There’s a website at http://paper.li/SecularProgress titled, “The Secular Progressive Reporter.” It runs unattended, aggregating content from preselected categories. @secularprogress ticks out updates.
The Secular Progressive Reporter has no authority over this blog, I’m someone else… Craig Simon, @gitis on Twitter, SecularProgress on YouTube, and aliased as Flywheel at various places around the web, including here. The other site’s proprietor is unknown to me. I’ll call that person SPR.
SPR and I clearly have many views in common. We admire Neil deGrasse Tyson and Tim Minchin. We want to showcase science. We follow each other on Twitter. We’ve chosen similar titles.
But don’t mix us up. Every page under SPR’s control proclaims:
Reason leads to science. Science undermines religion. Religion corrupts politics. Irreligion leads to progress. Thus, the future is Secular Progressivism.
That objectionable slogan will never be mine. The premise is solid, but the ensuing statements betray faulty assumptions, weak logic, gratuitous hostility, and unwarranted conclusions.
What’s written below should make the follwing sentence plain to everyone: I reject SPR’s impoverished worldview.
Let’s consider the slogan line by line.
Reason leads to science.
Reasoning is both a skill and a basic human faculty, rooted in pattern finding. We are born with a capacity for reason, just as we are physiologically endowed with capacities for sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. All of these capacities can be cultivated and refined in combination with each other. Our abilities to sense reality are complemented by our abilities to make sense of reality.
Reasoning facilitates the self-interested evaluation of reality. It’s a truth-seeking endeavor. Greater skill at reasoning motivates the gathering of evidence and the organizing of reflection. Disciplines of systematic critical method arise from that.
The skilled practice of science is a mature, symbiotic process of experiential anchoring and explanatory integration… sensing and making sense.
The very word “science” is shaped by that linking of skills. Consider some etymological cousins… decision, precision, discern, concise, conscience, and scissors. All share the root concepts of tool use in the service of intentional, purposive shedding off or cutting off. A world that exists is torn apart, its pieces refit for a world to be realized.
In light of these definitions, the notion that reason leads to science shouldn’t be controversial. It’s a fine philosophy. My argument against SPR begins with the next part of the slogan.
Science undermines religion.
When we recognize science as a truth-seeking endeavor, we unleash our powers to undermine belief in falsehood. SPR clearly associates religion with falsehood. Is this warranted?
SPR would certainly agree that “Science undermines supernaturalism.” That is, science undermines belief in explanations that contradict available evidence or break physical laws. Scientific investigation builds understanding of such laws, often by making rubble of entrenched false beliefs.
Science narrates histories of paradigmatic collapse and creation.Inadequate worldviews regarding the nature of motion, thermodynamics, chemistry, and biology cannot withstand honest investigation. Weak beliefs are toppled as science accelerates processes for learning how to learn.
Technology these days makes a fashion of disruption; deeper mastery of science fosters an ethic for answering mystery with puzzle solving.
The process of moving closer to truth undermines trust in supernatural confabulations. That is how reason leads. Science is a tool for challenging falsehood and credulity. It strengthens our powers of discernment.
It’s safe to presume that SPR equates supernaturalism and religion. I do not. Beyond the word religion, we might also disagree on use of terms such as God and deity. But our differences are not simply a matter of competing semantic claims
It’s important to make clear that not all religions postulate supernatural deities. Benedict Spinoza inspired modern pantheism by unburdening himself of useless superstition and then equating God with Nature. His religious perspective rules out supernaturalism by allowing us to recognize the substance of the eternal Cosmos as a self-caused essential existence persisted only by itself, Just as we may cultivate a sense of reason, we may cultivate a sense of deity.
Outspoken opponents of religion typically associate it with primitive cosmologies and tyrannical institutions. Those are dangers they wish to see undermined. I observe those same dangers within a broader context… people who portray themselves as truth echoers, delegated as such by some cosmically-founded agent or absolutist principle. That is the larger problem. Members of religious cultures are not immune to such dangerous delusions, and neither are proponents of scientific ones. The antidote is honesty about one’s own potential for getting things wrong.
Voltaire argued, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” To imagine the prospect of encountering God raises the stakes of human existence. It fortifies the obligation of truth seeking as a fundamental human interest. Shedding the fetters of supernaturalism permits a more honest encounter with nature, and promises a more durably sublime one. Enthusiasm for a true religion is best served by endeavoring to cherish truth.
Religion corrupts politics.
Yes, there is much evidence of this. To be fair, we could list social pathologies that are far more corrupting. And, to be fair again, the practice of politics has been no less corrupting to religion than vice versa.
Perhaps we can agree on a practical approach to overcoming corruption: It requires that our religious and political institutions be fortified to uphold and reward habits of truth seeking.
Irreligion leads to progress.
Here we see SPR’s call to action. The word religion is deployed pejoratively, as if its conquest would herald a transformative advance for human wellbeing. Boiled down, however, the sentence is a muddled restatement of the original premise, which was “reason leads to science.”
“Supernaturalism cripples progress” puts things better, presuming the point is to break constraints or warn of danger. But the tone of SPR’s shrill, name-baiting formulation, “Irreligion leads to progress,” resonates with insult. It conveys an alarming hostility moored in lazy disregard for human complexity. I object to this part of SPR’s slogan, and feel obliged to go on the record by saying so. Please, dear reader, don’t confuse us.
SPR and I might agree on the general desirability of progress, but I prefer to animate that desire through constructive endeavor. Obsessive name baiting does nothing to advance the frontiers of scientific discovery. A more honorable call to action would light a candle rather than curse the darkness.
Thus, the future is Secular Progressivism
SPR apparently hoped to finish with a syllogism, but instead spouted silly determinism. In fact, nothing about the existence of reason predicts fulfilment of a cosmic master plan. There’s no guaranteed destiny. Wishing for freedom doesn’t establish freedom, only the opportunity to reach for it.
Reason well exercised can take us a long way, but the endeavor is ours to direct.
SPR wants to raise a flag for secular progress, but upholds a poor standard. Proclaiming piety for reason obliges better explanations of what reason is, and what it motivates. Secular Progressivism is an appealing banner, but SPR’s version is too tattered and empty to merit a following.
If SPR wants to renounce the original slogan and win me as an ally, this alternative works better.
Reason leads to science. Science leads to making sense of what we sense. Truth seeking leads to knowledge of nature. Alignment with nature leads to progress. Secular Progress is a truth seeking endeavor.