Politics & Policy

Secular Humanists to the Rescue!

A new Washington think tank promises to save America from the religious Right.

The Buffalo-based Center for Inquiry (CFI) announced the opening of its new public-policy office in the nation’s capital last month. Their mission? Nothing less than to save America from “the undue influence of religious orthodoxy.” The announcement — timed just one week after the elections — seems altogether fitting given the blue swing in American politics.

CFI boasts of being the “only organization broadly defending and promoting science, reason, and secular humanism” based exclusively on the “success of scientific naturalism.” Their website explains that, for far too long, religion has sought “to undermine scientific methodology,” and “erode the basis of our secular republic.” Their mission statement invites readers to embrace a “thoroughly scientific outlook,” to question “our beliefs… to see if they are well grounded by reason and evidence” and thus “advance human knowledge and enhance life.” And to top things off, CFI founder Paul Kurtz boasts that a new building added this year to CFI’s seven-acre Buffalo campus displays a thoroughly “post-post modern” style. Oy veh!

Such triteness, whether in CFI’s messaging or architectural styles, is not as disturbing as it is embarrassing. What is genuinely disturbing in their literature is the mantra-like repetition of that ever-fashionable line of ideology: Science has the corner on the market of reason.

To be sure, CFI’s message is nothing more than the haggard message of secular humanism, whose false claim to exclusive ownership of rationality and reasonableness always reveals a pathetic hubris and a pitiable intellectual dullness.

Card-carrying secularists seem to be the only ones on the planet who have not understood that the quest for a neutral, “purely scientific” approach to life, sanitized of transcendent, religious or metaphysical elements, is an illusion — one whose putative rhetorical force has far outlived its cogency.

Indeed, it may come as a surprise to many secularists that their unquestioned faith in the possibility of an objective, “scientific” approach to life, cleansed of “religious ideology”, is itself an ideological hangover from the Enlightenment, one that has been long since de-legitimized by contemporary thinkers as diverse as Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty.

But even more disturbing is CFI’s “Declaration on Science and Secularism,” also unveiled last month. The Declaration — signed by some 50 scientists and scholars, including three Nobel laureates — is described on the CFI website as “a clarion call for improvements in scientific understanding, support of scientific inquiry and the use of secular principles in the formulation of public policy.” But in the course of bemoaning Americans’ “disdain for science” — Huh? — the Declaration goes on to equate religious orthodoxy with violent religious zealotry.

“We cannot hope to convince those in other countries of the dangers of religious fundamentalism,” it reads, “when religious fundamentalists influence our policies at home.” And so, into this wicked category of “religious fundamentalism,” the secularists lump you, me, Billy Graham, Pope Benedict, and Pastor Rick Warren along with the Taliban, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Osama bin Laden.

That, my friends, is secularist ideology — and it is dangerous.

Yet, no matter how pervasive (and hysterical) the tendency of some to blur the boundary lines between principled faith and unprincipled violence in the name of religion, history attests that the notion of reasoned religion is not an oxymoron. Catholicism in particular bears this out in its two-millennia-strong theological tradition which strives to harmonize — not bifurcate — faith and reason.

This only makes sense, of course, if you accept that the life of “reason” extends far beyond the Cartesian reduction of truth to mathematical certainty, and the Empirical reduction of the knowable to the materially verifiable. Secularists, in their efforts to exclude religion from the public square, show themselves to be the sorry intellectual prodigy of philosophical currents which over the past three centuries have impoverished our understanding of the breadth and possibilities — indeed, the grandeur — of human reason.

If secularists want to have a meaningful voice in the public square — and not a preposterous one — then we invite them to be attentive students of history, and with intellectual honesty to recognize that Christianity in particular has a lengthy track record of contributing to the very goals that secularists profess to be seeking: beliefs grounded in reason, an ethics sustained by reasonable moral discourse, advances in human knowledge, and the general betterment of human life.

Fr. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person.

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