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Post-Secularism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By David Curry

IS POST-SECULARISM just another buzz word -- or is it, rather, a term that captures the global realities in which we find ourselves?

For several decades we have lived, at least in the western democracies, in what social scientists, political philosophers and theologians have called a 'secular society.'  In 2007, Canada's most outstanding philosopher, Charles Taylor, wrote a great tome entitled A Secular Age.  In this new reality, religion is understood to have lost its relevance and the divine seems to no longer hold any power of enchantment.

Then there is Jűrgen Habermas, a leading European philosopher who describes himself as a ‘metaphysical atheist’. He has undertaken to explain the assumptions upon which ‘secularization theory’ rests and to provide the counter to them, both empirically and intellectually. As he puts it, secularization theory rests upon three, initially plausible, explanations, which he describes as follows:

First, progress in science and technology promotes an anthropocentric understanding of the ‘disenchanted’ world because the totality of empirical states and events can be causally explained; and a scientifically enlightened mind cannot be easily reconciled with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews.

This kind of technocratic arrogance assumes that things are always progressing and that science has become our religion, capable of explaining all reality and utterly dismissive of the older philosophical traditions, ancient and modern (think Aristotle and Descartes), that understood the physical to be grounded in something beyond the natural.

Second, with the functional differentiation of social subsystems, the churches and other religious organizations lose their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science; they restrict themselves to their proper function of administering the means of salvation, turn exercising religion into a private matter and in general lose public influence and relevance.

In one way, this marks the success of religious institutions. In preaching social justice, they have been listened to by the state which has created the social welfare society. Religion is widely assumed to be a personal matter and no longer has a public voice. It has become marginalized.

Finally, the development from agrarian through industrial to post-industrial societies leads to average-to-higher levels of welfare and greater social security; and with a reduction of risks in life, and the ensuing increase in existential security, there is a drop in the personal need for a practice that promises to cope with uncontrolled contingencies through faith in a 'higher' or cosmic power (from Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, April 2008).

The demographic shifts from the rural to the urban, from the agrarian to the industrial, and now from the industrial to the post-industrial, capture the experience of several generations along with the general sense, at least until the economic debacle of 2008, that things are getting better for all concerned and that there is really nothing to worry about. We don't need to think about God.

Overall, the secularist viewpoint assumes the imminent disappearance of religion in all secular societies. The one exception to the rule seems to be America. But now, as Habermas goes on to point out, the United States exemplifies what is, in fact, a global norm. Contrary to secularist dogma, Religion is in fact a necessary and inescapable feature of the global landscape, even in the most ‘advanced’ secular societies which now struggle to come to terms with a variety of religious expressions that affect social and political life, most controversially, for instance, in France, in Holland and in England. Yet it is actually a concern for all of the western democracies. 

While this may sound like a purely good news story after years of supposed relentless secularization, it's not so simple. The convergence of three phenomena contribute to what appears to be a world-wide resurgence of religion: (a) “the missionary expansion” with respect to all of the big five religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; (b) “fundamentalist radicalization” both in Islam and in Christianity; and (c) “the political instrumentalisation of the potential for violence innate in many of the world religions;” in short, what I would call, “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

With respect to missionary expansion, Habermas notes that the key factor is institutional flexibility and that in this regard the Protestant churches which are nationally organized are the least capable of adapting to the globalizing trend and are therefore the biggest losers. This is the reality which the Churches of the Anglican Communion face in North America, though not in the Global South.

The Anglican via media was once a term used to capture the balance of its reformed Catholicism. Now, it seems, the Anglican Communion is caught in a middle that is really a muddle between the transnational and multicultural aspects of its Communion, on the one hand, and the autonomy of the national churches, particularly in North America, on the other. The latter have steadily undermined the decentralized aspects of their history, polity and mission through the creation and dominance of centralized bureaucracies. Paradoxically the transnational and multicultural aspects of Roman Catholicism and the decentralized networks of evangelicals are the ones best capable of engaging the global world of religious resurgence.

There remain, of course, the strong advocates of secularism. The popular works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens delight the secular atheists, for instance, as do the recent pronouncements of Stephen Hawking that God is not needed “to light the blue torch paper and set the Universe going”. The image suggests a remarkable philosophical naiveté for such a noted physicist. After all, where did the blue torch paper, let alone the match, come from, to use his arresting metaphor? Rowan Williams, Jonathan Sacks and Ibrahim Mogra – Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders respectively – note the philosophical weakness of Hawking’s claim of the universe’s random origins (The Times, Sept. 3rd). It doesn’t and can’t answer the religious and philosophic question about why there is anything rather than nothing.

Dawkins, Hitchens and now Hawking “protest, methinks, too much.” They perpetuate what is, in my view, a false dichotomy between science and religion. They do so, I suspect, out of a not unreasonable distaste (and outright hostility) to the institutional forms of organized religion. Dawkins, after all, wants to have Pope Benedict arrested when he visits England and prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Their voices seem extreme and reactionary. But what are they reacting against?

I would say the re-emergence of religion, “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

In other words, the secularization theory no longer holds as an inevitable historical necessity. Hitchens, a disenchanted Marxist, hasn’t really given up on historical and material determinism, while the biologist Dawkins and the physicist Hawking equally want to hold to the random and the accidental as the basis for science. God should not be invoked in the physics lab to account for the way things work (a pause for God, as it were). But the reality that things are and are knowable is the philosophical and theological assumption upon which science itself depends.

Radical Orthodoxy, the contemporary theological movement which is rabidly anti-secular, is surely right about at least one thing: the inability of modern science to account for its own disciplines apart from the theological world, especially in the West, that gave them birth and without which they lack compelling explanatory force. To explain how something works doesn’t explain why it exists or how it is knowable. That is a philosophical and theological question and one which goes to the quest for meaning. To say, as Dawkins claims Darwin does for biology and as Hawking does for physics, that existence is random is as dogmatic and hypothetical a statement as anything that religion postulates. And is it not passing strange that the intelligible universe should have its origins in what is, in principle, unintelligible? 

The complexities of our contemporary global world mean that a more respectful engagement between “the secularists” and “the religionists” is required. This is what Habermas means by a post-secular society. It is one where secularists have to move beyond the narrowness of assumptions about religion and come to terms with the post-modern critiques of reason just as the religionists have to come to terms with the various forms of secularism. Secular society does not mean either the eradication of religion or the privatization of religion. Habermas notes that churches and religious organizations increasingly have a role in public life as “communities of interpretation.” At issue, then, are the principles which inform the Church’s understanding of the Word in its encounter with contemporary culture. How to account for the contemporary secular means coming to terms with the sacred.

Both Habermas and Taylor argue for the emergence of the modern constitutional state as “the response to the confessional wars of early modernity.” To my mind, this is too negative a view of the origins of the constitutional state and the consequent emergence of secular society. It downplays or overlooks the principles of unity and diversity inherent in the theological teachings, principally, though not exclusively, of western Christianity in and through its long, historical engagement with Jews and Muslims.

How we deal politically with differences of race, religion and sex in the face of the economic is wonderfully explored, for instance, by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice who points towards the possibilities of constitutional polities also hinted at in his play The Tempest. It is not too much to say that the re-evaluation of contemporary society as post-secular requires a more positive account of the secular as well as the sacred. Perhaps, then “the good” will far outweigh “the bad and the ugly” in the re-emergence of religion.


The Rev’d David Curry is Rector of Christ Church, Windsor, NS and Chaplain and Teacher (English & Philosophy) at King’s-Edgehill School in Windsor.

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