Although religion is still a powerful force in our world secularism has never been stronger. In recent years we have even seen a tide of quite strident anti-religious secularism, not content merely to abandon faith but to blame it for all the wrongs of the world. This is surely too much. While some authoritarian religion can lead to great harm – as ISIS for example shows us – much religion sets out to do good and often achieves it in places where no one else is interested in going.
But in any case, secularism has yet to match religion in the crucial area of values. Values are the answer we give to the question of how we should live and direct our lives and actions. They matter because they give meaning and direction to our lives and societies. We seem to need such meaning and direction, perhaps because we are uniquely story-driven creatures – we need narratives, we like things to make sense. Cruder forms of religion may view values as divine laws, but convincing arguments against that view have been known since before Plato. Better religious narratives regard some transcendent goal or mission as being at the heart of who we are and how we should live. Secularism has been curiously unable to supply a rival heart.
In part this is because modern attacks on religion tend to be inspired by science, or more exactly by scientism, that fascination with science which assumes that since it is the best way we have of finding out about the world there can be no questions other than scientific ones. One way of looking at scientism is that it elevates the objective observer to such a point that subjective experience is ignored. But the subjective matters, it is where we live, how we experience our lives.
“How should I live my life?” is a reasonable question, which certainly can and should be informed by whatever facts are available, but is not itself a question of fact. It is the central question of values and moreover for each of us it is actually more important than any question of fact. Science, let alone scientism, cannot answer it.
So it is futile to try and base values somehow on neurology or evolutionary biology, for example. Yet if we are to live secular lives we need to think about how to discover or construct an answer to that question about how to live without falling back on faith. One type of answer is provided by secular political ideology. The last century was torn apart by such ideologies and today many countries including our own are in the grip of neoliberalism, the ideology of the markets as sovereign and money as merit. But beyond that, among the majority who don’t think about ideology consumerism has replaced values – how we live has become a matter of what we own and what we consume. This produces a restless, shifting, unsatisfiable form of life, because the essence of consumerism is that it must keep generating new wants to drive new consumption. Consumerism dangles the very next purchase as the key to contentment, but consumers who ever achieved contentment would bring the system to a shuddering halt.
So where else can secular society turn for values? Back to the beginning, to the question faith used to answer so well when we all believed. What do we put at the heart of our lives? It has to be something consistent with who and what we are, so immortality for example is not on the table! It has to be something which can stand alone, so wealth for example is not the answer, for only a fool would accept being rich and miserable. It should ideally be something constant, something which does not change throughout the course and the vicissitudes of life and it should ideally be something common to all. So the field narrows quickly to one answer – our most central aim is to live happily.
Although this is a very old answer, it has often been rubbished by moral philosophers (even as eminent as Kant) because happiness is so difficult an idea to pin down. What makes one person happy revolts another, it is rightly said. But this criticism repeats the mistake of scientism, confusing the objective with the subjective. If we regard living happily as a matter of the way in which we deal with both the problems and the pleasures of life, it becomes primarily a matter of how we approach and to an extent manage our own inner lives. This is no less than an active approach to subjectivity. That change in perspective brings happiness back into the frame as the obvious central objective of human lives freed from dependence on the supernatural.
There is much more to the argument, but happiness in this sense can provide the foundation of robust individual and political values which are human both in the sense that they do not rely on anything outside humanity and in the sense that they can be understood and adopted by any human being.