Sunday Chess Problem is taking this week off. We do have a topic for conversation, however.
Richard Weikart is an historian at California State University, Stanislaus. He has made something of a cottage industry of blaming Darwin and evolution for the ills of the world, most famously in his book From Darwin to Hitler. His argument, apparently, is that poor Adolf Hitler was trying to understand the cause of Germany's decline, then he read Darwin and realized it was the Jews. The book was, understandably, savaged by more serious historians.
If Weikart's intent was simply to elucidate the thinking of an especially infamous figure in twentieth-century history, then we could dismiss his argument as merely misguided. All but the most naïve readers, however, will recognize claims of a Darwin/Hitler as the exclusive domain of right-wing crackpot history, in which one tries to discredit distasteful ideas through their alleged associations with distasteful people. One could far more plausibly argue that it was the long history of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe, and not Darwin, that influenced Hitler. It is a triviality to find ruthless despots throughout history who were quite directly influenced by Christian fervor. For some reason Weikart does not see any of this as discrediting Christain doctrine.
I bring this up because it turns out that Weikart recently engaged in a debate with Peter Singer and Susan Blackmore, on the question “Is human life intrinsically valuable?” Now, I've never understood what the phrase “intrinsically valuable” is supposed to mean. Depending on how you interpret the question, I could summon forth either a positive answer or a negative answer. But we shall save that for another time.
I've not had a chance yet to listen to the debate, but writing over at the Discovery Institute's blog Michael Flannery comes to Weikart's aid. The title of his post promises to expose “Atheism's Glaring Contradictions.” Here is one of the supposed contradictions:
This ties in to the stunningly naïve and idealistic notion advanced by Susan Blackmore that as society has become more secularized it has somehow become generally kinder and gentler. The 20th century is full of counterexamples. As Paul Johnson has pointed out in his book Darwin: Portrait of a Genius, the secular, self-interested philosophies of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse-tung imposed unprecedented misery on the world. Johnson goes so far as to say, “It is likely that over 100 million people were killed or starved to death as a result of totalitarian regimes infected with varieties of social Darwinism.”
This is Susan Blackmore's improved secular world? I'm sure she would denounce all of these dictators, but she clearly forgot about their horrific examples of modern-day cruelty.
I suspect Blackmore would simply reply that the regimes of Hitler and the rest had nothing to do with secularism. Secularism is about the separation of church and state. It is not about enforcing atheism at the barrel of a gun. Regimes that persecute people for their religious beliefs are not secular. To argue otherwise is to betray complete ignorance of the word's meaning.
As for Blackmore's argument, she was just stating the obvious. You could line up the countries of the world from most secular to least secular, and you will thereby have ordered them near perfectly from the most concerned with personal liberty and social justice to the least concerned. Think of the most wretched tyrannies in the world, and you will go immediately to the countries whose governments are most entangled with religion. The Muslim theocracies of the Middle East come quickly to mind, with the Catholic theocracies of Latin America not far behind. Think instead of countries with strong commitments to freedom and equity and you will naturally drift to the countries most concerned to separate church and state.
Again, this is obvious.
The experiment has been done. We have many examples of secular and non-secular regimes to study, and the secular ones are vastly more just and livable. This simple fact is inconvenient for religious demagogues, but it is no less true for that.
How is the assertion that social Darwinism killed people a "glaring contradiction" of atheism? Is it evidence that a god exists?
Secondly, as bad as humans are to each other, in terms of numbers pathogens have been much much worse. For sake of argument (only), let's take Flannery's assertion at face value. If secular society gave us all those dictators while it cured smallpox, then it still saved a net 300 million lives per century...and that's just one disease...
Secularism only enforces capitalism at the barrel of a gun.
Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" exhaustively documents, over its more than 800 pages, the truth of the claim that "as society has become more secularized it has ... become generally kinder and gentler". Medieval torture instruments, pogroms, infaticides, genocides (*not* a 20th century invention), burning at the stake, etc. etc. He also explains why this plain fact seems counter-intuitive to so many.
In Rhode's _Masters of Death_ he mentions that the US treatment of Indians that greatly influenced Hitler...
I has always thought that the history of Christianity is a performative refutation ( contradiction ) of its teachings. Its the only religion that I know of that claims that its adherents are infused with some enabling power (grace) to follow the religions teachings. However, I see no historical evidence for this. Modus tollens.
Secularism is about the separation of church and state. It is not about enforcing atheism at the barrel of a gun. Regimes that persecute people for their religious beliefs are not secular. To argue otherwise is to betray complete ignorance of the word’s meaning.
As for Blackmore’s argument, she was just stating the obvious. You could line up the countries of the world from most secular to least secular, and you will thereby have ordered them near perfectly from the most concerned with personal liberty and social justice to the least concerned.
It's not as simple as that, because one interpretation -- even made by secularists -- is that secularism is about removing religion from the public sphere and about relegating it to the private sphere, and that the state ought to enforce that by law if necessary. While this isn't explicitly stated, this is the impact of a lot of actions taken to promote secular societies. If that's the case, then North Korea, China and the Soviet Union count as secular; they're just more strict about that than other nations are, and so would have to count in your assessment of how totalitarian secular nations are.
You can argue that secularism isn't about removing it from the private sphere, and that that's really what those nations did. Fine, but then you end up with the tautological argument that nations that are willing to impose on and regulate the private lives of their citizens are the ones where people less personal freedoms, which reduces to the idea that the nations that most restrict the personal freedoms of their citizens are the nations that most restrict the personal freedoms of their citizens, and thus we have no actual relation to secularism at all.
So that's not going to work to establish that societies that are more secular are more free and less tyrannical. You COULD then focus specifically on separation of church and state and argue that. The problem is that many of the nations that are claimed as the hallmarks of secular states DON'T separate church and state all that strongly. The U.K., for example, has an official state religion, and it turns out that many of the Scandinavian countries that are touted as the paragons of secular states ALSO either have state religions of have had them as recently as 2000 (in the case of Sweden, where the Church of Sweden STILL gets special benefits). I think we can all agree that iff a nation has a state religion, or gives a specific religion special legal benefits, you don't have strict separation of church and state. And both the U.K. and Canada, at least, have publicly funded separate religious schools in at least some parts of the country, which means that they don't have that sort of strict separation either. So, at this point, many of the best examples of so-called secular states end up not really being "secular" by the separation of church and state definition, and so don't really count in favour of secularism.
So, no, she's not stating the obvious at all, because the idea simply isn't as obvious as you think it is.
A secular government is not religious, but is not anti-religion.
A secular government is not religious, but is not anti-religion.
So, if that government has an official state religion, are they not religious? Or what determines if a government is religious? At this point, you could only appeal to their support for freedom of religion ... but this again cycles back to "The states that most promote freedom are the ones that provide the most freedom for their citizens", which is uninteresting and clearly is not the result of secularism at all.
I think VS has a point, in that the term "secular state" includes a range of different things. We call the UK a secular state because even though it has an official religion, most of the practical processes of government and most of the population are not. Then you've got secular states like France, which not only don't have a state religion and try to remain neutral, but actively prevent religious symbols from being worn in certain circumstances. The US is sort of in the middle; we are not as aggressively regulatory of religion as France, not as officially religious as the UK, and our populace is more religious than either.
But I don't think this in any way undermines Jason's multiple points.
1. I don't think any serious historian thinks (Weikart is right in saying) Darwin's publication is the root or main cause of the Holocaust.
2. I likewise don't think any serious historian thinks (Weikart or Flannery are right in saying) that the Enlightenment's greater (if imperfect and variable) religious tolerance has caused more deaths than it has saved. Or their their further implication, that we'd all be better off - have less war, a higher standard of living, fewer dictators, etc. - living under a Christian Theocracy that denied evolution.
So, if that government has an official state religion, are they not religious?
Are they? What does it mean to be religious? Do you just declare yourself to be religious and you are?
"you end up with the tautological argument that nations that are willing to impose on and regulate the private lives of their citizens are the ones where people less personal freedoms, which reduces to the idea that the nations that most restrict the personal freedoms of their citizens are the nations that most restrict the personal freedoms of their citizens, and thus we have no actual relation to secularism at all."
A clever debating point, but not conclusive to me. A secular state does not, in my definition, restrict the freedom of its citizens to hold or not hold any religious beliefs, or to engage in or not engage in religious practices, except where such practices might interfere with or endanger others. (Similar to M. Fugate's definition, but more wordy.) That could include countries with state religions as long as those religions are not imposed on the unwilling (e.g., no burning or even public shaming of heretics).
A perfectly secular state would further, by my standard, not encourage or discourage adherence to any religion or lack of religion, such as by extraordinary tax exemptions. A religious organization in such a country should be taxed the same as a non-profit organization, assuming it meets the legal standards for a NPO. The USA does not meet this standard, nor do many countries. Some public support of private religious schools is a finer point which depends on whether such schools are primarily educating or primarily proselytizing.
There may be no perfectly secular countries, but secularity need not be defined as a binary state. It should require the first condition above, but then consist of a range which depends on the second condition.
There are other areas where a secular state could encourage or discourage certain freedoms and still be secular, such as whether or not most citizens should be able to purchase handguns and automatic weapons. So a secular state provides one kind of freedom but not necessarily all the freedoms that matter to everyone, and so is not a tautology in the way of the quote. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say.)
Whether more or less secularity correlates positively with personal freedom and social justice then becomes a question of fact. Historically (e.g., the Middle Ages vs. now) I think that is the case, but there are subjective judgments which we would all have to agree on to reach a consensus. (E.g., Orwell's "Freedom is slavery.")
The notion that Darwin is somehow responsible for Schicklgruber is piffle. In Mein Kampf, the notion of common descent, the basis of evolution, is explicitly rejected.
Darwin refuted "Social Darwinism" repeatedly. Can't blame him.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.
In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.
Having just returned from vacation, I've not had a chance to digest all this, but I think one thing SHOULD be obvious: what a State claims about itself is not indicative of what it actually is; just as claims by individuals to be moral are often false.
Likewise, as the comments indicate, terms like "secular" have multiple meanings; before anyone says anything general about secularism or secular persons, they should really define which of the many meanings they employ.
Also its laughable that "self-interest" was somehow the driving force behind 20th century totalitarian governments. No authoritarian society in the world is organized around the principle of "do what you feel." Everything in the individual is explicitly subjugated to the higher "Greatness of German Destiny" or "Greatness of the Proletariat Revolution" or whatever.
"...with the Catholic theocracies of Latin America not far behind."
Which countries do you actually have in mind? I can't think of any that would properly fit that description. Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil - all these are either left-wing or openly socialist. Argentina and Chile are secular countries -- statist on the one hand, and fairly liberal (economically, at any rate) on the other. As for Central American countries, I think the story is fairly similar, though I am open to correction.
You also chided those who, in their ignorance, empty the term "secularism" of its meaning by inappropriately applying it. You might want to think about that when deploying the word "theocracy" in relation to Latin American countries. A theocracy is a state or system of government ruled by priests in the name of God. Whatever the cultural influence of Catholicism in that part of the world (which is receding in many places), it is not part of the institutional structures of government. The nations of Central and South America cannot, on even the most generous definition, be called "theocracies".
I'm also wondering why you left China, North Korea, Cuba (another institutionally non-religious Latin American country), Vietnam, Burma/Myanmar, et. al., off the list. These aren't demonstrably religious in a governmental sense, but yet are deeply oppressive. I'm also reminded of Middle Eastern strongmen who have been deposed in recent years -- people like Hosni Mubarak and Saddam Hussein (well, if you call 2003 "recent"). They may have paid lip service to religion at best, but were secular dictators. Same goes for Syria's Bashar Al-Assad. I just think the reality is somewhat more complicated than you appear to suggest.
Re. #15: All totalitarian governments are organized around the self-interest OF THE RULERS. They sell their rule with “for the greater good” arguments, but those are lies.
There are people who try to effect “for the greater good” government, but those are not totalitarians.