The Challenge of Secularism

One of the key areas in the A2 Development of Christian Thought is the question of Christianity’s contribution to society’s culture and values. Not only to what extent it has contributed but also to what extent it should contribute. These are two different questions. Many secularists would agree that it has contributed significantly to society’s culture and values in the past but disagree that it should continue to do so in the future.

Christopher Dawson whose theories I examine below said “a culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture, however prosperous it may appear externally” – he called this the ‘central conviction’ of all his work, and he argues most forcefully for it in The Crisis of Western Education. Joseph Ratzinger also points to the religious connotations of the word ‘culture’, which has its roots in the word ‘cultus’ meaning cultivation or worship. He argues that the West is undergoing an attempt to divorce culture from cultus which leads to dangerous forms of rationality which devalue the human person.

To what extent is Christianity a significant contributor to society’s culture and values? To what extent should it be?

“The great world cultures, like China and India and Islam, are classical examples of a moral order. Each of them possesses or possessed a sacred law and system of values on which its social life was founded.

The Western world today no longer possesses this principle of moral order. It has become so deeply secularised that it no longer recognises any common system of spiritual values, while its philosophers have tended to isolate the moral concept from its cultural context and have attempted to create an abstract subjective system of pure ethics. If this were all, we should be forced to conclude that modern Western society does not possess a civilisation, but only a technological order resting on a moral vacuum.

But Western society inherits the tradition of one of the greatest of the civilisations in the world, and in so far as one recognises this bond we are still civilised and it is still possible to restore moral order by a return to the spiritual principles on which our Christian civilisation was based. “

Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education

Earlier in this work, Dawson defines civilisation as a super culture – and argues that it is inherent within such super cultures to have their organising principles in sacred laws and values.

Here he argues that if we follow secularising forces where they inevitably lead, we will not have a civilisation at all, as we will lack an organising system of values, and we will have or already do have, a technological order resting on a moral vacuum.

Such an order will rapidly either destroy itself or die out. Such an order is unsustainable. ‘Instrumental reason’ as Charles Taylor calls it, is the method of dominant reasoning in such a secular age, and such reasoning can be easily hijacked by the merely powerful in pursuit of their own ends.

Interestingly, Dawkins himself, scourge of believers, seems almost sympathetic to such a viewpoint in many of his writings. He talks of the comfort he feels on entering an old church and he seems to be aware of the magnitude of what was lost. However, he wants to keep such musings at a purely aesthetic level, for his world view cannot allow Christian culture to have any intellectual punch. For him, it is a lot of stories you tell to children to comfort them when they are scared or sad. He invests in the simplistic view that religion is something to be outgrown, left behind like the childhood toys of the human race, and here he follows to a degree, Freud and Marx.

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