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How religion became secularized

The Philosopher’s Beard has a brisk, persuasive take on how religion became secularized, and how, basically, we all became relativists. He’s using “secular” in the sense that philosopher Charles Taylor  uses it: to describe a cultural condition in which it is impossible to imagine religion in terms of options. Before I jump into what the PB writes, here is an interesting bit of background from a summary of Taylor’s monumental study, “A Secular Age”:

Drawing upon sources such as Wade Clark Roof, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead, Taylor paints a picture of today’s spiritual seekers as trying to find “something more”:

 …they are seeking a kind of unity and wholeness of the self, a reclaiming of the place of feeling, against the one-sided pre-eminence of reason, and a reclaiming of the body and its pleasures from the inferior and often guilt-ridden place it has been allowed in the disciplined, instrumental identity. The stress is on unity, integrity, holism, individuality; their language often invokes “harmony, balance, flow, integrations, being at one, centred”. 

The modern spiritual quest is often contrasted directly with religion (which is generally used as if to mean solely orthodox religion):

This kind of search is often called by its practitioners “spirituality”, and is opposed to “religion”. This contrast reflects the rejection of “institutional religion”, that is, the authority claims made by churches which see it as their mandate to pre-empt the search, or to maintain it within certain definite limits, and above all to dictate a certain code of behaviour. 

These features of “spirituality”, its subjectivism, its focus on the self and its wholeness, its emphasis on feeling, has led many to see the new forms of spiritual quest which arise in our society as intrinsically trivial or privatised. I believe that this is part and parcel of [a] common error… the widespread propensity to identify the main phenomena of the Age of Authenticity with their most simple and flattened forms.

Spirituality and religion are thus set up as polar opposites, yet Taylor notes that despite this prior assumption, it is perfectly possible for the spiritual quest to bring someone into a more conventionally religious position:

Again, “finding out about oneself, expressing oneself, discovering one’s own way of becoming all that one can… be” is opposed to “denying or sacrificing oneself for the sake of a super-self order of things, or even… living by reference to such an order.” But this contrast can’t be considered exhaustive. The first term could be seen as a definition of the contemporary ethic of authenticity; the second invokes one view of what is supremely important in life. The question set in the first can initiate a quest, and this can end in the second as an answer. Nothing guarantees this, but nothing ensures its opposite either. 

So, back to the Philosopher’s Beard. He begins his post by writing that religion:

… told us with all the force of a mighty and all-encompassing metaphysics what our lives really meant, and how we should act, think and feel. But no more. Religion has been brought low by its old enemies, philosophy and politics. Religion persists and is even popular. But it is now in the mind, a matter of personal belief projected outwards. In short, religion is now secular.

I focus here on the trajectory of the Abrahamic style of theological religion (other forms of religiousish behaviour require their own accounts). This kind of religion rests on a metaphysical unification of the divine, the social-order, and nature. It gives us an enchanted world and a guarantee that we know our true place in it. The enemies of theological religion have always been philosophy and politics because both present inherently secular ways of grappling with the nature of the world that bypass religion. Their rise has shattered both enchantment and Truth. Religion still creeps about the place, but in a thoroughly subordinate role.

I’ll leave it to you to read the whole thing.  In a nutshell, he argues that philosophy undercut religion in that it produced “much much better accounts of how the world works than any religion.” The democratic revolution in politics radically undercut the political uses of religion — that is, the need for the political order to be undergirded by clear and strong reference to the divine order. And once you start down the path of accepting democracy in politics, it’s easy to imagine that you can think of religion in the same way.

And then we get to Damon Linker’s point about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Linker (not PB) wrote:

Theologically speaking, this watered-down, anemic, insipid form of Judeo-Christianity is pretty repulsive. But politically speaking, it’s perfect: thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant. And that makes it perfectly suited to serve as the civil religion of the highly differentiated twenty-first century United States.

I’m afraid he’s right. PB explains:

Liberal democracy is all about dealing with the fact of reasonable disagreement, that as soon as one relaxes totalitarian social control one will find that other people have completely sincere beliefs and judgements that differ from yours. Luther of course when he said ‘Here I stand. I can do no other.’ didn’t think he was making a plea for individual freedom of conscience. He thought he was right. But when lots of people start thinking they have the right to stand up for what they believe, one has to find a modus vivendi (or face interminable civil war). One has to find a way to live in the same political society as people whom you believe are utterly – metaphysically – wrong. The trouble is that once you set up some rules for keeping the peace – state neutrality on religious matters, no religion in the public square, etc – they do much more than keep the peace. One ends up finding one’s Lutheran, Catholic or Jewish neighbours actually very pleasant. It becomes harder and harder to remember that the really important thing in your relationship is that they’re going to hell. Politeness comes to matter to you and you decide to keep your revelation to yourself so as not to be an ass. Instead of religious credos being too dangerous to utter in public, mentioning them becomes something of a social gaffe, like blurting out your taste in pornography.

In their book “American Grace,” political scientists David Campbell and Robert Putnam celebrate the rise of religious tolerance in American life as a wellspring of social cohesion. It is hard not to agree with them that America is in an important sense better off today, with people of various religions getting along, than back in the day when people more easily rejected and shied away from each other over religious differences. Yet no one who sees religion as primarily about our attempts to establish a relationship to the metaphysical order and to the God who created it can be so cheerful. It is wonderful that we are all getting along better, but this has been achieved at the price of deep relativism and even theological incoherence. As PB writes, religion is today experienced primarily as an expression of the individual, projected outward.

None of this will be new to people who have been reading my blog for a while. But I did find this to be the most interesting passage of the entire essay:

Contemporary religion has been deracinated – separated from its cultural context. In the enchanted world religion was always felt as much as thought, because it was literally embedded into the social landscape and rituals of everyday life. That gave religion a solid foundation, and helped make defection difficult to even imagine. But now that the enchanted world has shattered, theology can no longer depend on the solid foundations of social practices. Almost the whole of Western Europe, for example, enjoys its quaint Christian culture (history, holidays, recipes, nice old buildings, church weddings) as part of its national identity, but hasn’t the faintest interest in Christianity. We are basically Christian naturalists, perhaps the ultimate insult to the old-time religion. Religion for us is an ethnic identity thing, not a belief thing.

On the other hand, the falling away of the cultural roots of religion means that those people interested in personal spirituality have more freedom than ever to download and try out a new theology. That drives the thriving market for religion already discussed. But it also has implications for the kind of religion that people can have. In particular accessing the wisdom of religion about the human condition (all those brilliant minds focussed on analysis and commentary for generations) requires more than reading the sacred book by itself (or in the case of many evangelicals, the few quotations they like). The reason many fundamentalists are so unpleasantly and rigidly righteous is that they are people of the book who lack the lived culture of the book. They mistake religious knowledge of the kind one can get by reading a book, like Euclid’s geometry, for religious wisdom, which requires a much deeper immersion and personal subordination to the culture of that religion. Fundamentalists, and their worried observers, make an even bigger mistake in believing that religious movements based on literalist readings of sacred texts constitute a revival of the old-time religion. They are a fundamentally modern phenomena of individuals searching for meaning in their own lives and fitting together a personal theology from bits and pieces of texts that suit them and then searching for groups that agree with them.

This reminds me of a (friendly) dispute I once got into with the Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian, at the Russell Kirk Center. Guroian expressed deep skepticism of my acceptance of Orthodox Christianity — not my sincerity, but of the possibility of it. Guroian’s point, as I remember it, is that Orthodoxy can only truly be transmitted by culture. To accept the ideas within Orthodoxy is not the same thing as being Orthodox, he said. I objected to this for obvious reasons. For one, Christianity is a missionary faith, and a position like Guroian’s rules out conversion, which is nonsense. For another, it makes a religion of culture. (I suspect I may be misstating Guroian’s position here; I am going from memory).

But in light of the PB passage above, I think I understand better what Guroian may have been getting at. I was new to Orthodoxy at the time, but five years on, it’s much more clear to me how so much of it depends on a profound cultural matrix that I do not and cannot possibly have. That’s not to say that I’m not authentically a communicant of the Orthodox Church, but it is to say that that ontological state is more of a formality than I might think. It’s like this: At the age of 39, a man immigrates from Russia to the United States, and becomes a citizen. In the eyes of the law, he is every bit as American as I am. But he doesn’t have the cultural matrix deep within him telling him what it’s like to be an American. It’s not an insult to him to make this observation. It is entirely possible that if he immerses himself within a Russian ghetto, and only speaks Russian, to other emigres, he will spend the rest of his life as an American only in the strictly legal sense. The transformation will not have taken place.

Now, to think about our own 21st-century America, the cultural matrix for religion is based on individualism, emotivism, pluralism. You can’t escape it. Unless you are Amish, a Hasidic Jew, or some other sort of strict separatist, religion is inescapably a choice. You are free to choose your faith, or no faith at all; in fact, to put it in existentialist terms, you are condemned to choose. That is, you can’t simply accept what has been given to you — or rather, you can, but it requires a conscious choice in a way that previous generations didn’t have to choose. You could always refuse it, and the refusal needn’t occasion a dramatic exit, but a mere fading away.

People like me, who think about this business a lot, and who really do believe there is a sacred, metaphysical order independent of human will, and that God has revealed to us, more or less, how to live by it, we see the relativism and the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and despair. We may commit ourselves to a recovery effort, but absent a cultural matrix and a common moral imagination that conceives of religion primarily as an attempt to immanentize the sacred order imperfectly, we are in an extremely difficult situation. How can you be a traditionalist when Tradition has been shattered? We are living in the condition analogized this way by Alasdair MacIntyre in “After Virtue”:

Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a know-nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are re-embodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.

MacIntyre says this is what has happened to our moral discourse — and, of course, to our religious discourse. We are living in the ruins. In many ways, it’s a lovely, pleasant place. But it is still a ruin. Welcome to postmodernism.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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