Civil Discourse in the “Immanent Frame”

Ivan Strenski, in a recent essay entitled “Does the Sacred Need Saving?” (Religion Dispatches, 7/2/10), comments on philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. The following excerpt will give some flavor of the essay: 

It is not the sacred known as Nirvana, Yahweh, Atman-Brahman, the Dao and such that Taylor seeks to “save” so much as another which he believes may be said to be a worthy successor to them in “our secular age.” …For present purposes, Taylor seeks to outline the nature of a “minimal religion,” a religion that seeks to be honest to the new order of scientific knowledge upon which our world rests — the “immanent frame” that contains our life and thought — but which also resists the sense of enclosure that comes with “scientism.”

I sent a friend a link to the essay. Here is part of his response: 

Religion, more often than not, is where people of faith believe they are staking their lives and immortal “souls” on an idea. They are deeply invested with it. It’s hard to be egalitarian in the ordering of such values. If they can be made to feel they’re wrong, without replacing the error with something of equal value and gravitas, then their life is placed in serious psychological jeopardy. No one participates in that kind of disorientation willingly or without strong resistance. Therefore, getting them to change their mind through “civil” discourse is an overwhelming challenge to whatever belief they’ve formed. If the conversation becomes coercive, even under the enlightened label of shared ideas, it’s unlikely that anyone, who has devoted the lion’s share of their thought process to what they believe constitutes the central meaning of their lives is going to trade off their own version of reality for someone else’s,  unless they can be rationally conned. As the old saw goes, you can’t be reasoned out of a belief you weren’t reasoned into.  To attempt it is to part from reason. How much civility can you ultimately find in that scenario?

My friend has a point. Clearly, most of us are too invested in our worldviews to engage in the kind of civil discourse that Charles Taylor envisions for what he calls our new “immanent frame”—our secular, open society. Ernest Becker and the Terror Management Theory (TMT) researchers got it right: these worldviews are not just intellectual constructs that we readily revise as new evidence becomes available or superior arguments are presented. Rather, they are our lifeline to a sense of meaning, without which our whole narcissistic enterprise of victory over death may collapse. No threat to them—whether coercive or discursive—can be taken lightly.

Whatever our particular worldview may be, it includes scripts for heroism large and small. These scripts tell us how to make a meaningful contribution—how to achieve something for which we will be remembered, whether it’s dying in battle, faithfully following a body of religious teachings, flawless performing a Mozart sonata, or just getting the kids to soccer practice on time. Our reward for these achievements is self-esteem—a precious and fragile commodity that many of us, alas, value more than life itself. Woe unto anyone who suggests that our sense of self-worth is undeserved, that we screwed up, or that our heroic scripts have led us down the path toward error.

Nor should anyone dare suggest that our worldview, which manages all these scripts and the rewards for following them, is factually or morally flawed. Any challenge—even the mere presence of someone who sees things differently—can imperil our self-esteem and the success of our immortality projects. The more vulnerable we feel, the more fearful, defensive, or even aggressive we may become. So we surround ourselves with people who not only validate our views but reward us for validating theirs. We obsess over ideological “purity” and may stop at nothing to cleanse our cohorts of dissent. “I believe” becomes the password for admission into the fold. Proofs and professions of faith may be required to assure our continued inclusion there.

This vision of the human condition—extreme as it seems in places—will not sound exaggerated to anyone who has moved between open, pluralistic societies and closed ones. It describes all of us, but particularly those who subscribe to dogmatic political or theological schemes that offer “salvation” of whatever sort we require—eternity in paradise or a lasting monument to our significance, a statue in the public square. Never mind that the penalty for apostasy may range from social opprobrium to eternal damnation. The rewards are worth the risks, and all that is required is submission.

I am of course expressing my bias, but I’ll go ahead and own it. Accepting one’s own mortality brings a certain measure of relief from the pressures of immortality projects—all of which entail some level of cognitive dissonance and alienation from reality… because, after all, we will all die and eventually be forgotten. This alienation may be extreme in the case of religious beliefs about resurrections and eternal life, slight where we attempt to cheat death through fame or public service, and slighter still where our only project is to pass on our genes. None of this is necessarily problematic, and much of it contributes to human flourishing. But problems arise when death denial requires elaborate delusional schemes that actually harm our chances for survival. I can think of no clearer example than our current ecological crisis, which continues to be upstaged by religious end-times scenarios that are without any basis in reality. Scientists are warning of civilizational collapse by the end of this century if we do not reverse global warming trends immediately. To look at this event is to look at our own deaths, and so we do not look. Instead, we switch to the Bible Channel for something a little more upbeat—a childish apocalyptic scenario in which we are eternally rewarded and our enemies are eternally damned. And meanwhile, global temperatures continue to rise, the seas become more acidic, and the world’s glaciers recede, creating the conditions for unprecedented water crises in many regions of the world.

One of the reasons I am drawn to the secularist/materialist worldview—besides the fact that it seems rooted in reality—is that it removes eternal life from the equation. Secular humanists do not go chasing after immortality in the literal sense, and if we happen to have understood the nature of secular immortality projects, we may “lighten up” on those as well. All this amounts to what some have called “practice in dying” (not quite like practicing so that we can get to Carnegie Hall…). While such realism offers less “comfort” than religious worldviews, it also removes a very large impediment to seeing the world as it is. Our survival beyond the present century will depend on clear vision above everything else.

“But is it necessary to be so aggressive?” is a question often put to secularists. I can propose two answers. First, characterizing another individual’s behaviors as “aggressive” sometimes reflects a cognitive bias of the type, “I’m thrifty, he’s a tightwad” (where the behaviors are identical). Is the behavior really aggressive, or is it only assertive and self-affirming? In some communities, lesbians who walk down the street holding hands are accused of being “in-your-face” though they are doing nothing that straight couples do not also do. And second, aggressive responses are sometimes appropriate. Some worldviews contribute to human flourishing, while others do not. Some heroic scripts have proven their value and deserve to be propagated, while others are toxic remnants of ancient tribal societies or medieval feudal ones and have no place in a modern pluralistic and democratic society. When Pat Robertson declares that the Haitians are themselves responsible for a powerful hurricane that has devastated their country, he is drawing scripts from ancient tribal beliefs about a vengeful god. These scripts and his decision to use them deserve our strongest censure. When Iranian clerics sentence an adulterous woman to hanging, every civilized person should protest. 

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” said Voltaire.

If you believe selective pruning is possible, then perhaps there’s no need to hack down the whole tree. But many skeptics wonder what would remain of Catholicism or of Islam if all their absurdities and their failed and dangerous practices were eliminated. What would a Catholic any longer “be” without saints, popes, miracles, guilt, homophobia, and bans on contraception? Would he or she look like a Congregationalist or a Unitarian? And would we even recognize Islam if all its odious tribal, patriarchal, and misogynistic elements were removed?


Okay, remain a Catholic, but please support deep reform of church doctrine pertaining to papal authority, clerical secrecy and celibacy, contraception, homosexuality, sex education, and the ordination of women. Your silence and your financial support of the Church are interpreted as assent or indifference.


Okay, be a Muslim, but please speak out against female genital mutilation, forced marriages, stonings, persecutions of homosexuals, fatwas against writers and artists, and promises of virgins in paradise to young men who martyr themselves. Your silence about these horrors is interpreted as assent.


And if either of you claims you can’t do any of these things because God, Allah, tradition, or the Bible forbids, then I have a few remarks about the authority you’re citing.


You see, one begins pruning and soon one is poised to cut down the tree at its base. “One cannot be just a little bit heretical,” says Christopher Hitchens.


Upping the ante to a challenge about bedrock faith is sometimes unavoidable in conversations where someone’s positions about real-world matters are uniquely faith-based, or where personal faith is the fall-back position, the argument of last resort. Dismissing or critiquing another person’s most closely-held personal beliefs has long been considered taboo. However, the strong emotions and sensitivities associated with these beliefs do not constitute an argument; the victims of religious beliefs also have their feelings. “God is not an object of inquiry,” one blogger recently cautioned me, as if to say, “Back off. You’re approaching the Sacred” (which, like the Pope, does not grant interviews). But the stakes are too high to back away. There are too many casualties. The fortress may need to be stormed—discursively, of course, provided the conversants are willing to remain in the conversation.


We have good reason to hope that the secular open society can continue to manage all these tensions as it has done in the past. If civil discourse sometimes seems stretched to its breaking-point in its secular frame, we must at least recognize that it will not flourish for long in any other one.


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