Did the Twentieth Century mark the failure of Secular Governance?

By | September 10, 2010

My colleague, Pablo, started the exchange with some questions posed to another philosophical colleague, Spanos, who had made some earlier claims about the failure of secular politics.


You make an interesting claim: “The claim that naturalism offers better chances for political reconciliation has been falsified by twentieth century experience with naturalism.” Though I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘political reconciliation’ I’ll take it to mean naturalistic systems of thought have done no better in the political realm than non-naturalistic systems. I’m not sure, either, what naturalistic political systems you have in mind of the twentieth century, but I hope you don’t mean to include fascistic and Marxist systems.


Spanos replied:

I did have fascist and Marxist systems in mind. But it’s pretty hard to distinguish between naturalist and supernaturalistic systems of government. Ever since the late middle ages, the Church and the state have been vying to see who is in control. Generally, the state has won that battle. Should we say, then, that all secular systems of government are naturalist systems of government? If not, how would we distinguish naturalist systems of government from other secular systems? Is the United States a naturalist society with a naturalist system of government? Or is it supernaturalist with a supernaturalistic system of government? Or is it a secular, non-naturalistic system of government? Capitalism, certainly, is not a religious system of economic organization. Therefore it must be a secular system. But if it is secular, is it naturalistic? If not, why not?

I would say that Pol Pot and the killing fields of Cambodia illustrate a secular or naturalistic system of government in operation. The Dalai Lama and his response to Chinese oppression illustrate a religious system of government in operation. I do not accept the idea that the Taliban and al Qaeda are typical of Islamic political systems. These, along with Hamas and Hezbollah, are motivated not by religion, but by resentment. They use religion, but religion tries to discourage resentment, anger, hatred, violence, etc. Religion holds up compassion, love, and forgiveness as primary virtues. Religious institutions are the only institutions devoted to the spread of these virtues.

The issue we recently discussed concerning a sanction for moral behavior, and whether naturalism can provide an adequate sanction, probably underlies our different views on this issue of naturalistic vs supernaturalistic systems of government. I believe that morality, deprived of a supernatural base, erodes away. This belief is synergetic with my idea of how Marxism failed. The only goodness left in Russian society today is a remnant of its previous religious culture. It certainly doesn’t stem from Marxism.


I jumped into the discussion.
Moi: Earlier I had asked Spanos the same question that Pablo asked; namely: what do you mean by naturalism in political or governmental affairs? Now we have some idea as to what he had in mind. (Why couldn’t he use the more familiar term, “secular governance”?)

Of course, with careful “cherry picking” of history and political events, anyone can argue that government independent of religious authority will result in evil and disaster. Likewise, one can argue the same for theocracies or governments closely tied to religious authority. They too can be seen as eventually leading to evil and disaster. (I say to Spanos: two or more can play the same game and get very different results.)

However, I’m amused that someone characterizes “Pol Pot and the killing fields of Cambodia” as illustrative of secular or naturalistic government in action. And of course, the peaceful Dalai Lama illustrates how a religiously imbued authority can work so beautifully. Wow, I didn’t know that! Of course, these claims could just be a couple of HOWLERS that Spanos throws our way to get our reaction. Surely he cannot seriously propose that the actions of the murderous Pol Pot and his boys resulted from the application of science and reason to politics, which is what I understand by “naturalism” in politics. Or does he seriously propose this?

This all strikes me as so simplistic as to be risible. If your government is a religious system in action, it is good. If your government is secular, it is evil. (This probably is not what you’re saying, Spanos. But what you do argue suggests something like this.)

Marxism failed for a number of reasons, only a few of which might be correctly related to the attempt to oppress religious expression/spirituality in the Soviet Union. It oversimplifies history and politics terribly to suggest that religious expression in pre-Soviet Russia resulted in good for the people; and that any governmental action that did not promote such spiritual expression resulted in evil and suffering. It is far too easy — and distorts history —- to suggest that the failure of Marxism shows the triumph of religion. It is much like arguing that the industrial revolution, the rise of science and the enlightenment proved the failure of religious spirituality. “Yes,” I would say to anyone asserting this proposition contra religion. “It sounds good, but let us see the rest of the argument.” I say the same to anyone who tells me that the fall of Marxism somehow vindicates religion and religious authority.

Spano replied:

It seems that I need to clarify the claim that I made about naturalism and government. I did not claim that government independent of religious authority will result in disaster. Neither did I claim that governments tied to religious authority will not lead to disaster. Neither did I say that the failure of Marxism shows the triumph of religion. These misunderstandings distort my claim.

I said, “The claim that naturalism offers better chances for political reconciliation has been falsified by twentieth century experience with naturalism.”

In order to clarify this claim, let us first consider the idea that naturalism offers better chances for political reconciliation. This idea stems from the Enlightenment, the “Age of Reason.” It regards religious ideas as out of place in the constitutions of modern states. It holds that reason and science provide sufficient foundation for the
institutions of government. It has no esteem for tradition, especially insofar as traditions involve supernaturalistic assumptions. In its early phase, it believed that the Enlightenment marked a decisive turning point in the history of the human race. It believed that, on the new foundation of reason and science, barbarism was behind us and the human race would march triumphantly into a bright future. It expected political and social harmony such as had never been seen before.

Now let’s consider the impact of the twentieth century on this idea. The twentieth century showed that barbarism is not behind us after all. Barbarism reappeared in new and more devastating forms. The persistence of social injustice and the horrors of war on a world-wide scale plunged European intellectuals and artists into a blue funk called modernism. Modernism as embodied in literature and the visual arts was the collapse of Enlightenment naivete. Not only has the expected bright future not materialized, but the failures of reason and science as instruments for managing our relations with one another and our natural environment make our future look darker than ever.

I hope that this explanation helps you to a more accurate understanding of my claim.


Moi: Yes, we’re aware that the high optimism and expectations of a number of Enlightenment writers, philosophers, and scientists proved to be too high; and that much more needs to be done, besides merely removing supernaturalism and superstition from governance, before we can eradicate the barbarism and inhumanity that plague humanity. Admittedly the twentieth century showed that much, as likely will events in the twenty-first century.

Of course we cannot yet celebrate with August Comte’s belief that reason and science would spell the end of the barbarism and inhumanity associated with ignorance and superstition, nor can we celebrate the advent of a scientifically and rationally grounded humane society.

But nothing in all this shows that we would achieve a better society and better government by reverting to religious tradition and ecclesiastical authority in any form. None of this shows that we would be wise in any respect to jettison science, reason, logic and technology in an attempt to establish workable societies and humane value schemes. Finally, none of this shows what you seem to think it shows; namely, “the failure of science and reason as instruments for managing our relations with one another and with our natural environment.” You’re signaling the end of the game (the scientific, rational experiment) is far premature and you have misinterpreted past failures as due to the use of science and reason. Those failures are due to a variety of reasons, none of which can reasonably be portrayed as too much reliance on science and reason in managing human affairs. In fact, many of us would argue the contrary.

In short, you make two basic errors in your assessment. A misinterpretation of past events and a hasty rush to judgment contra science and reason. Mostly what you do is construct a ‘strawman’ version of the ideals of the Enlightenment, reason, and science and then proceed to knock down that strawman. But I suppose this an acceptable tactic, given your post-modernistic judgment that modernism has failed, a judgment which is as faulty as it is bizarre.

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