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The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now

Misunderstanding what it means to be secular.

The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now
Edited by George Levine
Princeton University Press, 272pp, £24.95

Societies become truly secular not when they dispense with religion but when they are no longer greatly agitated by it. It is when religious faith ceases to be a vital part of the public sphere, not just when church attendance drops or Roman Catholics mysteriously become childless, that secularisation proper sets in. Like art and sexuality, religion is taken out of public ownership and gradually privatised. It dwindles to a kind of personal pastime, like breeding gerbils or collecting porcelain. As the cynic remarked, it is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up. In this respect, it has a curious affinity with alcohol: it, too, can drive you mad.

Most recent defences of secularism, not least those produced by "Ditchkins" (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), have been irate, polemical affairs, powered by a crude species of off-the-peg, reach-me-down Enlightenment. It is scarcely a caricature of Dawkins's work to suggest we are all getting nicer and nicer and that if it wasn't for religious illusion, we would collectively outdo Kenneth Clark in sheer civility. (I refer to the deceased patrician art critic, not the living, beer-bellied politician.) One might call it the view from north Oxford.

This present collection of essays, by contrast, is a much less fiercely contentious affair. Here, there is no callow and triumphalist rationalism, which in any case is simply the flip side of evangelical fervour. Indeed, the blandness of some of the book's contributions could benefit from a judicious dose of Hitchens-like was­pishness. In customary American style, the editor, George Levine, couches his acknowledgements in a language soggy with superlatives and sentimental clichés. One can already hear the sound of the Hitch sharpening his darkly satirical daggers.

Not many of the contributors seem aware of the copious body of literature about secularisation, which ponders, among other things, the question of whether it actually happened.

After all, eroding the distinction between sacred and secular can be traced back to the Christian gospel. Salvation is a matter of feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, not in the first place a question of cult and ritual. There will be no temple in the New Jerusalem, we are told, as all that religious paraphernalia is finally washed up and superannuated.

Adam Phillips, a superb writer whose outlook on the world is that of Islington Man, quotes Paul Éluard's remark that "there is another world, but it is in this one". He fails to note that this could easily be a translation of the biblical claim that "the kingdom of God is among you". The new world must indeed be inherent in the old if it is to transfigure it, which is how Marx conceived of the relations between socialism and capitalism. Christianity is certainly other-worldly, and so is any reasonably sensitive soul who has been reading the newspapers. The Christian gospel looks to a future transformation of the appalling mess we see around us into a community of justice and friendship, a change so deep-seated and indescribable as to make Lenin look like a Lib Dem.

“This [world] is our home," Levine comments. If he really feels at home in this crucifying set-up, one might humbly suggest that he shouldn't. Christians and political radicals certainly don't. By "world", of course, Levine means the material world around us, whereas when St John's Gospel uses the word it sometimes means the oppressive power structure under which we live. John is being political, Levine is not.

Like some other contributors to the book, he suspects that Christian faith is other-worldly in the sense of despising material things. Material reality, in his view, is what art celebrates but religion does not. This is to forget that Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit. It is also to misunderstand the doctrine of Creation, which, whatever Richard Dawkins may suppose, has nothing to do with how the world got off the ground. It relates, among other things, to its unique preciousness.

The 13th-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that material things were good in themselves. It is good that there are cobras and garbage cans around the place. This, to be sure, is a hard doctrine to swallow when you come to the existence of Donald Rumsfeld. In fact, one of the most persuasive of all cases against religion is that if God does exist, he must be madly in love with Rumsfeld. Who needs to appeal to Darwin, or to the problem of evil, for a more knock-down refutation of the idea?

There are some predictable misunderstandings in these essays. No theologian worth his or her salt would see God as an "entity" as Philip Kitcher does. Several contributors confuse the terms "transcendent" and "transcendental". Adam Phillips writes suggestively of human helplessness as opposed to the sense of protectedness that religious faith supposedly brings us, without noticing that the signifier of God for the New Testament is the tortured and executed corpse of a suspected political criminal. Those who fail to realise that this is where the claims of love and justice are likely to get you are known, among other things, as liberal secularists. The finest piece in the book, Bruce Robbins's sensitive literary-critical reading of Max Weber on the so-called disenchantment of the modern world, is by a radical secularist, not a liberal one.

None of these writers points out that if Christianity is true, then it is all up with us. We would then have to face the deeply disagreeable truth that the only authentic life is one that springs from a self-dispossession so extreme that it is probably beyond our power. Instead, the volume chatters away about spirits and Darwinian earthworms, animal empathy and the sources of morality.

Kitcher asks himself why people should need to be united by a belief in some "transcendental entity" (his use of both terms is inaccurate) rather than by their mutual sympathies. "What exactly," he enquires, "does the invocation of some supernatural being add?" A Christian might reply that it adds the obligations to give up everything one has, including one's life, if necessary, for the sake of others. And this, to say the least, is highly inconvenient. Anyone, even a mildly intelligent badger, can entertain "mutual sympathies". The Christian paradigm of love, by contrast, is the love of strangers and enemies, not of those we find agreeable. Civilised notions such as mutual sympathy, more's the pity, won't deliver us the world we need.

Secularisation is a lot harder than people tend to imagine. The history of modernity is, among other things, the history of substitutes for God. Art, culture, nation, Geist, humanity, society: all these, along with a clutch of other hopeful aspirants, have been tried from time to time. The most successful candidate currently on offer is sport, which, short of providing funeral rites for its spectators, fulfils almost every religious function in the book.

If Friedrich Nietzsche was the first sincere atheist, it is because he saw that the Almighty is exceedingly good at disguising Himself as something else, and that much so-called secularisation is accordingly bogus. Secular thinking, too, had to be demythified. "God had in fact gone into hiding," Robbins observes, "and now had to be smoked out of various secular terms, from morals and nature and history to man and even grammar." Even Nietzsche's will to power has a suspiciously metaphysical ring to it.

Postmodernism is perhaps best seen as Nietzsche shorn of the metaphysical baggage. Whereas modernism is still haunted by a God-shaped absence, postmodern culture is too young to remember a time when men and women were anguished by the fading spectres of truth, reality, nature, value, meaning, foundations and the like. For postmodern theory, there never was any truth or meaning in the first place, and so mourning its disappearance would be like lamenting that a rabbit can't recite Paradise Lost.

Postmodernism is properly secular, but it pays an immense price for this coming of age - if coming of age it is. It means shelving all the other big questions, too, as hopelessly passé. It also involves the grave error of imagining that all faith or passionate conviction is inci­piently dogmatic. It is not only religious belief to which postmodernism is allergic, but belief as such. Advanced capitalism sees no need for the stuff. It is both politically divisive and commercially unnecessary.

And then arose the greatest irony of all. No sooner had the postmodernists and end-of-history merchants concluded that faith was as antiquated as the typewriter than it broke out in blind fury where it had been least expected - in the wrathful, humiliated world of radical Islam. The globe was now divided down the middle between those who believed too much and those who believed too little, as dark-skinned fundamentalists confronted lightly tanned CEOs. And if that were not irony enough, the fact is that these two camps are not simply antagonists. They are also sides of the same coin.

Terry Eagleton's most recent book is “Why Marx Was Right" (Yale University Press, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.