Friday, February 27, 2004

Saturday, February 21, 2004
Does Secularism Threaten America?
By Michael Marriott


Well here we go again. Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly continues his attacks on “secularism” as a mortal threat to American values. The good news is he has finally come nearer a definition of the term so that it is possible to debate him on logical grounds. His February 20, 2004 Talking Points segment is enlightening:

Why traditionalists are losing the culture war, that is the subject of this evening's "Talking Points" memo. The answer's simple. Americans who believe traditional values are important have no leadership. Secularists who believe society has to change to include income redistribution, drug legalization, gay marriage, social promotion in public schools, no display of Christmas symbols or overtly religious images and on and on, those people have aggressive leadership (italics added).

The mayor of San Francisco is a great example. This Gavin Newsom guy, like him or not, is pretty gutsy. He's simply doing what he wants, violating state law, violating the will of the people. But Newsom has made a calculation that few will stand up to him. And he's absolutely right. At this point, it's me against him...

Here's a prediction. If President Bush and other traditionalist politicians don't start to confront the forces of secularism in this country, we'll be completely different five years from now. Hillary Clinton might well be president, our courts will be populated with very liberal judges, and the USA you used to know will be a memory. And that's the memo.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines secularism as “The doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state.” As shown above, O’Reilly concurs, in a roundabout way, with this definition. On one side we have the “traditionalists”, or those who believe in basic Christian values, versus everyone else, i.e, the secularists. The latter group includes skeptics, pot smokers, gays, collectivists, socialists, atheists, libertarians, and every other possible category. O’Reilly’s cultural dividing line stands marked by the Bible.

Now, when O’Reilly speaks of “traditional values” he is focusing on ethics. Ayn Rand defines ethics as, “a code of values to guide man’s choice and actions– the choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of life.” O’Reilly unequivocally casts his lot with the mystics in regard to ethics. Mystics determine right and wrong by supernatural means. God’s commandments, as transmitted by a work created by human beings, the Bible, are the gold standard of behavior. Thus mystics refuse to think for themselves, instead relying on external sources to guide their actions. (Mysteriously O’Reilly never considers that mystics are not all Christians; Muhammadans, for instance, act according to the dictates of the Koran, which means that flying airplanes into buildings is acceptable if they believe God commands it.)

There is nothing wrong with creating categories to denote people of a similar mind set. However, such categories must mirror reality. The neat O’Reilly division between believers and non-believers does not meet this concern. A better conceptual construct, one that is consistent with reality, is provided by the great Objectivist philosopher, Dr. Leonard Peikoff. He has demonstrated that all philosophical issues boil down to three categories, or as he terms it, trichotomies. Trichotomies in essence exhaust all possibilities related to the issue under examination and are mutually exclusive. Only one of the three categories within a trichotomy is correct.

Two basic trichotomies exist conceptually. One relates to metaphysics, the other to epistemology. In metaphysics, or the study of reality, the three categories within the trichotomy are: those who believe in a dual universe (Platonists/mystics); those who believe there is one universe (Aristoteleans/objectivists); and those who say no reality exists (skeptics/subjectivists). In epistemology, or the study of knowledge acquisition, the categories are: those who believe knowledge is innate or transmitted through supernatural means (mystics/religion); those who believe that knowledge is the result of interpreting objective reality (Aristoteleans/objectivists); and those who believe that knowledge is gained simply through subjective preferences (skeptics/subjectivists).

Ethics is formed by a combination of one’s metaphysical/epistemological tenets. Thus O’Reilly is correct when he describes the mystic position, i.e., a dual universe leads to God’s commandments which means one must act according to the Bible. Where he errors entirely is in his characterization of the non-mystics or secularists. As the trichotomies above reveal, the secular world is divided between skeptics and objectivists. O'Reilly absolutely makes no such distinction. This flaw seriously undermines his argument that secularists as a group threaten American values.


Consider the major differences in ethics between skeptics and objectivists. Following their metaphysical/epistemological tenets, skeptics believe that man’s consciousness determines reality. If one feels something to be true, then by definition the something is true. San Francisco Mayor Newsom is a skeptic. If gays wish to marry then an objective code of law contradicting that act is irrelevant. Each individual determines right and wrong and each choice, even if diametrically in opposition, is equally valid to a skeptic. Man’s subjective feelings are the standard of morality.

Objectivists, by combination of their metaphysics and epistemology, reject both subjectivism and mysticism, believing instead that reality rather than man’s personal feelings or a supernatural deity set the standards by which we live. The axiom that “existence exists” is the starting point of their philosophy. Life itself is the standard of morality. Insofar as a choice furthers life it is deemed good morally. Rational self-interest, rather than feelings, is the means of determining which choice to make when man is faced with alternatives. Reason and logic, in accordance with a real universe, lead to only one correct choice regardless what a man or combination of men may “feel” is right. To Objectivists, both the skeptics and mystics are absolutely wrong when it comes to a philosophically integrated, rationally anchored ethics.

Thus one may congratulate O’Reilly when he rightly opposes the skeptics. But if he opposes the Objectivists then he is treading on dangerous, and ultimately irrational, ground. It is quite possible to have a consistent and complete code of ethics having never read the Bible. For instance, an Objectivist can oppose the concept of murder using rational self interest as the foundation of his argument . He hardly requires a commandment from God to know that killing humans is inconsistent with the furtherance of life on earth, even if the murder does not involve him directly.

What becomes clear is that O’Reilly and other mystics distrust the human mind. When he groups all secularists together without distinction he not only engages in sloppy thinking, he implicitly condemns man as a helpless creature that cannot think for himself. Both O’Reilly mysticism and secular scepticism result in monstrous ethics. If O’Reilly truly cares about the “folks”, he must recognize his error and promote human reason as the only method of thinking and acting correctly. Far from posing a threat, the Objectivist point of view is the only one that explicitly promotes, protects and intellectually nurtures American values as individual freedom, limited government and capitalism.

No comments: