Wednesday, June 27, 2012

They exist!

Today Secular Pro-Life is highlighting a recent Gallup poll showing that 1 out of every 5 non-religious persons (i.e. atheists, agnostics, or "no religion") self-identifies as "pro-life." The standard interpretation of this statistic is that the vast majority of secularists are pro-choice, hence the pro-life position is one primarily driven by religion. But SPL rightly points out that around 15% of American adults, around 34 million, self-identify as non-religious. One out of five means at least six million people, a substantial minority, even if you wouldn't necessarily meet one every day.

SPL's blog regularly receives comments from people trying to "uncover" their secret religious affiliation. Their presence at the Reason Rally was not exactly well-received by all. Why is this?

Part of it, I suspect, is that the secular movement, like any other movement, has to try to foster some degree of solidarity among its supporters; otherwise it may simply die out. Call it the Darwinian theory of social movements. As long as the secular movement remains relatively small in America--15% is still a pretty small minority--they will tend to make less of an impact if they cannot agree on a political agenda. After all, the secular religious agenda is almost exclusively negative. Without a positive political agenda, there is simply no point for the movement to exist.

Another part of it, which is perhaps related to the first part, is what I call the "secularism as religion" phenomenon. Many secularists abandon religion for what I perceive to be basically a good reason: they find that religious people defend their assertions on the basis of religious traditions rather than open themselves up to correction by reason. This is because the faithful often follow the line of reasoning which goes, "I want to believe whatever is true, and my religion is true, therefore I believe whatever I have learned from my religion." A common objection to this line of reasoning is that the second premise cannot be justified other than by a painfully circular argument: my religion is true because it says it is true. All secularists wish to avoid such nonsense, and so they abandon religion in favor of reason.

The problem is, secularists are not immune to making their own movement into a "religion" in the sense I have just stated above. They begin to reason the same way as the religious faithful: "I want my beliefs to be based on reason, secularism is based on reason, therefore I will believe whatever is consistent with the secular movement." When it comes to controversial issues like abortion, just fill in the blanks: pro-choice is secular belief, pro-life is a religious belief, hence if I want to be reasonable I must be pro-choice. This is nonsense, but you will find that solidarity breeds much nonsense.

I am certainly not suggesting there are no intelligent arguments for the pro-choice side of the abortion debate. I just think that the visceral hatred of SPL and its mission stems from irrational impulses. Accusing SPL of being "secretly religious" is the most ironic of accusations, since it seeks to discredit someone's view solely on the grounds that it breaks with secular orthodoxy. The irony would be amusing if not for the high stakes in this debate.

Perhaps part of the claim that SPL is "secretly religious" stems from SPL's own need for solidarity, which happens to come largely from religious organizations. It is true that they link to blogs like Jill Stanek's, whose views are hard-line conservative and religious, and that they work with sites like, which has a specifically religious and conservative affiliation. But keep in mind that SPL maintains a pro-contraception stance and remains willing to openly debate the rape exception, two positions which are out of sync with standard pro-life religious orthodoxy. Many of their members also openly support gay marriage, although the purpose of their organization is not to address such issues.

The point of SPL, as I see it, is not to advance secularism, but rather to advance the pro-life movement from a secular perspective. As they do so, it's natural for them to make friends among religious pro-lifers. In my opinion, the religious pro-lifers stand to gain quite a bit more from SPL than the other way around in terms of intellectual credibility; in terms of resources, however, quite the opposite is true. I don't think anyone needs to apologize for this.

(As an illustration of one of my points above, I've been impressed with SPL's ability to clearly and openly discuss the issue of bodily integrity with regards to the abortion debate, something which many religious conservatives seem unable to do. It is SPL's willingness to delve seriously into all the philosophical dimensions of the abortion debate that makes me believe they will grow to have a huge influence on the pro-life movement.)

I consider myself a religious man, but I very much believe in a secular society, by which I mean a society based on a few basic principles on which most great religious and intellectual traditions can agree, principles encapsulated in such great words as our own Declaration of Independence: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." My own reason for believing in a secular society is religious: I believe "Blessed are the peacemakers" is a rule which we ought to follow in both our personal and political lives, and I would rather that important questions remain unresolved among us than that we fight each other over the answers. A society which uses violence to settle questions of doctrine is a society that believes in no higher authority than itself--not even reason.

Abortion is violence against human beings. If one accepts this proposition, then one must accept that even in a secular society, abortion cannot be tolerated.

It is the mission of the pro-life movement to offer convincing proofs of the two propositions just stated. Thus, contrary to popular belief, there is nothing in the world more natural than for pro-life arguments to be secular.  Whether or not Christianity or some other religion is true is extremely important to all of us as human beings, but it is irrelevant to the abortion debate. For that reason, I applaud the efforts of SPL, and I hope that more and more secularists will be swayed by our arguments.

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