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Secular and Sacred

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This chapter is from the book

Chapter 3: Secular and Sacred

In the coming decade, we will witness a growing tension between the secular models of society, governance, business, and economics that have characterized Western modernity and the increasingly sacred worldviews of billions of people on every part of the planet. The secular lies at the heart of Western notions of civilization, with reason, science, and logic trumping religion and belief in the management of civic affairs and the public domain. Secular principles are so embedded in our laws and our institutions that, for the most part, we no longer notice them. Yet the power of the sacred as a mobilizing force is making itself felt with increasing strength. Fundamentalist movements (themselves a direct response to secularization) have emerged in every major religion and are gaining muscle on most continents—and by no means exclusively in the Islamic nations. Meanwhile, an almost opposite—and certainly gentler and more inclusive—"sacred" reaction against the strictly secular can be seen in the rise of spirituality, which also seems poised to play a role in defining our future values, customs, and behaviors.


God, protect me from your followers.

The Enlightenment laid the deep and strong foundation upon which modern Western civilization was built. Enlightenment principles and values, such as reason, tolerance, respect for science, and belief in the virtue of human nature—quite radical in their day—profoundly shaped the Constitution and the character of the United States (the first true democracy), and have continued to spread in influence and deepen in impact for more than two centuries. Sitting at the core of enlightenment values is secularism, derived from the Latin word saeculum, meaning "the present world." Secularism is generally understood as the explicit separation of the religious and church-based from the functioning of the state and the regulation of civic society.

By the mid-nineteenth century, this separation had spread across the Western world, while the role of established religion as an ordering principle for political, economic, and social life waned significantly. Developments—such as the rise of industrialization, migration to urban areas, remarkable economic growth, and the rise in the value of the material over the spiritual—all served to further undermine established religion after it had ceased to be influential in political life. George Holyoake, a friend of the British socialist industrial reformer Robert Owen, coined the term "secularism" in the mid-nineteenth century to refer to a set of beliefs rooted in daily experience and intended to improve the lot of workers in this life rather than reward them in the next. "Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable," he explained. Secularism, social reform, and materialism became entwined as complementary factors in adapting to and shaping the modern world.

The Secular Mindset

The secular mindset, while not essentially or necessarily anti-religious, is about more than restricting the influence of religion on civic governance. It is the outcome of a deeper philosophical shift in which reason supplanted belief as the central maker and organizer of meaning, and in which mankind was understood to have the power to shape and change the world to serve human needs and wants without reliance upon God. This shift enabled new modes of enlightened thought and reasoning that came to define secular modernity—they are now so embedded in Western worldviews that they have become invisible and unremarkable.

In particular, the rise of secularism was powerfully linked to a human-centric view of the world that placed the desires of people in a separate category from the needs of other species; the physical environment was but an endless catalogue of resources to be exploited and manipulated to serve human interests. This, in turn, was linked to a powerful belief in science and scientific methods as the means through which incontrovertible truths and single "right answers" about the natural world could be discovered that could then be used to further man’s dominion over nature. Above all, secularism fostered a potent and optimistic pragmatism that placed the highest value on knowledge, insights, and ideas that could address and solve the problems that mattered most to mankind.

Importance of Religion in My Life: An International Poll

Source: "Among Wealthy Nations...U.S. Stands Alone in Its Embrace of Religion," The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, December 19, 2002. Reprinted by permission of The Pew Global Attitudes Project.

The Secular Unleashed

The Enlightenment rationality underpinned the development of economics and Western theories of how business should work. Especially in the developed West, it became the guidebook for how to think and perceive the world, as well as how to value and measure success and progress. It also underpins many of our social theories and the ways in which civic society and political systems have been constructed.

The payoffs have been tremendous. Principles and ideals that people in the developed world tend to take for granted today (and sometimes assume to be timeless) owe their origins and their power to the relatively recent Enlightenment perspective. Democracy, freedom, individual liberty, and tolerance of differing belief systems are all offspring of secular modernity. The remarkable march of economic and material progress and growth of the last two centuries has been fueled in many ways by Enlightenment-inspired scientific and technological innovations. Evolving corporate, legal, regulatory, infrastructural, financial, and governance systems were all influenced enormously by the economic theories that flowed directly from the insights of Adam Smith and his contemporaries. The ongoing spread of wealth and opportunity across much of the world, increase in life expectancy, and growth in literacy rates are a testament to the power and effectiveness of the secular mindset.

Meanwhile, societies that have eschewed Enlightenment principles are generally less wealthy, less equitable, less democratic, and far less innovative. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s patent statistics exemplify this fact: "Between 1980 and 1999 the nine leading Arab economies registered 370 patents [in the U.S.] for new inventions," Friedman wrote in 2003. "Patents are a good measure of a society’s education quality, entrepreneurship, rule of law, and innovation. During that same 20-year period, South Korea registered 16,328 patents for inventions."

It is not surprising, then, that the secular perspective has taken such firm root. By the mid-twentieth century, the rise of modernity and a shift to the secular had become apparently inseparable. Anthropologist Anthony Wallace captured the prevailing wisdom well when he predicted in the 1960s that "the evolutionary future of religion is extinction." A clear self-reinforcing cycle had begun: as the authority of religion diminishes in social and political affairs, its attractiveness, endurance, and cultural reach falls into decline.

This cycle has been most visible in Europe. In his book God Is Dead: Secularization in the West, respected sociologist of religion Steve Bruce takes data from Britain as typical of the trends in the liberal, democratic, economically developed modern world. Whether it is involvement in religious organizations, church attendance, training for the priesthood, commitment to religious ideals, or just simple belief, Bruce concludes that religion has long been in steady decline. He describes modern secular Britain in unambiguous terms: "Christian ideas are not taught in schools, are not promoted by social elites, are not reinforced by rites of passage, and are not taken for granted in the mass media. Given those changes it would indeed be a miracle if Christian ideas were as popular as they were in the 1950s."

Moreover, the dominant powers of today’s world—nation-states, multinational corporations, and international organizations—are overwhelmingly secular. This has become the norm in modern global governance and commerce: we expect a separation of church and state, religious tolerance, an absence of religious persecution, and a breaking up of religion’s hegemonic or monopolistic power in society. In the West, we have come to expect secularization as a precondition of good governance, so much so that our state-based institutions have difficulty accommodating state-sponsored religion. For example, the European Union has hesitated to welcome Turkey as a member in large measure because of lingering suspicion that its secular constitution may not be truly genuine and that it will revert to operating like an Islamic state.

In the coming decade, secularism will be further reinforced by several factors. The first is the continuing spread of proven business-based practices and approaches across the world and across every sector of activity. The dominant Western model of business is resolutely secular: reason and rationality consistently trump intuition and instinct; data and evidence overwhelm belief and faith; the quantitative is more trusted than the qualitative. These values continue to spread across the world. Moreover, as the stability of fragile states becomes a matter of growing concern, we can expect global institutions, international lenders, and nongovernmental organizations to place more emphasis on encouraging and enabling "good" local governance arrangements around the world. The core principles of such arrangements will flow directly from the secular paradigm. Finally, the mounting issues of the modern world—large populations to be fed, important security concerns, climatic change, burgeoning energy needs—call for more and better rational, scientific solutions.

Today’s organizations and institutions came to life during a profoundly secular era and are predominantly ingrained with a secular outlook and values. Looking forward, our sensibilities regarding global politics, economic development, technology change, social and cultural matters, and environmental issues are equally imbued with a strongly secular perspective. However, the very success of secular modernity has generated its own profound challenges, and these will become more pressing in the coming decade.

Weaknesses of the Secular Model

The complexity, connectedness, and volatility of the world today require us to amplify our comfort with ambiguity, tolerance of difference, and openness to alternative interpretations. Yet our embedded forms of secular reasoning sometimes stand in the way of this. The secular worldview is built upon reason and "truth" discovered through scientific methods and debate. This rationalist model has little tolerance for ambiguity or doubt; indeed, it tends to be structured around a crisp "either/or" logic through which ambiguities can be conclusively resolved one way or another. This black and white perspective, which increasingly informs civic and political discourse around the world, often leads to polarization and false certainty built around ideological models that are too firmly held as fact rather than opinion. (The greatest such schism is now behind us: the twentieth-century clash between two competing forms of secular modernity, capitalism and communism, both of which were zealously promoted as the "only way" by their advocates.)

Moreover, science and reason are driven largely by evidence, quantification, and measurement, placing significant emphasis on numbers and giving the knowable supremacy over the unknowable. Yet, as Einstein observed: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." Today we tend toward an almost obsessive fascination with metrics—measurable indicators that can be tracked and used to judge success and failure, progress and decline. In business, the metrics we choose often drive rather than measure performance, and not always for the better or in the ways intended. The field of education has also developed increased reliance on metrics and measurement in an effort to raise standards and accountability—with the inevitable consequence that an increasing amount of student time is being spent preparing for and taking tests rather than learning. As the old saying goes, "You don’t make the hog any heavier by weighing it repeatedly." The strengths of secular approaches become weaknesses when they pull us too far away from our own judgment and provoke unintended consequences.

The secular perspective starts and ends with the needs and desires of mankind; everything else—and crucially, all of nature—is too often regarded as a resource pool to be drawn upon, consumed, and manipulated for human purpose. There is no place in this worldview for the more ancient notion that man "must tread lightly upon the Earth." In the secular scheme, mankind has dominion over the planet, and with science as its key tool, it can and should shape the natural world to human advantage. Luckily, after more than two centuries of rapid economic growth unconstrained by consideration of the impact it might have on the planet and its other species, we are becoming more aware of the profound negative environmental consequences of this perspective. Yet even as we struggle to make real the concept of sustainability, we are in part constrained by our deep-seated, unconscious secular sense of human entitlement.

By definition, secularism is about improving material conditions in the here and now and worrying less about the spiritual or the "afterlife." This way of thinking has significantly, if invisibly, influenced the science of economics and the practice of business and commerce—sometimes adversely. Materialism and high levels of consumption have become widespread characteristics of developed societies. Yet they do not appear to be making us any happier. Surveys in most developed countries, including the U.S. and Japan, reveal that there has been no increase in happiness over the last several decades despite substantial economic growth. Depression is on the rise; each year, as many as 14 million American adults experience an episode of major depression, 10 times more than in 1945. According to the World Health Organization, suicide rates have increased by 60 percent worldwide in the last 45 years. WHO now ranks depression as the leading cause of disability globally and projects that depression will be the second leading health problem in the world by 2020.

Complaints about the "soulless" nature of organizations, designed to harness human reason rather than honor human spirit, are also on the rise. Early economists’ focus on the production of material and measurable goods led to accounting methodologies that failed to value a great deal of the work that holds families and communities together—particularly work typically undertaken by women, including child-rearing, housework, and relationship nurturing. Businesses and financial markets have little obvious means of connecting with higher moral purpose and are typically obliged to conform to short-term thinking and a desire for immediate returns. These are issues of growing concern today, and are deeply connected to the secular origins of the modern economy.

Above all, the secular mindset, reinforced by two centuries of unrivalled achievement, has perhaps become far too confident about the supremacy of its role in shaping the future. Even as secular civilization mobilizes to address challenges generated by its own embedded philosophy, another worldview—less prominent and less of a defining force in recent centuries—is reemerging to take its place at the table. The "sacred" perspective has returned, and the secular world is going to have to learn how to accommodate it.

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