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The civilizational effects of the superstitious cult of rationalist progressivism

I’m about to walk out the door, headed to Wichita for the Eighth Day Institute’s symposium. I won’t be able to check in until tonight, so please be patient. Before I go, here’s something to think about: Kenneth Minogue’s 2003 essay on what “Christophobia” — the fear and loathing of Christianity — has to do with the West and its future. Excerpts:

Today, however, a significant change has occurred in progressive opinion: in a multicultural context, religious beliefs are taken to be part of “culture” and hence off limits to criticism, unless they are Christian, and more recently also, Jewish.

We may call this sentiment “Christophobia,” and its simplest version is the legend people got from Voltaire and others, namely, that mankind had hitherto been dominated by all kinds of strange prejudices and superstitions but that now at last (in the eighteenth century) a dawn of reason was rising in which human beings would abandon these divisive absurdities and recognize themselves as sharing a human essence with a right to happiness and the power actually to bring this about. Such was the core of belief found in Jacobinism, socialism, rationalisms of various kinds (including that of the American founders), logical positivism, and all other versions of what the nineteenth century espoused as progress and the twentieth century came to call “the Enlightenment Project.” And it is very important to observe that all other civilizations and peoples were to be incorporated within this projected earthly salvation. It was a global project.

Voltaire’s legend is, of course, simple-minded because it can give no account of why this dawn of reason should turn up in Europe, or indeed why it should turn up at all. The reason is that it is a political program unwilling to recognize its debt to a past which it is busily repudiating. It is averse to recognizing Christianity as a historical phenomenon rather than as a mere mistake.


The minimal account of religion as a human phenomenon must be that it is a set of stories and beliefs human beings tell themselves to account for what lies behind the manageable world (to the extent that it is manageable) in which we live. In other words, a religion is a response to the mystery of the human condition. The going secularist account of human life is that we are part of an evolving organic life that happened to develop on the edge of a minor planet in a universe of unimaginable vastness. Beyond this, questions of meaning and significance are in scientific terms unanswerable, and we tend to follow Wittgenstein: Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent. We have blocked off religious questions altogether, because they are empirically unanswerable, and people respond in a variety of ways. Some drop the questions and get on with life, others shop for a more exotic set of stories and rituals with which to respond, and many, of course, remain Christian to one degree or another. On the face of it, however, we have a culture which very largely carries on without seriously considering ultimates. We have abandoned the cathedral, and are content to scurry in and out of skyscrapers. So perhaps we are pioneering a new civilizational form in which the issues of human meaning have been recognized as essentially unsolvable, and left to one side. Or, alternatively, we may have transferred the passions appropriate to religion onto beliefs of some other kind.

Philosophers turn everything into preliminaries, and before I get to the main argument, I should perhaps declare my own position here. I am a simple child of secular times, and a sceptic, but one impressed by the grandeur and complexity of Christian intellectuality. The Voltairian and the village atheist, seen from this perspective, look a little shallow. In the vast rambling mansion of our civilization, the cobwebbed gothic wing containing our religious imagination is less frequented than previously, but it certainly remains a haunting presence.

He calls the progressive rationalist cult that seeks world dominiation “a religion that doesn’t know it’s a religion.” Minogue calls it “Olympianism.” More:

Olympianism is the characteristic belief system of today’s secularist, and it has itself many of the features of a religion. For one thing, the fusion of political conviction and moral superiority into a single package resembles the way in which religions (outside liberal states) constitute comprehensive ways of life supplying all that is necessary (in the eyes of believers) for salvation. Again, the religions with which we are familiar are monotheistic and refer everything to a single center. In traditional religions, this is usually God; with Olympianism, it is society, understood ultimately as including the whole of humanity. And Olympianism, like many religions, is keen to proselytize. Its characteristic mode of missionary activity is journalism and the media.

If Olympianism has the character of a religion, as I am suggesting, there would be no mystery about its hostility to Christianity. Real religions (by contrast with test-tube religions such as ecumenism) don’t much like each other; they are, after all, competitors. Olympianism, however, is in the interesting position of being a kind of religion which does not recognize itself as such, and indeed claims a cognitive superiority to religion in general. But there is a deeper reason why the spread of Olympianism may be measured by the degree of Christophobia. It is that Olympianism is an imperial project which can only be hindered by the association between Christianity and the West.

Read the whole thing. Minogue goes on to say that Olympianism has to despise and eradicate Christianity as a way of cleansing its intellectual bloodline. This, by the way, is why the European Union’s founding documents treat Europe as having gone straight from the end of classical civilization in the fifth century more or less to the Enlightenment. This is not an accident.

I think philosophically simpler answer is that God of the Bible must not exist, because if He does, then we can’t do whatever we like. So He either must be denied, or He must be denatured so we can enthrone ourselves while still claiming to recognize Him. (This is what Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is.)