New Statesman

Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Does anyone remember the days, a decade or two ago, when the official boogeyman of religious conservatism was a cultural tsunami called "secular humanism"?

I sure do. That nasty label was being pinned on people all over the place.

The only problem was, when I went out to do my religion-beat reporting work, I never seemed to run into many people whose personal beliefs actually fit under the dictionary definition of "secular," which looks something like this:

secular (adjective)
1. of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred ): secular music.

I hardly ever met culture warriors who didn't have religious beliefs of some kind. Oh, there were some atheists and agnostics in these dramas. But what what I kept running into were packs of evolving, progressive, liberal religious believers who rejected the beliefs of traditional religious believers, almost always on issues linked to sexuality and salvation.

Yes, there were also some "spiritual but not religious" folks, but when you talked to them you discovered that they would be perfectly happy in a Unitarian folding chair or an Episcopal pew -- if they wanted to get out of bed on Sunday mornings. And if you probe those Pew Research Center "Nones" numbers, you'll discover that most religiously unaffiliated people are rather spiritual, on their own "Sheilaism" terms. You can toss the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism trend in there, too.

Variations on all of these themes popped up this week when Todd Wilken and recorded the new "Crossroads"podcast (click here to tune that in). We discussed my new "On Religion" column about the recent U.S. Senate hearing showdown between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, the White House nominee to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

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Journalism, facts and the fires of hell (revisited)

Without a theory the facts are silent, the economist F. A. Hayek has written. That may be true of the cold facts of economics, but the facts of war are not cold. They burn with the heat of the fires of hell. The late Sir John Keegan, the renowned military historian known for The Face of Battle and many other superb studies of combat in the Western world, opposed philosophical abstraction. Theories of history that sought to explain the causes of conflict by reference to materialist, idealist, gender, (what have you) theory failed to appreciate the role human agency and culture — tradition, religion, tribal identity — played in explaining human action, Keegan believed.

In his particular field of study, military history, Keegan believed the theories of Carl von Clausewitz that war is about politics, was a wholly inadequate explanation. (War is simply [an expression] of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. Clausewitz, On War, p.605) The adoption of theoretical constructs to explain war, Keegan argued, lay upon totalizing or universalist assumptions that failed to see farther than their cultural presuppositions.

Journalism suffers from these problems. What I see as the displacement of the classical Anglo-American school of journalism by European-style advocacy journalism mirrors the failings Keegan identified in the historical profession. Reporters who come to a story through advocacy journalism have a preconceived notions about the nature of truth into which they seek to place the available facts. If the facts are inconvenient or do not fit the theories, they can be left out of the story.

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