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Royal Faith and Reason Institute The Soul of Man under Secularism

Faith and Reason Institute

The Soul of Man under Secularism
Speech to The Philadelphia Society
April 28, 2007

In 1891, the
British humorist and aesthete Oscar Wilde wrote an essay entitled “The Soul of
Man under Socialism.” Like many
literary figures who have been bewitched by socialist and Marxist mirages, Wilde
projected his own hopes upon some very bad ideas about how human societies
should be organized. Among other things, he believed that socialism would
produce great material abundance and that it would allow large numbers of
socialist comrades to become artists. Some did, of course, like Solzhenitsyn —
in the Gulag. Unfortunately for Wilde the hundredth anniversary of his pious
work of socialist science fiction happened to fall in 1991, which is to say
precisely the year that real existing socialism collapsed in its international
flagship, the Soviet Union, thoroughly discrediting socialism for all those with
eyes to see.

There are no laws of history, but there are broad truths and partial
parallels that our uncertain grip on human life sometimes allows us to glimpse.
I often wonder these days whether the current campaign promising a glorious
future for the Soul of Man under Secularism — whether in the hardcore
neo-Darwinian bulldoggery of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett or in the
soft-core, in several senses of the word, bellydances of the modern academy,
media, and entertainment industry — will seem a similarly wild delusion a
century from now, akin to what the great Russian novelists, called “brain
fever.” Let me try in the brief time we have together to explain why I believe
that may prove to be the case.

Our subject in this session is religion and the
future of conservatism. I am only
too aware that not all conservatives are believers, or all believers
conservatives, alas. There are longstanding disagreements among conservatives
themselves about what our thing really is. But to cut through several possible
misunderstandings, I want to distinguish between two very different ideas about
sacred and secular. A believer with a sound conservative view of the human
condition, which is to say someone who respects this side idolatry what is
ancestral, real, external to his own mind, who acknowledges antecedent truth and
the limits and imperfections in nature and human nature, who welcomes the
tolerably good and complex over the terribly perfect and simple, and wisdom over
cleverness — such a believer also finds room for the properly secular in the
sense of a common public space where many voices, religious and not, may engage
in dialogue about how we should live together. As a believer, I myself would
also add that this space exists under God because there is nothing truly outside
what Richard Weaver, that profound and now much forgotten American conservative,
once called our “metaphysical dream of the world.” But I can live with those
who wish to think out loud in a secular space just so long as the secular is not
subtly transmuted, as has often been the case in recent years, into secularism.
The proper secular sphere will be more or less neutral towards various
positions; but an improper secularism is an ideological position, like fascism
or Marxism, that excludes religious thought in principle. Therefore, it is not
and cannot be a neutral public space.

The current battles over the place of religion in the
public square essentially revolve around whether we shall live in a properly
secular or improperly secularist social order. A conservative friend of
religion, as I have defined him above, will see this as a partial reprise of
some earlier ideological battles. The
West has suffered lately from scientific socialism (Marxism), scientific racism
(Nazism), and — more recently — scientific secularism, so to speak. Some
influential public voices have decided in the last few years that science and
its correlative secular reason demand a strict and state-enforced secularism as
the only method of organizing our lives in the modern world — without noticing
that a value-free activity, which science is by definition, is a quite helpless
guide to the many human questions we face. In fact, there are several ways in
which an exclusively secularist approach to various human problems undermines
the things we think most valuable in the West.

How does a dogmatic secularist, for example, give an account of intrinsic
human dignity, or fundamental rights, or free will and its correlatives,
economic and political liberty? Those of us who come out of the older Biblical
tradition — Christians and Jews, and even those on the fringes of traditional
Western religiosity who have absorbed certain notions of the Divine from the
Western mainstream — have no trouble doing so. The very first pages of the Book
of Genesis tell us that God made man in His own image and likeness. We have the
capacity to know things, as well as to know good and evil. And we have the
freedom to act according to what we know — not an absolute freedom of course
— we can leave that delusion to the life coaches and other snake oil salesmen
— but a limited and circumscribed liberty of action. It is from these deep
currents that flow Western notions of dignity, rights, and freedom. Tat was, of
course, explicitly the understanding expressed in our Declaration of
Independence. By contrast, a strict materialism and secularism will find great
difficulty in accounting for any of these human characteristics. And
conservatives of whatever stripe, believers and not, who hold human dignity,
freedom, and knowledge in high regard must pay careful attention and respect to
their religious roots if these central pillars of our civilization are to
survive and exert any real social force.

It is surprising that so few people recognize this. In fact, we often
hear precisely the opposite: that we still need liberation from
“superstition.” It would be far truer to say that we are enduring a new
internal assault — secular fundamentalism — which makes us even more
vulnerable to external threats like Islamic Fundamentalism. The new militancy of
the neo-Darwinists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins openly proclaims
that there is no such thing as human freedom because everything is strictly
determined by physical causes. In a debate I once had with the distinguished
Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, he argued that human behavior is “only” 60
percent the result of our genes and 40 percent the result of a “complex
algorithm,” which results from the interaction between genes and environment.
The seeming seriousness of this attempt to quantify human action should not
deceive us about its fundamental frivolity. If this is true, there is no such
thing as liberty for human individuals and, therefore, no such thing for human
societies as well. When I remarked to Wilson that “a complex algorithm” did
not seem to be much of a foundation of our Western liberties, he had nothing to

Whatever rhetorical knots we tie ourselves up in at home, we should be
clear that religion is not going to disappear as a strong force in the rest of
the world. Western Europe is pretty much the only place where the classic theory
of secularization as a result of modernization has partly proven true, though
even there the story is more complex and open to possible renewals than news
media who do the cheerleading for the secularist blues let on. Generally
elsewhere, as I’ve tried to show in the conclusion of my book, The
God That Did Not Fail
, religiosity has persisted and even increased somewhat
as an answer to some of the dislocations produced by modernization. There are
bad forms of this reaction as we see in the militant forms of Islamic and Hindu
Fundamentalism. But there are good forms in the tremendous renewals around the
world within many faiths. This should not surprise a conservative who believes
in the substantial constancy of human nature. As the sociologist of religion
Peter Berger has said: “The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that
transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a
perennial feature of humanity. (This is not a theological statement but an
anthropological one — an agnostic or even an atheist philosopher may well
agree with it.) It would take something close to a mutation of the species to
extinguish this impulse for good.” I’ve tried to document this, too, in the
historical chapters of The God That Did
Fail. From ancient Greece to modern America, religion seems to be
hardwired into most of us. Again, historical parallels are not exact, but the
Soviet Union, assisted by a huge nuclear arsenal, the Red Army, the KGB, the
Gulag, and influential fellow travelers in the West was unable to produce the
New Soviet Man who was a scientific atheist (80 percent of Russians today say
they are believers). In America, despite superficial appearances, MTV, the New
York Times
, and Michael Moore are not likely to have any greater success.

A conservative should not put too much faith in sociology, but there have
been some remarkable recent studies of the social effects of belief, stimulated,
it must be said, in part by the threat of Islamic Fundamentalism. The spring
2006 issue of Foreign Policy, which is published by the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, featured a cover story analyzing the
demographic decline in several developed societies. An American journal of
international relations carried this analysis because the editors believe that
the sheer demographic collapse in some countries and the reasons behind it will
have powerful repercussions for the United States and in both foreign and
domestic affairs. The author, Phillip Longman, a fellow at the liberal New
America Foundation, argued that a kind of “soft patriarchy” is returning
because differential birthrates favor “the emergence of a new society whose
members will disproportionately be descended from parents who rejected the
social tendencies that once made childlessness and small families the norm.
These values include an adherence to traditional, patriarchal religion, and a
strong identification with one’s own fold or nation.”

Western Europe presents the most alarming case, of course, but there are
common beliefs that empirical studies have identified as associated with
childlessness or low birth rates in other regions of the world. Among these, the
most prominent are:

opposition to the military

acceptance of “soft” drugs

approval of homosexuality

support for euthanasia

considering yourself a “citizen of the world”

— rare attendance at church.

conservatives used to say when I was a young man, sociology is the painful
elaboration of the obvious. Longman does not look very carefully at why such
beliefs are interrelated and associated with small families or childlessness,
but it is clear that all of them are more inward oriented rather than directed
towards others in ways that having and raising children require. In any event,
he predicts that more traditional social values and religious beliefs will
inevitably grow stronger because traditional families also tend to transmit
their values to children in high percentages and families with non-traditional
views do not reproduce at as high rates. By definition, a society that literally
does not reproduce itself is not sustainable.

Not only will such a society begin to falter
militarily and economically, it will be marked by a pervasive hopelessness about
the human future. Perhaps for those who look only to their own immediate
enjoyment that is of no great concern. For those of us who believe, however,
that human life on earth participates in a certain cosmic order and meaning, and
that what we do here says much about who we are and what we aspire to , it is
time to speak out more confidently about the importance of both faith and reason
to the good human society, even if we struggle personally to live according to
one or the other. We cannot seriously recommend faith because it is a social
remedy. We believe, or not, on
other grounds, and reap benefits or harm as a consequence. But we can say
truthfully that even reason today has shown the crucial contribution of faith to
free institutions and appears necessary to their very survival.

But not just any faith. The beliefs that Longman finds harmful are quite
cheerfully professed in many religious bodies today. What we need for our own
good is something much more substantial and of a certain kind. History may help
us here, a truer history than the old Enlightenment version that saw
Christianity, the central Western faith, as primarily a matter of irrationality,
dark ages, medieval cruelties, crusades, inquisitions, anti-science
obscurantism, religious wars, and several other cartoon-panel evils. Secular
scholars have already produced a large body of revisionist work that
demonstrates the absurdity of this old picture (beginning with the notion that
Christianity rejected reason), though such research has not yet changed the
standard textbook presentations of Western history.

Any future conservatism will need a different way of understanding the
religious and secular histories of the West. In the classical world, for
example, which was already quite religious and not the rationalist precursor of
the modern world as if often claimed, the Christian faith appeared more
universal than both the gods of the ancient city and the concepts of the ancient
philosophers. That was what gave it its power. The Christian God is not
indifferent to the human race, as the pagan gods and philosophy’s absolute
being were. He is the Creator and from Him flowed both the order and beauty of
Creation, as well as the temporal dignity, freedom, and eternal destiny of
mankind. From that change in religious perspective, at a depth hard for us even
to perceive anymore, came the truths we usually think of as fundamental to how
we think about one another and human society, but were not so before

One reason we have difficulty in appreciating this shift is that our own
age, in both its modern enlightenment and post-enlightenment forms, has been
content to fall back into ancient confusions. In Deism, for example, the great
Enlightenment figures hoped to maintain the Christian belief in a benevolent
Creator, as well as survival after death with rewards and punishments, while at
the same time basically accepting the scientific worldview of a God who is, at
most, a watch-maker, quite similar to the ancient absolute being. A conservative
is not supposed to appreciate the Enlightenment, but I for one believe it
brought us certain benefits. The problem is that by pursuing one set of rational
advantages too exclusively and too confidently, the Enlightenment undermined
itself and with it some of the religious foundations that it tried to preserve
in a partly secularized form. The postmodern crumbling of the Enlightenment has
given us a kind of postmodern polytheism, in which traditional Western belief is
one among several positions, some spiritual some not, but all regarded as
basically unprovable by reason and therefore akin to the gods of the ancient
cities, useful for social solidarity but without any normative universality.

It is easy to see the problems with both approaches. The old
Enlightenment exaggerated one form of reason and the impersonal nature of God
with the loss of real love in the world. The new postmodernism distrusts reason
and loses foundations for the things we believe rise above materialism —
rights, freedom, creativity, even the human mind itself, which cannot be
accounted for in any materialist reduction. Religion cannot and should not be
primarily in the business of providing a rationalist account of the
characteristic human things for the benefit of the social order. Religion serves
us all best when it concentrates on God and tells us about our relationship to
Him. But it can point to beliefs — and did historically — that satisfy our
intuitions about the good and root them in the nature of reality beyond the
reach of reason without making them a matter of pure will.

It is
telling that in recent years there has been a recognition of this truth on the
part of some prominent non-believers — perhaps because we have begun to feel
acutely our weakness, particularly in
the face of radical Islam. In Germany, Jurgen Habermas, one of the most highly
regarded secular philosophers, has noted lately that the crisis of values in the
West raises “some doubts as to the ability of the constitutional democratic
state to renew its existential foundations from its own resources, rather than
from philosophical and religious, or at least from a general ethical communal
prior understanding.” In Italy, philosopher and former Senate president
Marcello Pera — another unbeliever — has
been advocating a “Christian civil religion” as perhaps the most promising
way to reinvigorate Western confidence in its own value, especially at a time
when other traditions threaten us and our own seems willing to grant value to
every tradition but itself. Even in France, the international gold standard for
secularism, presidential candidate Nicholas Sarkozy has been saying that the
French need to learn how to speak about religion again in public. A conservative
may not like what he initially hears if that conversation occurs, but that
it’s being suggested at all is certainly a sign of a major shift in opinion.

The idea that religion is essential to popular government is hardly new.
In America, George Washington argued in his Farewell Address that “reason and
experience both”
— in the eighteenth century this meant almost all purely
human knowledge — “forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in
exclusion of religious
principle.” National morality, for Washington, was the foundation of a stable
democratic order. Thomas Jefferson, in many ways more a continental
Enlightenment rather than a North American thinker, asserted: “Can the
liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm
basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift
of God?” And he added: “no nation has ever existed or been governed without
religion. Nor can be.”

At one of the impasses during the Constitutional
Convention, which took place just down the street here at Independence Hall, Ben
Franklin, another Founder often thought to be a non-believer, famously called
for prayer to resolve the difficulty and observed, “the longer I live the more
convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men.”
He added, “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is
it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”

This sentiment, which went into eclipse in the twentieth century, has
begun to return in the twenty-first. The two early American presidents were
making more than practical observations; they were pointing to perennial
features of the human condition, conservative principles, in brief. By contrast,
modern, allegedly practical thinkers like Max Weber, John Rawls, and others who
provided the model for so much secularist thinking in the twentieth century,
have over time shown themselves over time to be quite impractical dreamers. Most
of us see the value of secular systems of politics and economics, systems that
not only respect but encourage liberty and pluralism. But there is a vast
difference between, on the one hand, the
kind of secular pluralism open to the essential values and virtues that religion
provides in virtually every age and society and, on the other hand, secularism
— an ideology not an ideal — that has shown itself self-critical and
self-enclosed to the point of self-destructiveness.

Under the circumstances, it is almost comic in the Wildean
sense, that scientists like Richard Dawkins, who occupies a chair at Cambridge
University in the Public Understanding of Science, are militant materialists.
Dawkins has described religion as a “virus” and religious education as
“child abuse.” For all the problems that religion has created over the ages,
at least it never denied the very basis of human dignity, freedom, and thought.
Dawkins does deny all these things and is strangely not criticized for an
essentially inhuman view of the world that would do far more damage to children,
adolescents, and adults than does the usually healthy influence of a reasoned
faith. He and the other militant scientists and secularists have become very
fundamentalist about science and very angry about religion lately. It is
difficult to understand why. With the system of materialist determinism,
religious believers are as necessary a consequence of the material forces of the
universe as any other phenomenon, say the materialists themselves.

An irreverent observer may suspect that the reason the scientific
fundamentalists are agitated is that religion remains strong in the world and
religious believers are not willing to be intimidated, as they sometimes were in
the past. No one but a small band of religious extremists opposes science in its
proper place. In America, there is a substantial percentage of the population
who oppose the teaching of Darwinism, but this stems more from the fact that
some theorists insist on its materialist implications than from the facts of
evolution, which would gain greater popular backing if it were not presented as
a denial of the very possibility of faith. In the meantime, biologists,
physicists, chemists, and scientists of many other kinds — many of them
believers themselves — go on about their work unhindered and even honored by
our society. It would be a great step forward if the scientific community itself
were to recognize the benefits that theology and philosophy bring to the human
race in areas that do not fall within the realm of empirical science. They might
find they get along with believers better than they expect and that they would
allow room for other kinds of knowledge without which the very societies that
value science along with other great achievements of the human spirit will not
long endure.

There is great urgency for a broader reconciliation of faith and reason.
A curious things has happened over the last two or three decades in the West.
The old modernity of science, reasoned democratic deliberation, and rationalized
economics has lost much of its cogency. A new postmodernity — or neo-modernity
— of shifting scientific paradigms, discourses of power, and anti-globalism
has replaced it among Western intellectuals. This development involves more than
the varying fortunes of figures such as Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, all
of whom have entered the twilight of the gods to one degree or the other, as
gods who have failed, in my scheme
of classification. The West faces a crossroads in which it will choose either to
deny the foundations of its deepest values or to open itself up to new currents
— outside the framework of the Enlightenment project and the crises that
project has produced — among them
renewed forms of faith and of reason alike. The choice is more than an
intellectual exercise. It goes to the heart and mind and soul of what it will
mean to be human in our time and the immediate future. How we choose will make
the difference in the very survival of the West.

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