So says Rémi Brague, one of the leading Catholic theologians of Europe. It’s behind the subscriber paywall of First Things, but the opportunity to read essays like this is a good reason to subscribe. To summarize, Brague says that modern democracy is built around the idea that no one within a democratic society is allowed to stand above others, and that all political discussion must take place within the realm of the secular — that is, without reference to God, or to metaphysics. The problem is that to endure, a society has to reproduce itself. And if a people comes to believe that this present world is all there is, and that there is no purpose built into existence, it becomes very difficult to maintain secular society through time. Here’s Brague:
Human communities are not made of pure spirits. And so we face a fundamental political question for “societies”: What makes human beings beget children? What will make mankind want to go on existing? One could mention many things different in nature: economic and social conditions, legal measures, the psychological atmosphere of a society. But above all there is the need for two things: a vision and a choice. No society will endure if some people do not look farther than one century, beyond what an individual can experience. We must see beyond the saeculum. Equally necessary is a choice, one I call “metaphysical.” This choice consists in saying that it is good that there exist human beings on Earth: “good” in itself, not just fun for the present generation—which I, by the way, don’t doubt.
Who is empowered to pronounce our existence good? Certainly not man himself. We should remember Jean-Paul Sartre on this point: “We can’t admit that a man might pronounce a sentence on Man.” The only being who can pronounce it is the One who declared at the last day of creation that whatever He had created was not only “good” but, taken in its whole, “very good.”
According to Brague, a secular society must eventually abandon secularism, or cease to exist as a society. Secularism will end not with a bang, but with a “meh.”
A frustrating aspect of debates that arise out of such claims is that so many people assume that if not secularism, then the rule of priests. I would rather live in secularism for a thousand years than endure the rule of priests for a day. That is not the point. Brague’s point is not a theological one, but a political one. He’s saying that a society that does not constitute itself around a metaphysics that give its people a sense of transcendence will not be able to hold on to the confidence it needs to perpetuate itself. Despite the blessings of secularism — including keeping the civic peace — secularism is a slow-acting poison on the body politic, one that works to dissolve it over time.