The Secular vs the Numinous

In an essay on the works of Rebecca West, Christopher Hitchens mentions:

the never-ending strife between the secular and the numinous, the faithful and the skeptical, the sacred and the profane.  (“Rebecca West: Things Worth Fighting For” by Christopher Hitchens)

In his many writings, Mr. Hitchens  made his views on the nature of this “conflict” and his opinions of both sides abundantly clear.  After his phrase got me to thinking about this “eternal conflict”, I thought I would offer an alternative perspective.

So to begin with, I have to take issue with the primary characterization of the interaction as a “conflict”.  Most of the secular are focused on living life and do not bother about morality or politics, theology or philosophy.  They are not in direct conflict with the numinous.  They are simply annoyed by them and avoid them whenever possible.  The interaction between these secular people and those who are on the side of the “numinous” would more accurately be characterized as the “antipathy between the carnal and the converted”.  The carnally focused segment of the secular is primarily interested in having a good time and their attitude toward the numinous is essentially, “leave me alone”.

Among the secular there is, however, a small fraction of what we might call the “conscientious secular”.  Like Hitchens himself, these people are no less focused on having a good time in the here and now, but in addition to attempting to “drink life to the lees” they have a social conscience which requires that they “do good”.  For this reason, they attempt to alleviate suffering and eradicate inequality through political activism.  We might characterize their motto as, “Live life to the full but leave the world a better place than when you found it.”

Why are the “conscientious secular” and religious believers (the followers of the numinous) in “eternal conflict”?  As one might expect, the fundamental disagreement is a philosophical one.  The conscientious secular believe that political activism is the best way to address the problems of humanity while religious believers are more likely to be reactionary and resist all political change.  This is because the leadership of the church is often tightly integrated with the leaders of existing social institutions from whom they derive a great deal of their financing and influence.  Because the leadership of the church is beholden to those with an interest in maintaining the status quo, the church is often a conservative force.  An example of this unholy alliance is the Republican party in the United States which unites the interests of religious social conservatives with corporate interests and those of the wealthy.

As a person who thinks that the interests of the “numinous” cannot be advanced by political activism, (“not by might, not by power but by my Spirit says the Lord” Zechariah 4:6) I tend to find the political aspects of the conflict to be rather boring.  As I have contemplated Mr. Hitchen’s position on these matters, what interested me was the “heads I win, tails you lose” argument that might result if you extrapolated from some of the statements he made on his book tour:

I don’t believe in God, but I am a tireless crusader for equality and justice and I express my disbelief in God in all honesty as a matter of principle.  Given that these things are true, if your God is truly good he should allow me into heaven anyway.

I wanted to take a moment and explain the errors inherent in this position.

The Problem of Socialist Zealotry

The first problem with this hypothetical position is that I don’t believe that “tireless political activism on behalf of equality and justice” really does that much good.  Though I am not politically active, I have conservative tendencies in that I believe that most of what Mr. Hitchens would acknowledge as “progress” in human society has actually been the nearly inevitable byproduct of human technical advancement.  Because the advances made by scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are only possible in a stable society that respects the rule of law and property rights, I believe that conservatives who argue for social stability and the rule of law have a greater claim to be “progressives” than those who tiresomely argue for revolutionary socialist political programs.  This idea probably requires some explanation.

As human prosperity increases, human liberality and concern for environmental and workplace conditions will naturally increase with it.  After all, it is somewhat difficult to be concerned about other people if you are starving, freezing, malnourished or unemployed.  On the other hand, once you have the basic amenities certain other concerns will naturally come to the fore.  Through the advancement of technology, modern industrial society has given the average westerner access to health care, food and entertainment that the greatest king in antiquity could not have dreamed of and this has naturally made us more concerned about equality and environmental issues.  Without this technical progress, socialist elites would be arguing about the “rights of man” over the carcass of a buffalo recently killed by a flint knife and not over a beer in a modern and well-furnished drinking establishment.

Now some might argue that political stability, the rule of law and respect for property rights are not essential for technical advancement, but I think they would have a hard time finding an unstable society that was not governed by laws and had no respect for basic property rights in which significant and sustained technological improvements have occurred.  Third world banana republics are not known as centers of technological innovation for fundamental economic and sociological reasons and not just by mere chance.  Political activists may get some small amount of credit for focusing and directing the concerns allowed by the affluence of a stable and technically advanced society, but the lion’s share of the credit for any progress that human beings have experienced must go to the scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and factory workers who made these dreams a reality through hard work and sacrifice.  Human progress is the product of a stable and hard-working society and not of an individual no matter how eloquent and politically active.

Earning a Place in Heaven

Though my conservative political reservations about this kind of argument are interesting, the major problem that I have with the attitude that God should let a nonbeliever into heaven because they worked tirelessly for justice and equality is more fundamental.  If religious believers are correct and the numinous exists, then God is seeking to transform human nature and eliminate the problems of injustice and inequality at the source.  We won’t need tireless activists for the cause of justice and equality in heaven because there will not be any injustice in heaven.  As I will argue in future essays, heaven is only possible for human beings who recognize their need for divine guidance and assistance in living their lives.  Those who live their lives as they please and seek to mollify their conscience with political activism are rejecting God’s program to change human nature and the paradise that it makes possible.

** Note **

I posted another essay which outlined additional difficulties with the “Good works can earn entrance into heaven without faith.” arguments that have been advanced by various unbelievers.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Politics & Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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