Secularism’s Secret Gag Order

by Benjamin Wiker

Imagine that Persons A through Z are asked to play a big game in a large field. The only rule of the big game is that there are no rules. Anyone can play whatever little game he or she likes. The only restriction—and hence the only rule in the larger rule-less game—is that in playing your own particular game according to your own rules, you must not do anything to disturb anyone else’s game. In this scenario, then, the entire job of the referees, in calling fair or foul, is to deal with conflicts that arise when one person’s game intrudes on another’s.

Persons A and B decide to play tennis, Persons C through L opt for soccer, M skips rope, N and O go for horseshoes, and so on. As far as each freely decides to play, the referees can say nothing about what goes on in any particular game—that is left to those playing it. The referees can only step in and cry “foul” when, say, the soccer ball is kicked into a tennis player, or M starts skipping rope in the horseshoe pit.

Note several things about this scenario. Since the only rule is that there ultimately are no rules, the referees’ moral language focuses on the right of individuals to play any game by any rules, the freedom to do so, and the ultimate equality of all games and rules. The only rule that cannot be questioned, is the rule that there are ultimately no rules. Insofar as referees can speak in evaluative or “judicial” language at all, they can only say that being a good player or a just player means allowing others to play by their rules so that you can play by yours, and that, therefore, a good player tolerates all other games as long as they don’t interfere with his own.

Now imagine that the striped shirts and black pants of the referees are traded for the black robes of judges. According to Steven Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, that is more or less the situation in our culture today. Our judges are the ones given the task of sorting out the continual conflicts when individuals (each playing by his or her own rules) collide, and the collisions are becoming more and more frequent.

The origin of this difficulty, argues Smith, lies in the cultural dominance of secularism, in particular, the secular assumption that there is no intrinsic goal to human life, no telos defined by God, no end written into the cosmos and human nature itself. Rather, in a purely secular cosmos devoid of a deity and any definite purpose for human beings—a cosmos that has been “disenchanted”—life is a game without any ultimate rules. Consequently, individuals are free to choose, and believe they have the right to choose, any goal they fancy…

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