How does a Conservative differ from a Secularist? – Part 1 (Defining Secularism)
Updated: Apr 13
Thus far in the How does a Conservative differ series I’ve compared conservatism to libertarianism, authoritarianism, populism, centrism, and—most recently—nationalism. Now I’d like to turn our focus to secularism.
And by secularism I’m not referring to the principle of separating institutions of government from institutions of religion—though that idea is present. Rather, I mean an indifference, rejection, or exclusion of religious considerations or appeals to supernatural explanations. I am including here both a person who rejects all supernatural explanations as well as a person who—though they may consider themselves to be religious personally—for all practical purposes behave as if all that exists is the material world.
Secularism can mean the belief that governments should remain neutral on the matter of religion and should not enforce nor prohibit the free exercise of religion, leaving religious choice to the liberty of the people. However, I believe this describes a viewpoint held by many religious and nonreligious people and is not wed exclusively to a materialistic worldview. Secularism, for our purposes here, has less to do with whether a person has fine feelings about government neutrality on religious matters and everything to do with whether or not they believe religious matters comport to reality or hold any weight beyond mere private superstitions.
Comparing Apples to Oranges
I suppose this might strike some as an unusual comparison project in that it makes sense to differentiate what conservatives believe with, say, what libertarians believe; but why would someone’s conservative convictions hinge on their religious piety or lack thereof? Isn’t that like comparing apples to oranges? Isn’t that like asking whether or not conservatism is compatible with being left-handed?
To the extent that both conservatism and secularism are worldviews—that is, a particular philosophy on the reality of life, the supernatural, and our relationship with the supernatural—then it’s entirely fair game to compare and contrast. Barry Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative that the first obligation of a political thinker is to “understand the nature of man. The Conservative does not claim special powers of perception on this point, but he does claim a familiarity with the accumulated wisdom and experience of history, and he is not too proud to learn from the great minds of the past.”
I believe we should take great comfort in Goldwater’s notion of leaning heavily on ancestral wisdom. The ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything was a task too cumbersome for even the supercomputer Deep Thought to answer. In our highly individualized age where our culture has internalized such blarney as speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have, the magnitude of answering such a question all by one’s self can be crushing. Thankfully, the conservative knows a search for answers is a group project.
The Good in Secularism
I am not trying to argue that those who don’t hold religious convictions or believe in the supernatural are incapable of embracing a conservative worldview; although, as it will become evident in future posts, doing so may prove quite challenging. However, since I will be taking a critical view of secularism in the posts that follow, I would like to begin by pointing out the good—and there is much good—in secularism. Namely, a certain quantum of secularism in our world is enormously helpful in reaching political consensus without force and violence. “Secular law adapts, religious law endures,” wrote British philosophy Roger Scruton.
As we explored in the series on nationalism, a nation built on the identity of shared national feelings, traditions, history, and experiences in addition to shared religious beliefs allows for the emergence of laws of consent. “A community is governed by man-made laws and human decisions, without reference to divine commands,” Scruton continues, “Religion is a static condition; politics a dynamic process. While religions demand unquestioning submission, the political process offers participation, discussion, and law-making founded in consent.”
The problem with secularism arises when it begins to encroach on religious territory. Irving Kristol observed a shift in American politics in the twentieth-century that he described as a movement from secular to secularist: “A secular political party, in the traditional sense, has been neutral as between religions—at least insofar as they represent different versions of traditional morality. A secularist political party is neutral as between religion and irreligion: It believes that moral issues ‘have no place in politics,’ and replaces such issues with the idea of ‘fair and equal’ treatment of all ‘lifestyles,’ all beliefs about what is permissible and what is not.”
This shift in thinking can be difficult to label: Secularism, naturalism, materialism, agnosticism may all be used to describe this phenomenon, though they might also be said to preserve certain conservative impulses that a purely anti-religious “secularism” would not preserve. I myself prefer the term scientism to distinguish between secularism as a process of enacting laws through consent and the secularism that rejects religious validity in the public square.
What then is scientism? In his book Scientism and Secularism, philosopher and theologian J. P. Moreland defines scientism as “the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality.” Moreland stresses that, far from being pro-science, scientism is ultimately at enmity with science—a topic we’ll delve into in Part 2.
What’s important for today’s purpose is to notice that since scientism claims the only genuine knowledge of reality can be gained through the hard sciences, the implication is that any truth claims reached by some means other than science are to be rejected out of hand. “According to scientism, the claim that ethical and religious conclusions can be just as factual as science, and therefore ought to be affirmed like scientific truths, may be a sign of bigotry and intolerance,” Moreland explains.
None of this is trivial semantics. Where we land on these matters provides the very foundation upon which the remaining political elements of any practical worldview may be built. “Ideas matter,” Moreland insists, borrowing a familiar cliché. “Indeed, we are largely at the mercy of our ideas. As the ideas that constitute scientism have become more pervasive in our culture, the Western world has turned increasingly secular and the power centers of culture (the universities; the media and entertainment industry; the Supreme Court) have come increasingly to regard religion as a private superstition.”
What—if anything—do we stand to lose if we lose our religious heritage as a culture or as an individual? Is there any evidence that reality can be found outside of the hard sciences, or were myths of old simply useful for their time but far too antiquated and oldfangled to be of any use today? Of what harm is there in constructing a purely materialistic political worldview? And where does the conservative come down on all of this? Those are the topics we’ll attempt to tackle in this series in the weeks ahead.