Friday, October 16, 2015

Living the Secular Life: a first attempt at a review

Here is the NY Times review of Living The Secular Life.

I am in the middle of reading Living the Secular Life, by Phil Zuckerman.
The reason I'm reading it is because some dear friends, including my frequent interlocutor and correspondent John Gould, express their secular point of view in similar terms to Zuckerman, and I care about what they think, how they find a balance in life without the faith I know.

My first response to the summary portions, in the first chapters and conclusion (I always read the conclusion first to see where the nonfiction book is going), is that there are many straw men, red herrings, unanswered arguments and ye favored material fallacy du jour.  Just like the song Imagine by John Lennon.  But both Zuckerman and Lennon are fishing for bigger fish.  There are feelings and desires of the heart that everyone who is religious needs to recognize among their nonreligious neighbors.  There is a lived experience that Zuckerman is bringing to the table, and he is taking a decidedly civil tone to present his "unbelief" (scare quotes, shall we?) or rather secularity.

One could say that he's trying to be a good neighbor. I can respect that.

The strong point, so far, is that Zuckerman is able to express the normalness of the experience of life as a secular person in America, and probably echoed in the secular cities of Europe; except when their alternative faith-and-life views casts the secular person as an Other, an Outsider.  This happens in deeply religious communities like Knoxville, or rural Missippi.  When they are so cast, their experience is like that of any other Other, the black person in a white community, the Jew in the Protestant town, the Bible-believing Christian at an ivy league school like Harvard or Yale, or a reflective and aware (i.e., gifted) high school student who takes all the same classes as the rest of the student body (IQ between 80 and 115).  Bullying, unkindness, misunderstanding, social isolation.

My own experience as a convert from secularism to Christianity, in the midwest (Ohio) is represented well by the university towns of Bowling Green OH, University of Michigan, Athens OH, East Lansing and cities like Cleveland and Detroit, or Boston, perhaps.  This is the social context where religious faith of a Protestant heritage, or a coherent conservative Catholicism faithful to the Holy See, was once the default position.  I would add that a Christianity faithful to the ecumenical Creeds (Apostles, Nicean, Athanasias, etc.) was the mostly true view, but that might be presuming too much in this review.  The point is that the old view in these places allowed for the free exercise of religion by folks like me, and now the secular population is pressuring the public space to drive us out.  (Zuckerman gives a masterful summary of the social pressures to that effect, in chapter 3, Irreligion Rising, pp 55-77.) The recent political and legal actions of the secular state and secular politics and law has all the appearance of a mopping up operation to drive us from site, and to hide in our little enclaves and ghettos and practice our "free exercise of worship" as the President is wont to say, which is quite different than the free exercise of religion.

One excellent point.  I think Zuckerman proved one point; I grant that he established one principle by a good argument.  That point is that evangelicals have frequently claimed that the rise of secularism in a country/region will lead, in the very short time, to a very bad social climate.  In my own words, Smallville has churches and it they close, it will become Metropolis and then Gotham City.  Or in his words, Bedford Falls will become Pottersville.

Zuckerman cites mainstream quotes from mainstream leaders in the Believing Christian community (evangelicals and Catholics), academicians, politicians, and radio personalities.  He shows that the is actually what we say.  Fair enough.  Then he shows that Scandanavia is secular and not horrible, but horrible places (with terrorists and murder and poverty, some such mix) like subsaharan Africa has a lot of religion (even Christian evangelical religion).

He grants that, yes, correlation is not causation.  I think then that he does not prove anything positive in this display, this argument, but he does refute the common claim that Christianity makes Prosperity In The Short Term, and Unbelieve Brings Disaster in the Short Term.

He doesn't mention "short term" or "long term." I introduce that, because I think that is exactly the point that Christian leaders are making, and Zuckerman merely overlooked it.

My response.   I would say that if we drop "short term" and replace it with "long term", that the evangelical common argument would hold.  Northern Europe was once "Christian," and now it is not.  If a country was once Christian, so called, and achieves prosperity, the next generations will live well and will spend the accumulated cultural inheritance, until it falls into disaster.

Likewise, Jesus as much as said that he came not for the well but for the sick, not for the wealthy but for the poor, the downtrodden, and such.  Therefore in the first generation of a massively believing community, we should find much social disorder and dysfunction.  We should find many believers in death row, in maximum security prisons, in subsaharan Africa and other third world regions.  If the faith takes root there, I am confident that (barring invasions, droughts, disasters) the region will become prosperous.  By the same token, we can expect the US to turn into a similar disarray over the course of time, say in the next 50-75 years, if nature takes its course.

Another response.  Zuckerman switches terms frequently, a classic material fallacy.  He speaks of 'religion' and then will use examples of Islam, Judaism, LDS, and Bible-belt fundamentalism, and mainstream Evangelical Bible-believing Christians, and Catholics, Liberals, Moderates and Conservatives.  For Christians the issue is how does one relate to Jesus?  For some others, it's how does the community relate to the Covenant?
Even among professing religious communities, there are concrete promises from God that the Jewish community who abandons God will be rejected by God (Deuteronomy 28:15-68, below).
For Christians, we have a similar message from the Resurrected Jesus Christ (Rev 3:14-22, below).
The point here is that Christianity predicts that there will be pockets of communities who once had a Christian identity but will have fallen into disaster.    Disaster by my definition includes hardened unbelief, success in the world's eyes and disaster in the eyes of faith.  (Such as a backslidden world of former Puritans in New England, pioneering anti-Christian ways of life.)
Implied in those chapters, as well, is that those same communities will experience comfort and plenty for a season, of undefined duration.  A sociologist will classify that community as "religious" or even "Evangelical"--in spite of the fact that they are reaping the disaster sent by God on those who forsake Him.

Deuteronomy 28:15 “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.
20 “The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. 21 The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish. 23 And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. 24 The Lord will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed.
25 “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away. 27 The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, 29 and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways. And you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you. 30 You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat any of it. Your donkey shall be seized before your face, but shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, but there shall be no one to help you. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless. 33 A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually,34 so that you are driven mad by the sights that your eyes see. 35 The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.
36 “The Lord will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. 37 And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away. 38 You shall carry much seed into the field and shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it.39 You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them.40 You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off.41 You shall father sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours, for they shall go into captivity. 42 The cricket shall possess all your trees and the fruit of your ground. 43 The sojourner who is among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. 44 He shall lend to you, and you shall not lend to him. He shall be the head, and you shall be the tail.
45 “All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. 46 They shall be a sign and a wonder against you and your offspring forever. 47 Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, 48 therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. 49 The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, 50 a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young. 51 It shall eat the offspring of your cattle and the fruit of your ground, until you are destroyed; it also shall not leave you grain, wine, or oil, the increase of your herds or the young of your flock, until they have caused you to perish.
52 “They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. 53 And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you. 54 The man who is the most tender and refined among you will begrudge food to his brother, to the wife he embraces, and to the last of the children whom he has left, 55 so that he will not give to any of them any of the flesh of his children whom he is eating, because he has nothing else left, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in all your towns. 56 The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, 57 her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns.
58 “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. 60 And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you. 61 Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will bring upon you, until you are destroyed. 62 Whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God. 63 And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
64 “And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul.66 Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see. 68 And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.”

Revelation 3:14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation.
15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

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