It’s fair to ask why anyone should attempt to cultivate or strengthen a global communal identity, rather than simply focus on our own daily lives in our various separate groups. Isn’t that how it always has been, and always should be? After all, isn’t truth relative? We all have our own subjective biases, so shouldn’t we stop pretending to have a claim on absolute truth and just decide for ourselves what is true, right, and relevant?
The answer to all of the above questions is No.
…but some qualification is necessary. A future post will focus on the subject of absolute truth. Here, I would like to discuss the historical context for such a global consciousness. The short explanation is that, despite the common tendency for human groups to compete with one another for power and numbers, it has long been discovered that cooperation and compromise across groups is far more productive than endless competition.
In many ways, the establishment of human-general knowledge and laws are old news. This has largely been thanks to the rise of Rationalism, Empiricism, and Secularism in Europe and the United States, movements that had their roots in the Renaissance and reached their peaks in the 1960s. It is not always stated explicitly, but a core assumption of the scientific method is that any human being, given the opportunity to learn about experimental design and procedure, has the ability to understand and appreciate any given set of empirical data, or any overarching theory. Similarly, the fundamental assumption of Secularism was that common truths and values could be reached among citizens of different, even opposing belief systems.
Unfortunately though, from the late ‘60’s onward, the lofty ambitions of Rationalism and Secularism were challenged and deflated. Though we all continue to reap the benefits of their existence even now, the impact of postmodernism and fundamentalism on human civic engagement has been devastating to these efforts toward human-generalism.
This is not to imply that the movements did not have their limitations. Indeed, it was the postmodernist philosophers who successfully highlighted the limitations and biases of Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism. The ethnocentrism of the Enlightenment thinkers was rightly criticized, as was the male chauvinism and general aristocratic elitism. Perhaps most importantly, the smug, misguided optimism that scientists, rationalists, and secular humanists often showed toward religion—namely, that it was only a matter of time until all religious thinking and superstition was wiped away from civilized society–made them an easy target of ridicule by philosophers, and of demonization by religious reactionaries.
Many Americans today think the term “secular” is synonymous with “anti-religious,” which is a distortion of the original meaning. This perception exists because of a widespread campaign by evangelical Christian figures starting in the 1970’s to depict American political struggles as a battle for the mind. Writers like Francis Schaeffer and Tim LaHaye painted secularists and postmodernists as trying to covertly remove Jesus from the minds and lives of American citizens. According to fundamentalist consensus even now, secularists are the enemy of anyone devoted to a religious community (see Fox News’ coverage on the secular War on Christmas).
In truth, secularism proposes a separation of church and state as a means of protecting the interests of both institutions. Since religion is regarded as the realm of the Sacred, the power and money involved in government politics can be seen as a potential pollutant of that sanctity. And since state laws affect all of its citizens, across different religious communities, the formation of laws based on explicitly religious grounds will inevitably be seen as unfair and unjust to some of those communities. The roots of secularism are actually religious in nature, springing from the conflicts of competing Protestant communities. Although they were all nominally of the same faith, the differences between the groups were taken very seriously, and they each competed for political influence. So, the goal to find generally accepted truths and values with which to construct state laws originally stemmed from the necessity to overcome differences among religious citizens.
Still, secularists of recent decades have been overwhelmingly non-religious, and their devotion to the separation of church and state can often come across as overzealous, even dogmatic, to their traditionally religious opponents. Non-believers have become more and more open in their non-belief, and have increasingly voiced their frustration and anger toward injustices against their minority group. Religious fundamentalist leaders, however, have used this animus to their own advantage, stoking outrage among their followers against the brazenly arrogant atheists and humanists, thereby fanning the flames of an endless culture war against “Godless” secularism.
Despite the limitations of the rationalist, empiricist, and secularist movements, it’s important to acknowledge the incredible positive impact they have had upon our society. And we can take the best of their ambitions—mainly the goal of establishing truths, values, and laws that can be shared by people of all nations, and all religions—and can work to let them flourish. Postmodernism rightly humbled Enlightenment philosophy for its privileged sense of progress and benevolence, yet it was the postmodern philosophers who also, ironically, provided religious dogmatists with their greatest rhetorical weapon: relativism. Since dogmatic group leaders never wish to reconcile or compromise with their opponents, our society’s descent into fractured relativism from the 70’s onward has been a giant boon to the fundamentalist cause. Much to the detriment of our country’s education, political engagement, and general civic discourse.
Now is the time to wake up from this slumber of apathy and inconsistency, and try once again to establish a broad sense of unity and moral coherence among all human populations. One that’s more pragmatic than grandiose, of course, but let’s not be afraid to aim high!