose God speaking through the Bible as the authority. Catholics choose the Roman Catholic Church as the authority. Americans choose Self as the epistemological authority. This results in narcissism, disrespect for all authority, subjectivity, sometimes a denial of reality, and an antisupernaturalistic bias. Remember Skully from the X-files? She was an unknowing disciple of Descartes—de Tocqueville might have been talking about her: “Americans readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding. Thus they fall to denying what they cannot comprehend; which leaves them but little faith for whatever is extraordinary, and an almost insurmountable distaste for whatever is supernatural.”
- Pride. In aristocratic ages, pride expresses itself as the desire to be everyone’s superior. In democratic ages, pride expresses itself as the desire to be no one’s inferior.
- Uniformity of thought. “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America…In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion: within these barriers, an author may write what he pleases; but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”
- An interest in science not as something true and beautiful and good, but as something useful. When we feel justified murdering children with advanced technology and hiding people in freezers (because science), we know scientific research got off track somewhere. We go off track, because like Nazi Germany, we encourage scientists to pursue what is possible and useful instead of what is true, good, and beautiful.
Here is De Tocqueville’s overall warning: “It is therefore most especially in the present democratic times, that the true friends of the liberty…ought constantly to be on the alert, to prevent the power of government from lightly sacrificing the private rights of individuals to the general execution of its designs.”
Jupiter and Saturn suck
Up asteroids threatening Earth
Like bodyguards taking the hit.
Do you ever look at the Cosmos
With its black holes,
Hungry Red Suns, and
All the apocalyptic possibilities—
And think that humanity is a bit
Like a baby in a shark cage?
Why’s there a shark cage at all?