Secular Fundamentalism

Roger Peck FAITH Magazine March-April 2005

The Sacred Cow of today’s society is what could be described as “human autonomy”; the “right” of the individual to do what he or she likes – whenever, wherever etc… An Englishman’s home is his castle. Anything that opposes this in any way is anathema. The phrase “human autonomy” is used here to distinguish the above from “true freedom” (or, true freedom in Christ). True freedom, paradoxically, is only achieved through discipline because it is by the application of discipline that we are “freed upwards” from our appetites. Furthermore “true freedom” can only be realised through Christ because, having fallen, we need God’s grace to help raise ourselves off the floor.
In the pursuit of human autonomy, absolute moral precepts give way to a utilitarian ethic of “the greater good” and absolute truth gives way to subjectivism. The denial of these absolutes provides a capacious arena in which “ends justify the means” and almost any action can be defended; done in accordance with ones own personal belief system.
The belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth is what I would call “secular fundamentalism”. The use of the word “fundamentalism” here buys into that trait common among all fundamentalists, namely an inability to dialog.
A theist speaking to an atheist might have the following conversation:

Theist: I believe that God exists.

Atheist: I disagree with your position. In fact I see no evidence for God’s existence.
If a theist were to discuss the same issue with a secular fundamentalist, on the other hand, the following might ensue:

Theist: I believe that God exists.

Secular Fundamentalist: You can’t say that.

Theist: I believe that Christ rose from the dead.

Secular Fundamentalist: You can’t say that.

Theist: Happy Christmas.

Secular Fundamentalist: You can’t say that.

Although the theist and atheist disagree with each other, at least they acknowledge each other’s position, even if that acknowledgement is given in opposition. Whether the atheist or theist’s conviction is a conviction born out of religious experience, prejudice or rational enquiry is neither here nor there. What is important is the acknowledgement that each gives to the other’s position as being a claim on truth - absolute truth. Underpinning this acknowledgement is the unspoken understanding that either the atheist or the theist might have the good grace to say to the other as an analytical truth: “well, Mr (Theist/Atheist) – either you’re right and I’m wrong, or I’m right and you’re wrong – but as sure as “eggs is eggs”, we can’t both be right!”

Although the truth of the above statement seems undeniable, the secular fundamentalist would beg to differ. As far as he is concerned the theist and the atheist could both be right, since there is no such thing as absolute truth. One only has to tune in to any daytime chat show to witness first hand this subjective notion of “truth” run amok. Ironically, secular fundamentalists think they are open-minded when in fact they are profoundly closed, unwilling even to brook the theist’s assertions. Their whole approach fosters a form of totalitarianism in which the secular fundamentalist ends up telling the theist what he or she can and cannot say.

Now, it hardly needs to be stated that the above example conversations are caricatures. It is unlikely, in the extreme, that a secular fundamentalist would deny the theist’s position in such a direct, ostensible way. For one thing, they would probably lack the self-awareness to do so! Notwithstanding this, however, the above examples ably illustrate where many people in today’s society are “coming from”, even though the precise manifestation of this underlying mindset may take different forms.

One form of secular fundamentalism is the politely dismissive put down. Faced with a statement formulated as an absolute truth, the secular fundamentalist smiles and nods his head while inside he rejects out of hand what is being said to him, not even hearing the words spoken. The messenger is dismissed as being some kind of religious freak and sent on their way with a patronizing “it’s good to be so certain about such things”.

A common trait among secular fundamentalists is that they are very quick to take offence. The reason for this is that because people no longer recognise truth as being absolute and therefore objective (i.e. “out there”), but see truth as being subjective (i.e. “true for them”), any statement presented as “the truth” that contradicts a person’s own particular beliefs is somehow seen as a personal attack on them. The real crime in today’s society is not to hawk a falsehood; the real crime is to “offend”. The real sin is not to be wrong; the real sin is to be hypocritical. As was suggested above, secular fundamentalism fosters a latter-day form of totalitarianism. With this in mind it is interesting to reflect on how the modern day crimes of “offending” and “being a hypocrite” breeds anunwillingness to challenge the wrongs of society. When we proclaim the Gospel we are somehow seen as passing judgement, when in fact we are simply proclaiming the just Judge. When we stand up for our faith we are perhaps perceived as setting ourselves up as being “holier than thou”, when in fact we are simply proclaiming the merciful God who sent his only Son among us so that we, unworthy sinners that we are, might be saved. This overriding drive to avoid offence finds its ultimate expression in the latter-day plague of political correctness. George Orwell in his vision of the future foresaw a similar device, and he called it Newspeak.
On the subject of offence, it is interesting to note that the faithful are not usually the ones to take offence by another person’s religious symbols, or at least being offended by such is more a measure of a person’s fundamentalist attitudes then it is a measure of his faith. More often than not these days it falls to some non-believing do-gooder to take it upon himself to be offended on other people’s behalf. But this is just simply a different form of fundamentalism. In place of the religious fundamentalist tearing down the religious symbols we have the softly softly approach of the secular fundamentalist. To the Muslim he says “you mustn’t offend Christians” and to the Christian he says “you mustn’t give offence to the Muslims” whilst all the time what he is really saying is “don’toffend me”. The Muslim and the Christian both alike know that if today you are prevented from saying “Happy Christmas”, tomorrow you will not be allowed to say “Ramadan”. If today you ban crucifixes from being hung on school walls, tomorrow you will prevent Muslim schoolgirls from wearing the hijab. The former may, in truth, be a justifiable proscription in a secular multicultural society (not being allowed to display religious symbols in a public building), but the latter is surely an abuse of a person’s religious freedom. And neither is this mere scare mongering. In France it has already come to pass.

A true, genuine (“authentic”), atheist or agnostic should have a laissez-faire attitude towards people of faith. There should be something of the “well, if that’s your bag, if that’s what does it for you…” about their response. They might feel a certain pity towards their misguided (and indoctrinated) friends and may even want to “save” them out of their ignorance but more often than not they have probably come to accept, from past experience, that such attempts generally end in failure. The genuine atheist is comfortable with his worldview and does not feel threatened. There is, however, nothing laissez-faire about the secular fundamentalist.

“I don’t mind what they believe as long as they don’t try to foist their opinions on me”. Who hasn’t heard this phrase? Never mind that we have particular brands of coffee, particular makes of car, particular types of food foisted upon us 24-7. Never mind that opinions can never be foisted, they can only be formed. Never mind that ones right to “foist” opinions just happens to be a person’s inalienable right to free speech. Having such opinions “foisted” upon us is the price we pay for living in a free democratic world. We may not like the double-glazing salesman calling on us during the middle of lunch, but the polite exchange at the doorstep is the mechanism by which the rights of both parties are upheld; the right of the salesman to make a pitch and the right of the homeowner to say“not today thank you”. There is no inalienable right in a democratic society to not be disturbed when eating lunch, or when walking through the market place.
The real conversation that needs to take place today is not so much the conversation between Muslim and Christian, or between Christian and Jew. The real conversation that needs to take place is the conversation between people of faith and people of no faith and before that conversation can happen the obstacle of fundamentalism, both religious fundamentalism and secular fundamentalism, needs to be removed.

This brief survey of secular fundamentalism will end on a slightly lighter note by reflecting on one final example, the antipodean interrogative inflection. The antipodean interrogative inflection is a trait whereby all spoken sentences end with an up inflection. Quite when this habit entered our language is open to debate, but one theory is that a major influence in its introduction was a particular Australian TV series (hence “antipodean”), popular in the U.K. , called Neighbours. The affect of the antipodean interrogative inflection, as the name suggests, is that all sentences are intoned as questions. This, it seems to me, demonstrates an unwillingness today to so much as dare to voice a statement of fact – to present something as an absolute truth. Things can no longer be true inthemselves; they can only be true by consensus. Statements have to be intoned as questions. The antipodean interrogative inflection betrays unease at voicing statements of fact without inviting a stroke from the person being spoken to, without eliciting an agreement from the listener. Now okay, this final example may seem a little far-fetched; but then culture is a strange beast that finds ways of manifesting the underlying philosophy and mood of the day in all sorts of subtle ways.

But now for the punch line. The secular fundamentalist’s position is not only absurd, it is a self-contradiction, because the very statement “there is no such thing as absolute truth” itself purports to be a statement of absolute truth.
Welcome to cloud-cuckoo land.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2005