Robbie Young explores the rise of secularism and rejection of religion in Western culture.

[New City Magazine – November 2023, page 16-17]

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris came out with books which denied that there is a God and viewed religion as, at best a childish fantasy, or more scathingly as that which in Hitchens’ view ‘poisons everything’. Apart from the content of these books (which in turn has been praised or ridiculed in equal measure) the very fact that such books were written and published is of interest in itself. Looked at from the broad span of human history we can ask how such a phenomenon came about. How is it that Western culture could end up desiring to banish God and religion from all its major activities: politics, economics, education, science, technology, the arts?

Let’s time-travel and go back to circa 130 AD when an unknown author wrote his Epistle to Diognetus. This is what we read:

‘For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity… But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers… To sum up all in one word – what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.’

The Holy Roman Empire

Fast-forward to Christmas Day of the year 800 AD and the situation of Christians in the world has undergone a profound change. Charlemagne is crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The story of how that change happened is as fascinating as it is complex, and from a certain point of view one could call it miraculous. Yet, it is not easy to map out a logical set of steps leading from Christians being strangers in the land of their birth, dwelling in the world but not of the world, to being ruled in a Christian empire by a Christian emperor. It is perhaps legitimate to question whether the latter is the natural unfolding of the former. Is it part of the Church’s mission to work towards the establishment of a visible realm in this world with its own territory, laws, and citizens who explicitly adhere to the teachings and mission of the Church?

We could attempt to give a theoretical answer to that question but it is also possible to learn something from what actually happened in history. Today the Church still exists, but there is no Christian empire or emperor. What occurred was not inevitable, although there are good reasons to say it was perhaps probable. The chances of the Church making a first successful attempt at being in the world but not of the world seem pretty low. If we use a horse-racing metaphor, we might say it got a good run for its money, but perhaps the fences were just that much too high to avoid a fall. With its fair share of less than saintly popes and less than wise emperors it would perhaps be naïve to have expected a different outcome. And how do you maintain Christian charity when you are being attacked from within by ‘heretics’ and from without by ‘infidels’? When spiritual authority is being threatened why wouldn’t you use temporal power to defend it? How do you turn the other cheek and still hold the line?

Challenges in all directions

Yet the most difficult challenge of all for that particular endeavour was perhaps how to deal with the God-given freedom of the individual. Will foreigners of a different faith be welcome in the Empire only if they agree to be baptised? In a Christian empire the parents may be devout Christians, but what if the children abandon their parents’ faith? What if in some parts of the Empire, from a minority they grow into a majority and demand to be allowed to choose their own moral codes and laws which explicitly reject any Christian influence? What is the Church to do? What are Christians to do? Should it be a case of rallying the troops and attempting a counter-offensive? But with what tactics? And what is the end-game? Should Christians go for broke and aim at a Christian world empire?

Whatever the answers to those questions are, the secularisation of Western culture is a reality. It is impossible to put an exact date on when it began. Michael Allen Gillespie makes a case for saying that its roots go as far back as the fourteenth century which on one side saw Petrarch give voice to the figure of the ‘individual’ and on another, the collapse of Scholasticism and the rise of Nominalism which replaced a cohesive world of universals with a fragmented world of particulars. In the complex interaction of forces, the Renaissance and the Reformation played their part, as did the view held by a significant number of intellectuals that empirical science showed up religious truth as a mixture of delusion and superstition.

What next?

Those of us who are Christians may wonder what to do next. One thing that needs to be noted is that the project of secularisation is not exactly a roaring success. There are those who assert that the two world wars and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the Twentieth Century were blips in the unstoppable march of progress which began with the Age of Enlightenment. But already in the Nineteenth Century thinkers like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche were uncannily prescient about the nihilistic future of a society which in Nietzsche’s phrase had ‘murdered God’. As Dostoevsky said, ‘if God is dead then everything is permitted’ – which includes gulags and gas chambers. And yet, thinkers like Michael Gillespie, Eric Voegelin, David Walsh, and Charles Taylor see a line of continuity between the Christian origins of Western culture and the project of secularisation, rather than one of rupture. In the logic of ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’, even Marx can be said to have desired nothing more than the brotherhood of man that has its roots in the early Christian community whose members had everything in common and no one was in need – although for Marx it was to be achieved by human means alone. Such continuity means that it is not only possible to trace what went wrong but also to give some guidelines about what needs to be done now.

The Trojan Horse

Less than a quarter of a century into the new century, it seems clear that Western societies are being severely threatened from within by division, fragmentation, cultural implosion, and a general loss of confidence in its institutions; and from beyond their borders by the sheer presence of six billion people spread across the continents of Africa and Asia with little or no obligation to feel kindly towards the West. For decades now Western societies have placed all their money on what was believed to be a knock-out combination of liberal democracies, free market economies, and science and technology, with a bonus thrown in that individuals can choose their own values, moral codes, and lifestyles. Perhaps it will be the bonus that will turn out to be the Trojan Horse. If selfishness, licentiousness, and consumeristic hedonism come to characterise the culture, how could it possibly survive? Of course, there is always AI as the ace up our sleeve, but don’t hold your breath.

So again, what are Christians to do? Is it time for a second bite at the cherry? Could Christians learn from their own past and make another attempt to convince the world that there really is no other solution to our problems and challenges than by putting into practice that simple but profound act of loving our neighbours as ourselves?

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