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04 May 2020

Pleasure, pain and the secular worldview Part 2: Life under the dome


In this, the second in a series of six on ‘pleasure, pain, and the secular worldview’, CMS Director of Training and Development David Williams considers the subject of ‘Emotions and the Fall’. Part One is here. Watch for the next instalment in the near future.

In the first article in this series I suggested that shame, pain, guilt and fear are emotions of the fall. All societies experience all of these emotions, but some worldviews preference one lens over the others. Traditionally we have said that Western cultures – Australia, England, the United States – are guilt and innocence cultures. Guilt and innocence cultures make their decisions based around whether things are right or wrong. Right and wrong are defined by an external code or set of rules, both the rule of law and social rules and expectations.

For people who are Anglo and children of the 1940s or 1950s, this was the culture they grew up in. But guilt and innocence have been steadily eroding in Western societies. One place where this is evident is in the world of politics. 2016 was the year of post-truth politics. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”[1] Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian that “in the era of post-truth politics, the unhesitating liar can be king.” [2] Boris Johnson prosecuted a case for Brexit based not on facts but on feelings. He tapped into the emotions of disenfranchised British people. In the same way, Donald Trump’s election campaign connected emotionally. He articulated what people felt was going on for them. And now he’s President of the United States of America.

In a guilt innocence culture, it matters a great deal when politicians tell blatant lies. In a pain pleasure culture, you can be a post-truth politician if you connect with people’s emotions. So how did this worldview change take place?

A Secular Age

The pain pleasure worldview is a secular worldview. By secular, I mean that it sees no need for God or for anything spiritual.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t believe in God. Just that it is not necessary.[3] Five hundred years ago, everyone believed in God. You couldn’t not believe in God. Today, belief in God is totally optional; it is certainly contested and is becoming an increasingly unlikely possibility.[4]

In the history of the last 500 years there have been two big signposts pointing us towards the pain pleasure worldview. These two signposts reflect two major separations that the pain pleasure world has created between us and God. In this article we’ll explore the first signpost and the first separation.

The first signpost came in the late 1700s through a philosopher called Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued that the best way to measure right and wrong in society is to work out what will bring the greatest amount of happiness to the largest number of people.

He was essentially arguing that the difference between right and wrong should no longer be defined by an external law or standard, like the Bible. Instead the difference between right and wrong should be defined by what brings the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people.

Here’s what he said:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.[5]

Bentham believed that society should make its judgements and decisions based on bringing pleasure and avoiding pain for the maximum number of people. He was using pleasure and pain at a societal level.

The first signpost point us to the first separation, which is like a dome that separates us from God. When Jeremy Bentham said that society can make its decisions based on pain and pleasure, he put a dome over human existence separating us from God. We don’t need an external standard, like God’s Word, to tell us right and wrong. We’ve got everything we need to run our world without God. We can decide what is best for society based on our own experiences.

The Simpsons movie illustrates this for. In the movie, Homer Simpson pollutes the local lake and the town of Springfield becomes the site of a massive environmental disaster. The Environmental Protection Agency responds to the disaster by placing a big glass dome over the town to isolate it from the outside world.

We’ve placed a dome over us that separates us from God, and from anything spiritual. Secularism operates in a worldview that has by default excluded God. It focuses entirely on the here and now and excludes the above and beyond.

The dome works in different ways for different people. For the radical Atheist, the dome is made of steel – there is nothing out there, nothing exists beyond the dome. But the pain pleasure worldview doesn’t require a steel dome. It operates just as well with a glass dome – there might be something beyond the dome, but whatever it is, it’s outside the skylights beyond the glass ceiling. The point is that it is distant and separated and other. So we don’t need to think about it.

Living under the dome means excluding God from ordinary life. Living under the dome tells us that here and now is all that matters, that there’s nothing significant out there.

And to live under the dome means living a life where all my significance and purpose must be found in the here and now, pursuing pain and avoiding pleasure. Life is about flourishing under the dome, because there is nothing worthwhile beyond it. This is the first separation. We’ll look at the second separation in the next article.


[1] “Post-truth,” Oxford University Press, 2020, accessed 21st February, 2020, https://www.lexico.com/definition/post-truth.

[2] Jonathan Freedland, “Post-truth politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are no joke,” Opinion, The Guardian (London), 14th May 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/13/boris-johnson-donald-trump-post-truth-politician.

[3] Most of what follows is dependent on Charles Taylor and James Smith. Taylor, A Secular Age. James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).

[4] Taylor, A Secular Age, 3.

[5] Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 1.