What the secular humanists are up to

What the secular humanists are up to

David Quinn

David Quinn has written another thought-provoking article which dissects the pretensions and double-standards of the present secular age and its cultural relativism which, among other things, claims that there are no moral absolutes - save its own, of course. Irish-born Mr Quinn is an active Catholic layman from Brisbane with a special interest in philosophy and apologetics.

The separation of facts from values has been central to modern thought since the Enlightenment. What is this fact-value separation, what are its implications, how does it actually work itself out in society? This brief article can but touch lightly on what is a vast and complex subject. But I believe this subject is of fundamental importance today when religious values have become marginalised in our secular world.

The fact-value distinction is roughly this: facts are the facts of the material, physical world. The material world is open to our senses. We can examine it, study it. Statements about the nature of the physical world can be verified (or falsified), using the scientific method. For example, if a person says, "water boils at 50 degrees celsius", a quick reference to the facts, and a simple application of the scientific method will falsify this. Facts are what we can have objective knowledge of. (Each time I use the word "knowledge", "knowing", etc., in this article I mean objective knowledge).

Values on the other hand, (by "values" I mean such concepts as beauty, good and evil, justice, love, etc), belong to the world of the immaterial, the metaphysical. This world is not open to the senses, it can be assessed only by reason. Pure reason is deficient and subjective. Science allows us a degree of objectivity. But science cannot enter the realm of the metaphysical in order to aid reason. Metaphysics is not open to scientific verification of falsification. Hence the numerous metaphysical systems and value systems which have paraded themselves before us over the centuries. Our assent to a given value system in the end comes down to a matter of faith, a personal and subjective choice.

This view of knowledge elevates science to a place of supremacy in the market-place of ideas. It, and only it, can now point our way to the 'truth'. Because science can concern itself only with the material, this has led to the now widespread belief that the material is all there is. This in turn leads to a harder version of the fact-value separation. The softer version admits the possibility that objective values exist. The harder version flatly denies they exist.

One of the problems with this is that it leads to unbelief. We cannot agree on a common value system, a common vision, apart from a lowest common denominator utilitarianism. A common vision built Western culture. Stripped of it, it is hard to see how our culture can sustain itself over the long-term. The cultural capital built up over long centuries of belief will run out sooner or later.

Throughout human history almost all cultures arose out of a common value system, a metaphysic. The modern, liberal, rational, scientific man has no place in his life for such 'illusions.' What then do we build our culture around in the future? Science? Hardly. Science is a reductionist philosophy. Cultures need a transcendent vision and science kills transcendence. The fact-value distinction dissolves culture.

Neutralising religion

The implications of the distinction run deeper than this. The relativism to which it leads is most often used as a means of neutralising religion. If religious truth claims are relative, then there can be no justification for imposing them on society at large. It is at least partly for this reason that liberalism has been so keen to align itself with relativism and the fact-value distinction. However, relativism is a 'two-edged sword'. He who lives by it, must die by it.

This is because relativism not only undermines religious-based value systems, it undermines all value systems. Relativism annihilates everything it touches, and it touches everything. The reason is to be found in the nature of atheism. There is a brute logic to atheism. Its attendant materialism does away with any source of values apart from the human mind. Cold, sterile matter cannot create values. If God exists, however, then values have an objective reality. They are grounded in His being. They exist apart from our minds. Thus, if we perceive an act to be immoral, and that act has violated God's will, then that act is intrinsically, immoral. Or if we perceive an object to be beautiful, and its beauty is a reflection of God's divinity, then it is intrinsically beautiful.

For the atheist, values do not exist in this sense. No act, no matter how heinous, is intrinsically immoral. As the atheist and philosopher A.J. Ayer would have it, "... if a moral code cannot be founded on authority, neither can it be founded on metaphysics or on science or on empirical matters of fact." (My emphasis). Ayer further argued that all ethical statements are emotive. That is, they are really only an expression of our feeling. Thus we must look upon even the Holocaust, and put our feelings of horror down to just that, feelings. It is for this sort of reason that Jean Paul Sartre called atheism a "cruel, long-term affair." It is why Allan Bloom in his book The Closing of the American Mind wrote, "everything connected with valuing must come from religion."

We find, however, that this logic is not applied consistently throughout society. It is not applied to the various secular value systems. Were it to be, socialists, feminists, greenies, liberals, etc, would have to admit that their own value systems are no more valid, (morally at least), than any religious value system. An admission is not forthcoming. (I believe this is mainly because few people follow the logic of relativism through to the bitter end). Such was vividly demonstrated at the time of the Salman Rushdie affair. This furore represented a clash between the cultures of Western liberalism, and Islamic fundamentalism over the issue of free speech.

Now a consistent relativist, believing all value systems to be equal would have to say that the West likes free speech, Iran does not, and leave it at that. But this is not what has happened. Liberal critics took for granted the absolute moral superiority of their position over Iran's. There wasn't a whiff of relativism in the highly-charged atmosphere. The fact is, when liberalism's core values are threatened, liberalism becomes as intolerant and intransigent as any variety of fundamentalism. (Fundamentalism is not a religious monopoly).

In practice, liberals are only tolerant of other values systems when those values systems stay out of the public square, and pay homage to the State religion of liberalism. (Liberal Christianity is suitably well-behaved in this respect). Such a position is totally incompatible with relativism. In truth, liberalism is a religion that dare not speak its name, for if it did, the game would be up. Its bluff would be called. As Richard John Neuhaus puts it in The Naked Public Square, "in the eyes of the State the dangerous child is not the child who points out the Emperor has no clothes but the child who sees that the Emperor's garments of moral authority have been stolen from the religion he sent into exile from the public square."

Of course, relativism, and the sacred Cultural Relativism fact-value separation itself are also based on a bluff. The bluff of the relativist is easy to call. The relativist says there are no absolutes. Yet in saying this, he turns his own relativism into an absolute, by making it independent of opinion, and true always and ever here. He thus refutes his own philosophy.

With the fact-value separation, we hoped to seal off the facts from the taint of metaphysics. Not so. When a person says we can only know about the facts, and that everything else is groundless speculation, he has made a prior assumption, (probably unbeknownst to himself), about what the human mind is capable of learning. He has assumed that the mind is capable of viewing the physical world objectively. This may seem to be the case. But is it really so? Perhaps such a belief is in fact a delusion, a by-product of evolution? The fact is we cannot 'know' that we can 'know' the 'facts'.

Act of faith

Prior to constructing any view of reality, we must first make an act of faith that the human mind is capable of having objective knowledge about anything. This is as true of scientific rationalism as it is of Voodoo. In religious belief systems such acts of faith are explicit. With scientific rationalism it is not usually explicit. It needs to be made explicit. In this way it can be shown that all world views require an act of faith, and that modern man has not escaped this requirement. (The act of faith need not be irrational). Nor has he escaped metaphysics, because theories of knowledge belong in the realm of metaphysics, and all world views require a theory of knowledge, i.e., an epistemology.

Because we must make an act of faith, how fitting it is that we should put our faith in a system which relativises all values systems, (except illogically its own), and threatens eventually to dissolve our culture, any culture, and all moral systems.

If we are to progress beyond modernity to the kind of post-modem world I briefly described in "Authority - Yes, Authoritarianism - No" (February 1992), as Christians we should bring these issues to the light of day and force people to confront them. The core values of liberalism - tolerance, pluralism, democracy, etc. - are worth preserving. They can only be preserved if liberalism is uncoupled from relativism, and these values are instead enshrined in a religious-based system. This will help return religion to centre-stage where it belongs, where it is in any case under its many secular guises. Perhaps then we can make some headway with this Decade of Evangelism.

Those interested in the points I have raised might pursue them further in the following books: Bryan Appleyard, Understanding the Present, (Picador), Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (Penguin), Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square, (W. B. Eerdmans), Geisler & Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy - A Christian Perspective, (Baker Book House).

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