A secular aesthetics is fast replacing religion as the go-to spiritual forum of the 21st century. Humanity’s post Enlightenment journey, first through modern rationalism, then through scientific empiricism and more recently, anarchic relativism has left us turning wearily to an aesthetics that offers, not just to lighten the unbearable ennui of this material existence, but to do so along with fellow sojourners unburdened by the weight of tradition. Aesthetics offers today’s secular citizenry a chance to bond with each other in a communal identity that, unlike the religious, is both reassuringly realistic, and socially inclusive. Aesthetic spirituality differs from religious spirituality in two significant ways: it emphasizes beauty rather than truth, and more importantly, replaces traditional forms of devotion with a philosophy that plays out in the public forum not as worship, but as art.
In terms of our history, this move towards a deontologized spirituality is almost as old as the Union itself, going back to those first non-conformists driven out by James I of England. And ironically, it was their very attempt to transform America, then truly the Land of the Free into a Christian “City upon a Hill” that prompted a slow, yet irreversible move away from a spirituality that was theocentric towards one that is increasingly homocentric. Secularism’s assault on transcendence began rather innocuously with a critique of religion’s role in government. Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists with emphasis on government not making laws that establish religion or hinder the free practice thereof was certainly not meant to factor God out of the religious equation. What early Christians understood from the Establishment clause was no more than the protection of minorities from religious bigotry and the church from state interference. Jefferson’s real intent however, was ultimately enacted in EVERSON V. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1947) when the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the separation of church and state. Ever since Justice Black ruled that Jefferson’s wall “be kept high and impregnable” church-state decisions have worked to keep religion out of the public square. Now, it seems that assault has come full circle with a focus that extends beyond concerns of tolerance among religions to one that questions the special privileges accorded religion within civil society.
In Why Tolerate Religion, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago asks why, in a nation that is sworn to promote the common good religious identity should enjoy preferential treatment in our courts and in the public square. Despite our constitutional wall of separation, the symbols of religious identity enjoy court protection, and as a result, are not obliged to comply with laws that govern civil society. Because of their religious affiliations faith based groups, for example, are exempt from certain zoning ordinances and tax payments. But if it is the law that governs us, and not tradition, Leiter says, then it makes no sense, moral or otherwise, for our government to extend “special protections that encourage individuals to structure their lives around categorical demands that are insulated from the standards of evidence and reasoning we everywhere else expect to constitute constraints on judgment and action.” A secular civil society, in other words, should use rationality alone, even in matters pertaining to religious communities, to determine whether any action, religious or otherwise, is protected by the constitution.
Leiter’ attack on society’s tendency to indulge religion in ways that defy common sense is bound to further erode religion’s special position in civil society. Until quite recently religion routinely convinced even the most level headed among us to act beyond self-interest—or as critics would say, irrationally. Buddhists for instance, notwithstanding their healthy skepticism towards transcendence, nonetheless immolated themselves in protest against Chinese tyranny. Of late, Muslims seem to want to do the same to themselves—and sadly, to others as well—by donning suicide vests at religious festivals or in packed restaurants. And then we have the self-flagellations of the early Stylites, as well as the latter day devotees of satya graha, who readily mortify themselves through long periods of self-deprivation. But while such irrationality is not unique to religions—the Kamikaze pilots, for instance, committed airborne hara-kiri for Japan—still, the ability to stir such irrational passions among devotees is more a characteristic of religion than it is of other social movements. It is modern man’s antipathy to this very irrationality that has forced him to seek out spirituality elsewhere.
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