I read this yesterday, but never got around to posting it. Apparently it has legs, so I’ll be sure to do it now.
We live in an age when modernists regard religion with something approaching panic. It is like the Devil’s attitude to Holy Water. There was a comic example of Christianophobia in The Sunday Times yesterday. Michael Portillo, who used himself to be seen in Brompton Oratory, was hyperventilating at the idea of David Cameron going to church. “I worry,” he wrote, “because men of power who take instruction from unseen forces are essentially fanatics . . . I would be more reassured to hear that the Tory leader goes to church because that is what it takes to get a child into the best of state schools, not because he is a believer.”
Perhaps this neurotic response to Mr Cameron’s habit of going to church reflects Mr Portillo’s recognition that religion is again becoming an important influence on society. Many of the current news stories show that religion is back in public consciousness; for those who feel uneasy about religion, that is unwelcome. …
The modernist attack on religion was based on the victory of science, and particularly of neo-Darwinism. Yet science was open to the same challenge as religion; it could explain only half the world. The scientists, or some of them, sneered at religion for being unable to explain the developments of nature. Yet science itself was unable to produce a science-based morality for society. Marxism attempted to create a scientific social order that ended in monstrous and bloodthirsty tyranny. Social Darwinism either meant eugenics and the slaughter of babies who were not thought fit to survive, or it meant nothing. The Social Darwinism of George Bernard Shaw, or indeed that of Adolf Hitler, has been rejected by mankind.
The world needs religion to address the moral issues. In the advanced societies it is these moral issues that now mock us. Europe and North America are hugely wealthy regions, but they are morally impoverished. Broken families, drugs, booze, youth gangs, crime, neglect of children and the old, the sheer boredom of shopaholicism, terrorism, the inner-city slums, materialism itself, are all the marks of a global society in decline. Societies can be judged by their care for children. Social education must start in the family and must have a moral basis. Children need to be taught to distinguish between right and wrong. …
The 19th century was an age of social reform based on religious revival and the Christian faith. The 20th century was an age of religious decline and of accelerating decline in social cohesion as well as in faith. “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/ When wealth accumulates and men decay.”
These are lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s moving poem, The Deserted Village in the 18th century. If they seem to apply to our modern societies, religion is not the problem; it is the only possible remedy.
The Times – Do you realise Europe is in the throes of civil war?<br/> A battle of ideas that is blinding the West, by Larry Siedentop (Emeritus Fellow, Keble College, Oxford, and author of Democracy in Europe)
Properly understood, secularism can be seen as one of Europe’s noblest achievements. What is the crux of secularism? It is that belief in an underlying moral equality of humans implies that there is a sphere in which individuals should be free to make their own decisions.
Secularism, however, is not mere indifference or nonbelief or a “value-free” framework. On the contrary, it rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and moral agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions. It puts a premium on conscience rather than the blind following of rules. It joins rights with duties to others.
This is also the central, egalitarian moral insight of Christianity. It can be seen in St Paul’s contrast between “Christian liberty” and observance of the Jewish law. Enforced belief was, for Paul, a contradiction in terms. Strikingly, in its first centuries Christianity spread by persuasion, not by force of arms — a contrast to the early spread of Islam.
Secularism identifies the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended, making it possible to distinguish inner conviction from external conformity. This is the way secularism has always been understood in the United States. There, secularism has been identified with moral intuitions generated by Christianity.
This has not been the view in Europe because for centuries Christianity was associated with the hierarchy and coercion of a privileged and monolithic Church. A kind of moral incoherence, especially marked in Catholic Europe, was the consequence. Religious believers struggled against the claims of civil liberty as a threat to the Church, while those who defended liberty looked upon the Christianity as their enemy. Both sides failed to appreciate the extent to which promoting secularism amounted to turning the foundation beliefs of Christianity — moral equality — against any privileged, coercive role for the Church.
By contrast, the absence of both an established Church and aristocracy in America meant that Americans almost instinctively grasped the moral symmetry between secularism, with its civil liberty, and Christianity. Today Muslim commentators also sometimes perceive that symmetry when they speak of “Christian secularism”.
What will happen to this “civil war” now that Europe is faced with the challenge of Islam? Will Europeans come to understand better the moral logic that joins Christianity and civil liberty? It is important that they do so, if they are to counter the argument that secularism is a form of nonbelief or indifference. Their own self-understanding is at stake.