by Ben Pugh.
Sociologists of religion often seem unable to break free of an understanding of secularity as the absence of something. They proceed on the assumption that diminishing recourse to supernatural means entails the subtraction of a social behaviour – going to church – and their task, therefore, is to account for this subtraction. Philosophers tend to ask a different question: what has been added that makes belief in God seem so superfluous? What ideology, what belief system is this? It is in these philosophical reflections that I find the most help as I look out across a culture that, by and large, remains resolutely indifferent to faith.
The more I look at what secularity is the more I am struck by how utterly dependent it is for its existence on dualisms. It survives by declaring that there is a division between two realms. The one it carves out for itself as the ‘secular;’ the other realm it leaves all around the edges and calls it the ‘religious.’ It thrives by being able to police this boundary. Blur the boundary between the sacred and the secular, between faith and reason, between nature and grace, or, worse still, launch a forceful invasion of the realm of the secular, in the manner of Islamic extremism, and secularity suddenly gets a new lease of life. It sets to work developing new bureaucratic systems such as the Prevent strategy which exist to keep the secular realm sanitised of religious delusion.
Once I unmask secularism as a coherent belief system I might feel that I have it licked, and I sneer at it. But then I soon feel powerless: it is so utterly pervasive, and so a degree of frustration sets in. But lately I am thinking it might be better to approach the secular world in a spirit of repentance. And I think the need for this humility becomes apparent when we look at history.
The high Middle Ages saw the Church reach the very peak of its power: it was as powerful then as secularism is today. But the more the Church’s power became threatened, the more violent it became. The crusades against the Muslims were soon followed by the internal crusade against heresy: the Inquisitions. Then the Reformation happened. This might have brought to an end such terror, but it actually resulted in further violence: the Wars of Religion. These wars were ended at the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and were really the last straw for those who longed for a more tolerant society. Religion’s association, in the European mind, with violence and contention runs very deep. After Westphalia, rational, secular government was hailed as the bringer of peace, and religion was put into what one historian has described as a “punishment corner,” [i] which is where it still is. The stage was set for secularism to take over the roles of Christendom piece by piece with a set of like-for-like replacements which kept God out of peoples’ thinking.
Meanwhile, long before the Peace of Westphalia, some subtle theological shifts had been taking place. First, William of Ockham’s philosophy led to the separating out of all earthly tangible things from heavenly transcendent things. He encouraged the notion that this earthly zone was the proper sphere of secular government while the mysteries of theology and religion were the business of the Church alone. Other theological developments gave us an all-powerful, overwhelmingly wilful deity who was utterly sovereign and inscrutable, a God removed from intimate involvement with his world, making deism, agnosticism and then atheism look more possible. Despite the efforts of Aquinas, the worlds of faith and reason had split asunder within Christianity itself.
Over the following centuries, the Enlightenment project finished the job. Tragically, the push of Enlightenment naturalism was accompanied by the pull of supernaturalist Christian counter-cultures that preached the importance of true faith, of being holy and separate, or of being able to offer the dramatic counter-claim of supernatural gifts and signs and wonders. ‘Such a dualism,’ said Henri de Lubac, ‘just when it imagined that it was most successfully opposing the negations of naturalism, was most strongly influenced by it, and the transcendence in which it hoped to preserve the supernatural with such jealous care was, in fact, a banishment.’[ii]
Both of these factors: political and theological; deliberate and unintended, perhaps give some clarity to the unique situation we have in the West where religion is privatized. And, perhaps now more than ever there is a wide consensus that the convictions of religious people are best kept as a strictly private affair. It is assumed, in any case, that the true destiny of historic Christian morality is today’s tolerant, humanistic utopia governed by secular reason.
And so, I am wondering if the first step in reaching out is to recognise that, even though parts of this story I have told may involve forms of Christianity with which we would not personally identify, it is Christianity itself that is largely to blame for secularism’s triumph. Maybe our reluctance to say ‘sorry’ to our culture is precisely because it is always somebody else’s Christianity that is culpable, not ours.
[i] William T. Cavanaugh, “’A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House:’ The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” in Modern Theology, vol.11, issue 4, Oct 1995, 410.
[ii] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 313–314