Belief in a Secular Age

Ken 15 Jul , 2017 0 comments World Culture, Doubt

We have been conditioned to disbelieve. Every facet of society is geared around a powerful assumption: reality is based on what we observe and what we deduce from it. It is an assumption that has proven spectacularly successful, opening our world to the wonders of science and technology. It underpins our modern world and the basis on how we teach our children. Only it is wrong. It is a reductionist myth.

This brings me to Schrodinger’s cat. It is a famous thought experiment that Schrodinger used to illustrate an important idea behind Quantum mechanics. In the experiment a cat is placed in a sealed box and in that box there is a lethal gas that can be released to kill the cat. The gas is released by the radioactive decay of a particle, and the experiment is arranged so that there is a 50% chance of the particle decaying, and thus a 50% chance of the gas being released and the cat being dead when the box is opened. I doubt if the RSPCA would have approved, but it is at least easy to grasp the basic idea. Now, here is the mind bending bit: Just before the box is opened, is the cat dead or alive? Well, most people would say that it depends on whether the particle had decayed or not. However, the answer, according to quantum mechanics, is in fact neither. Until the box is opened, and the outcome observed, the particle is neither decayed nor not decayed, but exists in an indeterminate state. Even Einstein thought this was nonsense. Unfortunately, Quantum mechanics has proved remarkably accurate in all of its other predictions, and devices, such as iPhones would not be possible if Quantum mechanics could not be trusted. So, we have a dilemma: Either the cat is in an indeterminate state (and neither dead nor alive) or my iPhone does not exist. Apparently, I can’t have both. There is something very strange in our world that defies our sense of reality.

Charles Taylor, an influential Canadian philosopher, studied what made society secular. In earlier times a world without a sense of the transcendent was unimaginable. That is not to say that everyone believed in God, just that those who did not kept quite about it, lest they appear odd, or were seen as dangerous. This position has shifted over the last few hundred years to a point where, today, the idea of a world without the transcendent is not only imaginable, but often the default position. Even for those who believe, this belief is seen as an option. It is this shift that defines secularism. Under this definition, America is just as secular as the UK, even if more people go to church. Once secularism gets into us, there is no way back.

We live in strange times, where cracks are appearing in the fundamental assumption on which our modern world is based. Its truth still feels obvious, but we are learning to question it, learning to see it as a modern myth, alongside many others. The problem is it reduced our view of the world too much. Charles Taylor opens the vista for us again, by allowing us to understand what has gone on and what has brought us to this place. Yet, there is no return to a former innocence that allows us to believe innocently. We have crossed a Rubicon and we cannot go back. All that is left is the forward journey, following the path the Spirit has prepared.

Written By Ken

Leave a Reply