We often hear that some new scientific discovery has confirmed ancient religious teaching. It now appears that this hearkening back has gone full circle, and modern religion is coming around to ancient secular wisdom.
At the recent “Seeds of Compassion” event in Seattle, the Dalai Lama spoke of three paths to compassion and moral development in children: the theistic path of the Abrahamic faiths, the non-theistic religious path of Buddhism, and the “secular, scientific” approach. Surrounded by brain researchers and empirical psychologists, he recommended this secular way as the most promising. For some time he has held that if any tenet of Buddhism contradicts contemporary science, science must trump.
Meanwhile, during his first papal visit to the United States, Benedict XVI stressed the coequal roles of reason and faith in the religious life, and urged Catholics to translate their contributions to public life into a “public theology” accessible to all. At the United Nations, he enjoined religious leaders to “propose a vision of faith not in terms of intolerance, discrimination and conflict, but in terms of complete respect for truth, coexistence, rights, and reconciliation.” In his first encyclical, Benedict wrote, “A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church,” where politics is “the sphere of the autonomous use of reason.” He may not like the sound of this, but that sounds like secularism to me.
In 1864, Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” took aim at modernity and reason itself. Today, the pontiff is taking a page from them. Forget the rhetorical revolt against the “dictatorship of relativism” (the ministry of forcing you to do what you felt like doing anyway?). Increasingly, orthodoxy is accommodating itself to modernity, rather than demanding accommodation.
You may or may not have heard that the Church recently released an upgrade to the Seven Deadly Sins. Appropriate to an age of globalization and biotechnology, the new list includes such supposed social vices as contributing to extreme poverty, accumulating obscene wealth, despoiling the environment, trafficking in or consuming hard drugs, and engaging in “morally debatable experiments” or “genetic manipulation” that violates the dignity of human nature.
The upgrade is welcome insofar as it marks a shift in moral preoccupation past concupiscence. What’s more, we all have been angry, proud, envious, greedy, lustful, gluttonous and slothful at least once in the last month, but next to none of us have dealt narcotics or modified a genome. So by doubling the number of sins, the Church may have inadvertently made most of us roughly 50 percent less sinful overnight.
The original Deadlies had a Dante to depict their consequences in lurid detail, inscribing them in the consciousness of every medieval European Christian from peasant to king. This time around, Rome had to put out a press release and hope that Reuters picked it up. USA Today ran the new list along with polling data on Americans’ own picks for sinful behaviors (not returning the excess change mistakenly handed out by a cashier turns out to be graver than gay sex). Then, sin had a poet; now, it needs a publicist.
Religious belief has become optional. No longer is it the inevitable, default state. This is the major theme of “A Secular Age,” the latest work by Charles Taylor, a renowned philosopher and believing Christian.
Its publication coincided with Taylor’s receipt of the 2007 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities (worth about 1.5 million in material realities). Modern civilization has reached a point where “many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent.”
The realities of free societies in a globalized world make any given creed but one among many in a marketplace of belief. Unable to compel adherence to the One True Way, the many ways are compelled to compete for adherents. As the sociologist of religion Alan Wolfe observed recently, such encounters with modernity can have a profoundly moderating effect: “As religious leaders recognize that they are more likely to swell their ranks through persuasion than through coercion, they find themselves accepting such secular ideas as free will and individual autonomy.”
What believers are rediscovering is the central moral priority of individuals’ own uncoerced choices about what we have most reason to think and do. The future of religion, then, will depend on the oldest of secular traditions: the freedom of conscience.
Austin Dacey is a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry and the author of “The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.”