The fundamental austerity of the secularist worldview

Warren Breckman in Lapham's Quarterly:

ScreenHunter_05 Feb. 28 11.57 One standard image of the nonbelieving secularist is of a hedonistic immoralist—as Fyodor Dostoevsky feared, if God is dead, everything is permitted. But to the contrary, it may be that secularism does not escape the dynamic that Freud believed is the motor of religion: the repression of instinct followed by a sublimation into other satisfactions—in other words, precisely the process that turns religion into an obsessional neurosis. Even among champions of the secular worldview, we sometimes find worries that secularism lacks magic and emotional depth, that it is a hyperrationalist creed that preserves the internal compulsions of religion without its animating beliefs or its consoling message of cosmic meaning and personal redemption. Frequently, the counsel of the secularist is to be brave, buck up, and face the world as a heroic pessimist. Defenders of religion are all too ready to claim that secularism offers at best a wizened form of experience and sensation. Such a view has us moderns living within a purely immanent world, blocked from any relation to a truly transcendent sphere. In such a world, the colors are a shade paler, the sounds a tone flatter than in a world touched by the divine. A host of religiously minded writers would warn that where our belief in the transcendent has vanished, we seek impoverished substitute sources of transport: in artistic experience, sport, love, or at the extreme, drugs. There will be many secularists, myself among them, who believe that the emotional and sensory scale is not so irretrievably tilted in favor of religious experience. And I would challenge secularists to reaffirm the depth and authenticity of their nonreligious experience. Nonetheless, it may be that the fundamental austerity of the secularist worldview helps account for religion’s obstinate refusal to go away.

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