Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Importance of Secularism In Defence of Freedom

Freedom to choose one's pattern of relationships, lifestyle and sexuality self-evidently requires freedom from the dictates of others with different views on such things. Since religion is historically a business of dictates (this is unanswerable), there is no freedom for many people without freedom from religion.

We may choose not to be free (to accept dictates) or we may find a religion whose dictates accord precisely with our own preferred patterns of relationship, lifestyle and sexuality (not an impossible aspiration) but if we choose to accept dictates that go against our very nature then we must choose not to be free freely and not impose our choice against freedom on others.

Or perhaps we can turn a religion into freedom by demanding that it no longer dictates anything - in which case it is no longer a religion of commands and orders but a community of spritualised individuals. No world religion has ever been this and only this and no other.

The Sacralisation of the Real

So much, so simple since religion is not the same as political order. Political order can be maintained without recourse to the supernatural. The decisions of secular order may be hard to stomach sometimes but they should not arise from an elaborate extension of the mental states of the few over the many, ones not based on the hard facts of the matter.

Political order is what it says on the tin - a matter of order even if the question is begged for whose benefit the order exists. If a political order adopts a religion for the sake of social order, as Constantine and innumerable other world leaders have done, then the question is part-answered - the order is not for the benefit of those whose freedom is to choose a particular private life.

Personal freedom, including the freedom to believe what one will, is thus ineluctably bound up with secularism. Faith-based communitarian interventions in the condition of the people must always be viewed with suspicion as failures in the ability of secular power to maintain good order and as potential oppressions against the person.

When the secular power can no longer cope with change or the hegemony of its ruling elites are threatened, religion can often present itself as a quick fix, turning the need for psychic order and discipline and the special interests supported by communitarian values into a social police force to be directed against the free person ... and so innumerable Dark Ages begin. We may be in such a time. 

Outside the power play, with religion as the tool of order, the sacralisation of reality is a wholly private matter for adults, those who can choose to associate with others of like mind but who cannot and should not coerce those who are discovering themselves for themselves or are vulnerable to coercion.

This prejudice towards freedom is not a prejudice for bad manners but manners are not to be imposed by the institutions of the community. Good manners are set by example. Texts cannot bind a person, only a person can bind a person to texts. To let a text bind you is like letting a person other than oneself bind you - a form of slavery. Unthinking belonging to texts is slavery.

On The Sanctity of the Vital

Where a religious sensibility has value is when it moves from text and command (as in Judaism, Biblical fundamentalism, Papal pronunciamento and Koranic determination) to one of principle that requires no supernatural or God-like element but perhaps, at most, only an added agnosticism about what we can call the natural.

Oddly, the bete noire of many resentful of religious claims, Catholicism, may have the most effective 'fundamental principle' in its notion of the sanctity, meaning the profound value, of all human life from conception to death. This value might be extended to animal, alien and AI but the core principle remains - the value of the vital expressed as the person.

Catholicism takes a wrong turning in embedding this value in a God and in an Afterlife  - and in the exegesis of cumulative texts - and in failing to discriminate adequately between the consequent relative value and potential of lives once the core value is accepted.

But the insight is definitely there - that personal existence and self-creation in the world overrides any social or economically determined value to others or the convenience or self-determined devaluation of oneself or others. We are sacred - not the planet, not the church, not the race - us as persons.

Difficult Issues

This means that euthanasia, eugenics, the death penalty and abortion are not either/or issues against the Church but are battlegrounds where social order and personal aspiration really do contend over ground contested with a Church which has something to say even if its rigid position does not say all that there is to be said.

The secular moral position must be that euthanasia, eugenics, the death penalty and abortion cannot be treated in themselves in an absolutist way (as the Church would) but that the implementation of such policies need to be considered with high seriousness in the context of the principle of the value of the vital. This high seriousness about life is what we must concede to the Vatican.

This applies to sexual choice, not in the sense that free adults should not be free to do what they will but insofar as sexuality is highly charged in its effects on persons. Value vitalism requires seriousness in considering the balance of interest between persons, steering between the Scylla of solipsism and the Charybdis of another's psychic vampirism.

In this sense, the free should only associate with the free or at least only with those who clearly crave freedom. Those who prefer 'slavery' should be permitted to submit - so long as a door can always be left open in case they change their mind. There must always be an unlocked door to the outside.

Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body

This sense of responsibility is profoundly different from that of, say, Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body because it is existential: it refuses to let an institutional arrangement or a command to dictate moral choice but, on the other hand, it recognises that sexual activity remains a moral choice of sorts.

Pope John Paul II asserted that extra-marital sexuality falsified the language of the human body and he spoke of total love. But this is a totalitarian love that idealises human sexuality beyond its ability to keep to the ideal. Ultimately, it is cruel and the novels of Western literature are often a testament to that cruelty. I recommend Anna Karenina as the standard answer to cruelty.

The Pope denied two general possibilities - that the approved institution of marriage might become the holding bay for controlling and cruel instincts that merely masquerade as love and that a person can give reverence and love to more than one embodied person or 'incarnate spirit' at the same time and even in the same place (the 'polyamorous option' so to speak)..

For a culture of faith, the lack of faith in the possibility of extended love is quite remarkable. As we have seen in the posting on PB Randolph, who tried to extend the language of sacred sex under Victorian conditions, his idealism of control and harmony, of sacrifice and totalitarian commitment, is well within the ideological framework of Pope John Paul II.

Religion as Sexual Regulation

Islam, of course, is different again because sexuality is essentially treated here as a problem of social order and of regulation. In this respect it is brutally honest about its purpose and perhaps that should be respected. The result is yet another Iron Age cultural model imposed on a very different world but at least Christian idealism is displaced here by a practical, almost cynical, commitment to the social.

In practice, this determination on communitarian social order (with property ultimately underpinning the model) can result in oppressions of sexual preference and freedom more awesome in their effects even than those proposed by the other religions of the book though the complexity of this 'order' is often underestimated.

All this is a matter of cumulative traditionalist interpretation by clerical legislators of laws as God's Will rather than the fruit of an idealism that is supposed to replace human nature entirely. We see something similar, despite the myths in the West, in mainstream Hinduism which is stunningly prudish by modern Western standards.

This difference is important - asserting sexual behaviour by traditionalist authoritarian command is unpleasant but perhaps less creepy ultimately than expecting sexual compliance through a totalitarian ideology. Tradition at least arises out of some sense of a past need for order in conditions of scarcity. Modern totalitarian sexual restrictions have no such excuse.

Spiritual Liberalisms

We can contrast totalitarian and traditional authoritarian models of sexual conduct with the permissive value-driven approach of the Unitarian Universalists which retains the ideology of sexual value but re-interprets it to permit same sex marriage, moderated abstinence programmes based on 'full information' and personal choice as to conduct and orientation.

The Buddhists, meanwhile, practice a sort of avoidance strategy where sexuality is quite simply diminished as 'carnal' and so as a distraction from the spirit. Buddhism is, as we have often pointed out, a religion of the death instinct, of negation, where even Catholicism appears ideologically progressive about life itself. Pope John Paul II himself castigated Buddhism for this quality.

But theory is different from practice and Buddhist avoidance strategy has the excellent effect of removing sexual regulation from religion entirely, returning it perforce to the struggle between individual choice and social norms.

The link between Buddhist ideology and sexual pleasure in the West and in Japan are thus convenient constructions out of this neglect but the Buddha himself advised his followers in strong terms to avoid unchastity 'as if it were a pit of burning cinders'. Enough said!

The Neo-Pagan Revolt

This leads us inevitably to the neo-pagan revolt against Judaeo-Christianity but, even here, things are not simple. Neo-paganism seems sex-positive and often is but it is also a mish-mash of reconstructed traditions and beliefs often with an underlying essentialism about male/female 'polarities' or about the 'mother'.

Someone like Starhawk can sound as po-faced about social norms as any rabbi or Catholic intellectual but the over-sacralisation of sexuality in general seems to be more a determination to compare and contrast with Christianity than an effort at existential liberation from spiritual ideology and social norms per se.

The best that can be said about neo-paganism is that it offers a set of safe havens for 'differently cultured' persons, giving a community and a spirituality that the other Great Religions have denied them.

The Great Rite itself is simply the transposition of the ideology of PB Randolph into a new cultural environment and is either performed figuratively (which hardly seems the point, almost seeming a little cowardly) or it reverts back into the private domain where it can become as much bedroom performance art as spiritual act.


Neo-paganism as a spiritual practice is liberatory for many but it cannot and should not be confused with the liberation of the person as person. Yet it is probably the most advanced way-station to trans-human liberation available within the ideology of spirituality, especially with its permissive 'an it harm none, do as thou wilt' (the Wiccan Rede).

But the essence of all these restrictive views on human conduct is that they should remain voluntarist and private. The successful attempt of the religious to impose its sexual values more widely on society at large often becomes an anxious obsession amongst its adherents. This must be resisted at every level, including attempts to control the means of education and information.

Nothing is more important for freedom of all types than that the political order should be and should remain secular!

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