Secularism: What’s Missing

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – June 14, 2009

Some would say we in the West live in a secular age. This would be described as a time when people’s assumptions about life are based on rational, scientific observations rather than on religious dogma. Now that is despite the fact that a majority of Americans when polled say that they believe in a “God” who has some control over their lives.

Charles Taylor, in his book, The Secular Age, posits the theory that while people will claim a belief in God, that most of religious belief has been displaced by “secular” assumptions. Taylor says that we can see in the West evidence of this secularity in the fact that most public spaces are now non-religious and in the decline of belief and practice as playing a prominent role in people’s lives. Taylor says that in the ancient past religion had at its core some “naïve” assumptions about life being centered around magic and ritual that have been replaced with rationality. In the past, one naïve religion has been replaced with another naïve religion. But today, he says the ruling paradigm is that reason is the underlying assumption behind our modern way of life.

Taylor says that religious faith in Western culture is one option among many others, including atheism or agnosticism. This is a modern paradigm and a welcome one, he says. In the past, people were given their set of beliefs as they were given their social class and there was no real available option to consider.

Taylor’s thesis also posits the idea that secularism is inherited in part from Christianity and from the Enlightenment thought and that the shared commitment to human rights in Western thought is a direct descendant from these Christian roots. Taylor sees a secularism that includes much of the ethics, the reason, and the deep appreciation for the mysterious in the universe that many others would not include in a secular view. He argues against a “death of God” Nietzschian point of view which he says alienates humans from the “more enduring residues of religion and the spiritual life”.

Charles Taylor renounces the Weberian point of view of seeing the rational world as an ordered universe where specialization and control allow humans to manipulate and regulate the universe in their own way. He speaks of this viewpoint as “disenchantment” meaning that the universe is left dull and routine when analyzed and understood only through rules and processes. Where is the heart, the spirit in that point of view? The mechanization of society into cold, alienated units of economy is not spiritual and not inspiring for humans. Taylor mentions our own need for community as a driving force for people to re-visit their religious values. People need meaning in their lives and a religious community can provide that, he seems to say. Emile Durkheim had a vision that society can create for humans an organized way of finding meaning. He believed that humans created religion in order to create moral order for themselves.

Taylor’s book speculates that while we live in a secular age that faith is also an underlying facet providing us with the ability to find meaning in our lives and create ethical ways of living with each other. Taylor sees no difficulty with reconciling faith and religion because he says that in this secular age, most traditional religious dogma has been replaced with a spiritual way of life that integrates spiritual living and rational viewpoints.

In an article by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic, the author denounces any effort to reconcile science and faith by defining “faith” by traditional theistic definitions. He says, “A meaningful effort to reconcile science and faith must start by recognizing them as they are actually understood and practiced by human beings. You cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural, as Kansas’s board of education did in 2005. Nor can you take “religion” to be the philosophy of liberal theologians, which, frowning on a personal God, is often just a hairsbreadth away from pantheism.”

According to Coyne, “pantheism” and other spiritual points of view are “unscientific” and therefore cannot be seen as rational. I disagree with Coyne’s dismissal of viewpoints that include science and religion as reconcilable. I think there is a lot of room within religious points of view for people who consider themselves “rational” and “scientific” but which see the natural world as a sacred place. Pantheism, which sees the entire world as a part of God, is one of those points of view. Many ancient religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism really see the entire Universe as divine. But there have also been some Western philosophers who agreed.

This point of view was first postulated as a Western theory by Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher who wrote in the 17th century and influenced much of later 18th century Enlightenment thought. Spinoza believed that the universe was unified as one natural substance; there was no dual nature such as heaven and earth or mind and body. Therefore, God and nature were one reality. The natural world was described as infinite, not finite as in a theist definition. The entire natural world was seen as divine by Spinoza.

The natural world is often seen as mysterious despite the science that helps us to understand it. In fact, it is in the mysteriousness of life, those things that we can’t really explain but we know have some elements of absolute sacredness where we pause. Is it natural? Is it divine?

A quote from Albert Einstein as quoted in Jerry Coyne’s article in The New Republic, “Seeing and Believing”: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

Einstein, contrary to popular thought did not believe in a personal God. His sense of the religious was in his sense of wonder at the miracles of the universe that as a scientist he knew he could only guess at how they worked.

It’s that word “supernatural” that often creates a gulf between those who would call themselves spiritual and those who would see themselves as governed only by rational reason. I have found that when trying to find a bridge between people who see the world as a sacred divine place and those who see the world as simply a physical dimension it’s that word “supernatural” that often will divide people.

So, I often ask, “What does the word ‘supernatural’ mean to you?” Many will say that it denotes anything that is “outside of natural existence”. Then I’ll ask, “Such as?” And many will answer, “such as gods or spirits or miracles”. And then I might ask, “Okay, so what do you consider birth, a natural event or a miracle?” And anyone who has experienced a birth such as the birth of their own child will have a hard time answering that question. Because birth is a miracle and it is a natural event. So much that we appreciate and enjoy in life is all a part of nature but it continues to amaze me what a miracle life is. And how I cannot explain it away with scientific theory. So many experiences in life are not what one would call “rational” or understood easily by reason.

Emotions, such as love, or even hate, are one of those things that are not easily understood by reason. Certainly our scientific world of psychology and sociology has presented good theories about why we have emotions. And biology has postulated why some of the hormones and chemicals in our body create certain emotions. But what is not understood is why? Why do we have the emotions that we have? How can we explain the emotion of “awe”? That feeling of absolute wonder when we don’t know what to think? I would not explain it by trying to point to some magical “power” outside the human but I do not have a rational explanation either.

The word “supernatural” is not one that most Unitarian Universalists would use in describing how the world works. However, there is much we would call “sacred” or “divine”. Because the incredible miracles that we witness in nature, in our own families, in the workings of this community happen every day. And for me, they are not explainable by science or by religion — only by our experience, how we experience these miracles every day. So, supernatural or divine to me means those things which we cannot explain by science but which we experience as miracles over and over.

Some of us do believe in a personal God and some of us do believe in Spirit. And some would call themselves “religious naturalists”. Jerome Stone defines religious naturalism as “a set of beliefs and attitudes that affirm that there are religious aspects of this world which can be understood within a naturalistic framework. There are some happenings or processes in our experience which elicit responses which can be appropriately called religious.” Religious naturalists are people who believe that the world we see is all that exists. But they also believe that there are mysterious and wonderful things about nature that are unexplained that could be called religious in the awe that we hold for them.

In the story about Coyote in Webster Kitchell’s book Get a God, the coyote friend is described as mysterious God who is also a part of the natural world: “My story has no beginning and no end. I come from before space-time beginnings. I will still exist after endings. I am the spirit of becoming. I am the spirit of experimentations. I am the spirit of dark and light mixing to make forms appear. I am the consciousness that loves those forms and wants to understand the passing nature of the forms. I am your judgment that the experience is worth the pain. I am your judgment that the ecstasy is worth the pain. I am your understanding that understanding is what you do within the mystery that surrounds your understanding. I am the restlessness that you humans call ‘creativity’, which existed before the Universe was born, which called the Universe into being with the silent decision to begin. I am your infinite itch that wants to be spiritually scratched. I am the infinite questions that wait ecstatically for the erotic consummation of an answer. I reside in both worlds: the mundane everyday world of consciousness and the craziness of the cosmic spectacle. I am a divine being skeptical of itself. I am the puzzle maker who is ecstatically puzzled.” Get a God, Webster Kitchell, p.31.