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Postmodernism & Secular Fundamentalism

An Evans-Manning Award to reader REB for this analysis of the Secular Fundamentalist thread:

I have read the comments in this thread and find it to be a fascinating study in postmodern thinking. Erin Manning has written what I take to be an exaggerated, but not entirely false, description of “Secular Fundamentalists” and their approach to religious people and practice. Of course, this is from her perspective which colors the way that she writes about secular fundamentalism. Her observations, though, are true enough when you understand that this is how traditionally religious people see the world (and I fall in that group), and how we feel cultural elites see religious people.

Let’s be honest: many people who are irreligious and would describe themselves as secular want nothing more than to see religious reasoning and values to have no impact on politics and policy. The hostility toward Christian practice, belief, and values is unsurprising because Christian beliefs and values have been an integral ingredient in making the world and culture we know in the USA and Europe. To change the world and to reorient our values in the West means chipping away at Christian practice and belief.

Where things get interesting is when you read through all the responses to this post. What seems to be happening is that people break down into three camps: people who generally agree with Manning, people who think she’s totally wrong (and write a point-by-point refutation), and people who essentially agree but are happy about the shift and think she and other traditionally religious people should shut up because they’ve had their moment in history and it’s over.

The fascinating thing to me is the power of perspective. There are a number of posters who have said, “I have no problem with religious traditionalists thinking what they think, but when they try to tell anyone else about it it amounts to pushing values on other people. What we really need is a value-free approach to life and social issues – like SSM, religion, etc.” The irony in this perspective is that those who advocate for some perspective that doesn’t impart “values” is incredibly naive. One of the key claims of postmodernists (which I think is undeniable) is that every single human statement, interaction, and thought is value-laden. To say that the state should essentially ignore religion is de facto disapproval of religion, and that is what many people intend.

There is also the approach that basically says, “We won the cultural argument, so shut-up and get used to being in the minority. Your cultural moment has passed you by, and oh by the way you’re going to look like the Jim Crow supporters in 20 years!” This perspective seems to be colored by one’s experience of feeling like they have been in the cultural minority for a while and think that it’s time to push their own cultural perspective on people because they believe that it will make the world a better place. It is a perspective that seems to have a more competitive understanding of culture where there are winners and losers, and the losers need to suck it up and be quiet. Ironically they never thought that speaking up forcefully for their own perspective was a problem when they were the minority opinion, but now that others are in the minority they can be painted as bigots and ought not to speak.

It is also interesting to me that those who see the world as a marketplace for ideas and competing moral landscapes tend to be culturally on the outside looking in. If you have followed things like the SSM debates, the narrative of the pro-SSM side has subtly shifted from “this is something to consider because we believe it is better for human flourishing” to, “If you don’t believe that SSM is legitimate and good, then you’re a closed-minded bigot who shouldn’t have a public voice.” (Obviously this is exaggerated, but I would contend is fairly accurate).

People who have cultural power, no matter who they are, want to limit the categories into which people can be placed, and the categories tend to be inflexible. People who have less or declining cultural power seem to want to push the boundaries of these categories to maintain the political legitimacy of their positions.

Manning’s definition of secular fundamentalism is an attempt to stretch these boundaries. It is a reaction against a cultural move toward narrowing what is culturally acceptable for people to believe without being considered a complete outsider.

Personally, I am an almost-anabaptist. I think that Christians (I can’t really speak for others) have been foolish to think that Western Culture and governments will do us any favors. They will pursue their own interests, apart from what traditionally religious people think. Politicians and cultural leaders will use religious language and people as long as it is useful, then jettison it at the first opportunity so that they are not tied to anything that will hold them back from possessing more power and authority. If you want an historical example, look at how the left now writes about the civil rights movement: it is seen as a secular movement that had a few religious people tagging along for the ride, not a religious movement that had some secular like-minded folks working toward the same goals.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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