Editorial: Bleaker still and bleaker?
What do they mean by 'post-secular'?
First of all, let me depress you. Against all expectations, it seems, Europe is becoming more religious. That’s one of the main conclusions of new research by British social scientist Eric Kaufman. Immigrants and children of immigrants, who were supposed to become more secular over time, are actually going in the opposite direction. And they have more children than the indigenous populations. So eventually the religious will outnumber us.
This would appear to provide hard empirical support for those who have been arguing for years against the easy-going secularist assumption that, in time, religion will simply fade away. The term ‘post-secular’ is even making the rounds, though no one can explain how any country with an established church can possibly have become post-secular.
But there’s even bleaker news. None of us may be around to see the resolution of this debate. Sir Nicholas Stern’s well-publicised review of the economic impact of climate change strongly implies that, in the words of Private Fraser of Dad’s Army, “We’re all doomed.” It’s a message that harmonises well with the new outburst of millennarian thinking which we identified in our March cover story ‘Apocalysts Now’, a mode of thinking exemplified by John Gray’s recent statement that if you want a guide to contemporary and future politics in Europe you should read the Book of Revelations.
Even those who in these depressing circumstances can still retain faith in the final victory of secularism, or in the political and scientific possibility of averting ecological disaster, may find it difficult to retain a rational grip on reality when faced by the dense irrationalism which currently informs the present discussion of the vexed issues of faith schools, religious integration and multiculturalism.
In this debate complex matters of principle and practice have been disastrously distilled by the media into a banal argument about whether (or in what circumstances) Muslim women should be permitted to wear the veil.
One of the few sane voices to surface in this respect was our own Pádraig Reidy, who, as a witness on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, managed to move beyond veil-or-no-veil simplicities and make a powerful call for a secular state which resisted censorship of all kinds.
At times like this when unreason seems to be on the ascendancy, it’s perhaps worth recalling the distinction between opinions and thought, as defined by philosopher Jonathan Rée on his ‘freethinking’ blog for the BBC: www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/freethinkinguk. Thinking takes time, he says, whereas opinions can be reached instantly. Indeed, they can actually be an impediment to thinking, because if you give an opinion before you’ve finished thinking it through you may not know that that’s what you think. Bad news for daily newspaper columnists.
If secularism is dying then it’s certainly putting up a good fight. Richard Dawkins’s uncompromising The God Delusion, the spirited counter-attack of a militant atheist, looks set to be a Christmas best-seller. Presumably not all of those eager readers can be archbishops and imams looking for loopholes.
The influence of Dawkins pervades this issue. He is mentioned in Laurie Taylor’s searching interview with John Mortimer (p28), and in Jonathan Derbyshire’s review of EO Wilson’s new book (p 35). Elsewhere, Dawkins’s inimitable brand of hardline atheism is under attack. Michael Bywater regards it as just another form of fundamentalism (p15) while Julian Baggini contrasts it with the more gentle scepticism of David Hume (p10). Whether or not you admire him – and the reviews so far have been split down the middle – Dawkins’s intervention is an important one for secularism.
Next issue we send Laurie Taylor to meet him, to discuss the reception of his book here and in America, where he is currently touring, and to give him the opportunity to bite back at his critics. Don’t miss it.
And in the meantime, enjoy this issue’s usual cocktail of reason, indignation, ridicule and bile.