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Evaluating the Post-Secular Return to Belief

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"Prometheus: I stopped mortals from foreseeing doom.
Chorus: What cure did you discover for that sickness?
Prometheus: I sowed in them blind hopes.
Chorus: That was a great help that you gave to men.
Prometheus: Besides, I myself gave them fire.
Chorus: Do now creatures of a day own bright-faced fire?
Prometheus: Yes and from it they shall learn many crafts."
-Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

In first thinking about the post-secular, I was determined to speak to it with no friendly voice. I am now less certain. Secular dismissal of belief seems to me less an antipathy to superstition and valuation of reason than it does a triumph of technē stifling freedom from the given. There is more than a little merit to Creston Davis's claim that "the portal to theology was opened precisely because capitalism is ultimately a self-enclosed structure, and so theology gives us a way to transcend capital," a way that is "premised on relationality and not on Ego." Even blind hopes, Prometheus suggests, can have the salutary effect of leading us to ignore our certain doom and to look beyond mere mortality. The granting of fire by which we learn the crafts of technē, by contrast, seems like a significantly less beneficial afterthought.

Citing Kant's Contest of Faculties, Slavoj Žižek has incisively suggested that if there is such a thing as human progress, it is punctuated by triumphs of illusions -- equality, liberty, justice -- which have an ethical value that material gains do not. That is the significance, as he describes it, of Toussaint L'Ouverture's reception as an equal in the Popular Assembly of Revolutionary France. That is also the significance, he rightly discerns, of the election of Barack Obama, a centrist whose policies will contain only the faintest glimmer of progressivism. What those locked in a cynicism deeply skeptical of change fail to see, Žižek concludes, "is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom which ignores the power of illusions."

Milton marks for us the torment of a life without illusions through Satan in Paradise Lost. Satan's rebellion arises in no small measure from an over-estimation of the importance of existents and a rejection of those aspects of his relationship with God to be affirmed through belief: the unobservable act of his own creation; and the benevolence of the Son's vicegerent rule, which he takes to be an expression of divine authoritarianism. In denying these, he mocks an acceptance of truth beyond the hard facts of empiricism:

That we were formd then saist thou? and the work

Of secondarie hands, by task transferd

From Father to his Son? strange point and new!

Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw

When this creation was? remeberst thou

Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?

The inability to embrace the idea of divine gift is simultaneously a turn away from the good. In his inner Hell, Satan can rationally discern the benefit of belief even as he can no longer experience it: "never can true reconcilement grow / Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc'd so deep." Despite blustering to the contrary, his conquest over humanity is more imagined than believed, for in the Niphates speech of book 4 he rightly perceives that base motives must yield base results. Capable only of a self-consciously partial illusion, he is left with the material and the imagined. Blake is thus right to associate Satan with imagination, though wrong to include Milton in the devil's party. In Milton's terms hope resides in the believing soul's experiential connection to God; "the fancy," as Keats discerns, "cannot cheat so well."

The crimes of the secular state in the name of self-preservation must make us yearn for strong correctives to capitalist parliamentarian incarnations of democracy. But strong medicine can kill as often as it cures. Secularists are often right to take up a Rawlsean opposition to strong belief when it disregards compromise and consensus. The lack of sociality in the believer's adherence to truth will pay no heed to worldly institutions, or to fellow citizens, perceived to oppose truth, finding its most extreme political expression in the endorsement of religious violence.

Those are dynamics to which reading Milton alerts us. At his finest, Milton subjects received wisdom to thoughtful scrutiny and argues for a sweeping away of institutions restricting human freedom. The inspiring energy of such moments should not blind us to the limits of his view of liberty; nor should the limits of his view of liberty blind us to the vigorous iconoclasm made possible by a commitment to truth. An unthinking secular liberalism can rest on the assumption that strong belief leads inexorably to slaughter in God's name, or that strong commitment to political truth leads inexorably to the crimes of totalitarianism.

Have wounds of deadly hate pierced humanity--and humanities scholars--so deep that we are no longer capable of blind hopes? Are illusions desirable, responsible, or even tenable, in an age so keenly aware of human and ecological catastrophe? The landfill of history has certainly been stuffed by the offal of strong belief, religious and secular, but cynical realism is not likely to yield the ethical and political commitment that might tame its burgeoning heaps. If post-secularity is a good thing, it will learn from the mistakes of its religious and secular predecessors by finding modes of belief enabling richer expressions of human harmony and programs of action broadening material sufficiency and spiritual fulfillment. But until belief is proven to unite rather than to atomize the human family, I trust we may be forgiven some skepticism.

The above is an excerpt from Feisal Mohamed's new book, Milton and the Post-Secular Present: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism