Monday, November 17, 2014

Invictus: The Virtues of Secularism

One of the great privileges of the psychological perspective is being able to ponder people’s motivations. There exists in all of us a wild confluence of conscious and subconscious motivations, of thoughts and feelings, of belief and habit. We get to ask of a depressed man, “What positive thing does his depression say about him?” and see how the mood is a profound statement of the persons deepest values and aspirations. Perhaps he values excellence, and his unemployment proves to himself that he has failed to live up to his personal value: his resultant depressed mood is the consequence of his values and his circumstances. One of the ideas of therapy is to bring to conscious awareness this subconscious consequence, so the man can decide: Do I want to change what I value?

Subconscious valuations are, if you believe Freud (or reflect on your own live), are ubiquitous. While pathological states are explored by psychologists, the subconscious is right below the surface of the mundane as well as the profound. Contemporary psychologists have gone a long way to showing how irrational we are: cognitive heuristics, or how flashes of emotion will pull us one way or another. I’ve been interested in exploring these complex sets of motivation in non-pathological states. What does a person get out of being a Republican or a Democrat? What about being Vegetarian or Anti-Vegetarian? Driving a Prius[1]?

The psychology of belief is intriguing, but for various reasons, seems to have been applied only to one side of the divide of religion. Freud famously psychologized Theism by describing the heavenly father figure of God filling in the psychological void. This is simplified, satirized and then popularized by Atheists who mock at a sky-father, or more insultingly, at a sky-daddy. But beneath superficial immaturity, there is a very real truth: that Christianity satisfies a psychological need for emotional security in the person of the Father. 

The trouble comes when the argument is made (or more often, only implied) that a perspective is false because it provides some psychological benefit. It is the case that Andrew Carnegie’s belief in the reality of the Bessemer process made him a fortune in steel. But the fact that he benefited from a belief has nothing to do with the probability of its truth. But with Christianity, it's often assumed that if a belief doesn’t lead to suffering, it must be false. They committing the fallacy of argumentum ad suckum. The kernel of truth in these perspectives is that it may be the case that, while not logically impossible, it is personally possible that we believe something not because of reason but because of some other psychological reason. While not a logical necessity, perhaps a particular person believes in God because she lacked a loving father. It is useful for us as individuals to reflect on why we believe what we believe, and to the extent possible, know the truth about ourselves.

But what about secularism? What profound thing does it say about the values and motivations of a person who chooses to embrace or continue in secularism? I’ve had this conversation with many secular friends and have begun to get a gestalt of the psychological benefits of atheism, agnosticism and secularism [2]. There seem to me to be three major benefits that secularism provides: 1) Intellectual Maturity 2) Defiant Courage 3) Freedom.

Intellectual Maturity

The most conscious of these three is intellectual integrity. A payout of secularism, particularly when contrasted to far-too-common unthinking Christianity, is that the unbeliever gets to feel that he is really looking the truth in the face. Many secular people view themselves as those who are given a choice between happiness and lies vs sadness and truth, and they are those who chose the latter pair. Often, they will even express envy to those who live in more optimistic universes, wistfully wishing that they could give up the truth. Of course, there are other flavors of this sentiment that are more arrogant, but I’ve found these to be rare in real life (though, like most things, present on the internet in the simultaneous tragic and hilarious caricature of the now-infamous neckbeard atheists). The secular protagonist of Orange is the New Black captures the emotion well:

I think it's just bullshit, and on some level, I think we all know that, I mean, don't you?...[blank stares from her religious audience]…I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all of the random shitty things that happen to us. And I wish I could get on that ride, I'm sure I would be happier. But I can't . Feeling aren't enough. I need it to be real

While few are as arrogant as reddit-dwelling neck-beard atheists, there often remains a faint air of superiority. But it is usually the respectful, almost deferential, superiority of adults on Christmas morning: they are more mature, but in no way wanting to ruin the children’s fun about Santa Claus. The cost of Santa Claus' death comes with the psychological benefit of being grown up and seeing the beautiful truth: that there is a homely beauty in parents buying gifts for children.

This intellectual maturity results in a pursuit of truth in the natural world. From the populist I F**king Love Science to the huge over-representation of secular people among science faculties, the wonder and curiosity of the natural world is strong among secular folk. They are living out Aristotle's first lines in Metaphysics where he describes human nature and immediately connects it to the foundation of all science, empirical observation: "All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves..."

Secularism values intellectual maturity, the growing out of pleasant but fictional ideas into serious, adult thought and exploration of all that can be known.

Defiant Courage

Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. He could only do that because he lived in a Christian context. For the Norsemen, religion was definitely not an opiate; it was an amphetamine. The story arc for Norse religion was depressing. Manly, but depressing. After they died, heroic men would be taken by the Valkyries to Valhalla where they could do all the things they loved on earth: drink and feast and fight and kill. But anyone who died would wake up: no harm, no foul. Great! Right? While the content is a little strange, it’s the same sort of things-will-work-out-in-the-end comfort. But then you take into account the Frost Giants. Valhalla is more a rally point than a final destination. In the end, the gods (Thor et. al.) and heroes in Valhalla will fight the Frost Giants. But here’s the problem. They lose. It ends in chaos and death. That’s what every human soul has to look forward to. So then what’s the point? To fight anyways. The great virtue of the Norsemen was courage in the face of certain doom. They can look grim reality in the eye and not blink. It is a laudable virtue, and the one that made the Vikings the most significant military force in Europe for centuries after the fall of Rome.

Something like mindset this is alive in secular people. There is nobility in the silhouette of a man looking boldly into the Void. There is courage in the man who can look forward to his own personal demise without blinking. The sweetness of pie-in-the-sky will not satisfy someone who has grown accustomed to the black bitter beer of annihilation.

One of my favorite sculptures is of Jean de Aire by Rodin. It depicts a man who was one of the chief men of a French city that surrendered to an English king in the Hundred Years’ War. To appease his besieger and save the citizens of his town, he and his fellow town leaders had to walk out to the king with nooses tied around their necks, carrying the keys to the city, to be disposed of as the king would. In this incredible set of sculptures, Rodin depicts a variety of emotions in response to certain doom. Jean de Aire captures defiance. His jaw is tight, his mouth down-turned, and most clearly of all, his eyes set forward. Though elderly, he remains muscular, and every muscle is tense against the fate before him. The secular person is able to capture this emotion, and live it out.

But I think the ideal specimen with this motivation is rather rare. Nietzsche realized the implications of atheism more fully than most:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him…What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?

A huge void remains in the human soul from the death of God; it’s no trivial matter. It’s not a trivial matter of believing in just one less god. It’s being adrift in a sea of objective purposelessness and hopelessness. The killing God and creating a void to be filled by the Overman are the ultimate uber-extreme masculine world of Nietzsche. In the fatherland of Germany, where Thor once travelled, and Nietzsche says the Overman soon will, this mindset is exemplified. But while few can follow Nietzsche completely to his utopia, he well describes this pole. It may be as stark and inhospitable as the North Pole, but certainly something to orient by.

The virtue that guided the Norsemen and that was captured by Nietzsche: the defiance of the inevitable chaos that creates a space for at least temporary and local meaning and purpose, this is a second great achievement of secularism.


The last of the psychological motivations for secularism is freedom. This is perhaps the most powerful reason for secularism. After a long conversation with a stranger about the rationality of Christianity, he conceded that Christianity was, in fact, more rational. But he didn’t want to be a Christian because, “I don’t want to give up the illusion that I’m in control of my life.”

Theism (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam) demands obedience. Human will is subject to divine will. And this is in fundamental conflict with the spirit of our age, calling for ever greater liberty. Christianity in particular is seen as being terribly restrictive of humanity. There are Feminist critiques, that see it as an engine in the oppression of women. Marx saw it as an engine for the oppression of the proletariat. The New Atheists see religions in general as dangerous controllers of human behavior.

Religion is seen as something artificial, something restrictive that prevents the full expression and authentic development of a person. A secular perspective is felt to be liberation. One can command one’s own destiny for good or ill. One can grow into whatever kind of person one wants to be.

Sartre represents the pole of the freedom in secularism. As Nietzsche was to the tragic hero, Sartre is to the freedom and self-determination present in secularism: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” He also has that rebellious streak in him, “Better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees.” But, IMHO, I think the Christian Milton says it better by the mouth of his anti-hero, Satan:

                                …Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven

Freedom, the ability to make one’s own way, to sail one’s own ship, the throwing off of shackles and the desire to see others so liberated: : this is the final secular treasure.


I started this article by saying that there were three psychological motivations for secularism. But as I wrote this, I realized too that these are not simply motivations, they are core set of virtues. Perhaps that is at the bottom of most of our subconscious motivations: we think we’re fundamentally doing good, following some virtue or other. As one develops in one’s secularism, particularly as one grows in intellectual integrity, courage, and freedom, alternatives become less convincing, particularly when they’re weak in these areas.

The Christianity today appears to lack these virtues. Whatever the reality, Christians are seen as intellectually compromised, cowardly when facing the inevitability of death, and restricted in their lives by burdensome and arbitrary rules. The secular person who has grown to love these virtues when asked by a Christian to consider conversion, is being asked to weigh comfort and ease against hard-won virtue. Pascal’s Wager seems to be the reasoning of a coward, not at all like a bold, Norse defiance of Frost Giants. But not everybody can be so strong. There is a compassionate and genuinely pluralistic side of the secular mind that permits and even shows grace to such weakness.

I’ve spent a great deal of time with all variety of secular folks, and have truly come to admire these virtues. I spend enough time on this blog talking about how wrong atheism is, but think I haven’t spent enough time acknowledging the good that it has produced. I think it’s unfortunate that Christianity has become so weak that strong-minded people often don’t find a home there. It was not always this way, and I maintain that Christianity, despite appearances, is actually a boon to a person who values these things. Perhaps I’ll write about that at another time.

I will end with a poem that captures the spirit of defiant freedom, that secular ideal, better than any I know:

by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

[1] I drive a Prius. And like Prius drivers of a decade ago, I need to announce to the world that “I DRIVE A HYBRID CAR [AND YOU DON’T. NEENER, NEENER, NEENER].” Except that doesn’t work anymore unless you drive a fully electric car.

[2] For the purposes of this article, I’m going to lump them together and call it “secular” to contrast it with “religious” or “theistic”; I think they hang together psychologically, despite having important rational and philosophical differences. I will implicitly be contrasting this to a Christian worldview as the backdrop that they are a reaction to. I’d be very interested to read an article like this one written from a Chinese or Indian perspective. 


  1. I appreciate the candor evident in this piece.

  2. Good article, I agree with most of your thoughts.

    One value I could add that is important to me is "universalism." Secularism, particularly in the domain of government, has a very important goal of embracing a wide range of diverse yet humane views. The typical Christian doctrine of eternal punishment for certain out-groups can't help but interfere with this virtue.

    Finally, I would add 'free time'... I grew up secular and can safely say I have saved thousands of hours *not* worrying about arcane theological issues :)

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