Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Failure of the Secular Dream

Back in the 1960s, Harvey Cox, an American Theologian published "The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective". There were a number of books all talking about "The Death of God". It seemed at the time, and certainly also in the 1970s and 1980s, that science was on the advance, and religion was in serious decline. This was, after all, the "white heat of the technological revolution" to use Harold Wilson's phrase.
The prediction was that belief in God would decline, and certainly would give way to science, especially in the field of the evolution, and the geological history of the planet. All the froth of the secular society was stirred up in John Robinson's "Honest to God" in which the Bishop criticised infantile notions of a "God above" and heaven as skyward. As it is now quite a well-known sociological phenomenon that adults tend to retain infantile beliefs in God, and then discard those as outgrown, this had quite a liberating impact. What it did not address, however, was whether there were pathways to a more mature religious belief available, and this was to have effects later on in the backlash against the secular dream.
For science is not one uniform matter. It is quite easy to have branches of science that never seem to clash with religious beliefs, such as chemistry or physics. And it is quite easy to have compartmentalised beliefs. So someone can believe in a literal Adam and Eve and at the same time, understand and apply modern medicine. This ability to think in compartments was something that the thinkers about secular society simply didn't understand. The theologian Rudolf Bultmann notably claimed that people who switch on electric light bulbs and who listen to radios would find it hard to believe in miracles and in spirits. This was at the heart of the secular thesis, and it proved to be completely fallacious.
It was also unclear how much underpinning the development of human rights had in the Judeo-Christian background, and whether it could survive coherently without that. What is the justification for human rights? That meant that philosophers had to be involved in the debate, as for example with John Rawls' Theory of Justice.
By the year 2000, however, the religious landscape had changed in very different ways from those predicted in the 1960s. Far from declining, Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms were on the rise. Legal challenges about evolution in schools were being mounted in America. And in 2001, the Islamic radicals moved into action with devastating effect, leading to a response from America in which President George W Bush spoke of the war on terrorism as a "Crusade", a term replete with religious overtones.
In Europe, however, Christian fundamentalism remained small scale, and the trend was towards the "New Age" - partly a religious phenomena which preferred the term "spiritual" but also a part of consumer culture with "Mind Body and Spirit" events and products. The revival of Paganism, such as Wicca or Druidry had been around for some time, but it also saw a remarkable upsurge of interest. The expansion of the shelves on these subjects in bookshops was a good indicator of its popularity. It was no longer marginal.
Often this appeal was to people who had discarded infantile notions of Christianity, and found the purely secular world had too little to offer to their needs.
The counterpoint was the rise of a militant form of atheism, most notable in the writings of AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. These writers beat the drum for rationality without ever coming to terms with the fact that what people believe is very often not rational.
Many people believe in the existence of ghosts, for example, without ever placing them in a particular coherent framework of belief; it is what one might call folk-belief, or preternatural belief. When more formal frameworks of belief may be jettisoned, folk-belief invariably remains, and all the arguments in the world by the "new atheists" make no difference. A surprisingly large number of people have what militant atheists term superstitions, but are better described by the more neutral term of "folk belief".
In Europe, however, a considerable degree of secularisation still prevails, although moderated by folk-belief. In America, fundamentalist Christianity is more prevalent than ever; it is unlikely that an openly atheist President would ever be elected.
But the situation with Islam is more alarming. Recent activity by militants in Bangladesh has calls for the death penalty to be pronounced against atheists who speak out, because in criticising Islam and its prophet, they are committing blasphemy. It is not a category that would today get much time in the courts, either of Europe or the United States, but it is one, which is increasingly dominant in nations where Islam is dominant.
Protesters in a recent rally in Bangladesh chanted, "God is great, hang the atheist bloggers". This was a rally of around 100,000 which is certainly a high figure, although small in the overall country population. But these are militant activists, and quite capable of taking the law into their own hands if the state does not do so.
What of the future? In Britain, at any rate, a degree of secular society will remain, with militant atheism fighting a rearguard action. Richard Dawkin's "Enemies of Reason" is a near perfect example of an inability to really engage with folk-beliefs rather than firing of salvoes at people who engage in dowsing, astrology, fortune telling, homeopathy and the like.
Churches which offer more fundamentalist approaches, and hence more intolerance, will actually attract members because they can sound the note of certainty in an age of uncertainty. But they will also provide New Age holistic style worship with a strong touchy-feely emotional core, such as New Wine. Emotional fulfilment and fundamentalist Christianity can be very appealing, even if it can be a toxic combination.
New Age and folk-beliefs will remain at the heart of today's society with crystals, tarot cards, etc. This is unlikely to diminish as folk-belief has never gone away, but in the absence of more formal outlets of religious practice, this has been expanding to fill the gap.
Modern forms of Paganism are not evangelistic, and sometimes face prejudices, but they will continue to grow at a steady rate. Interestingly, there is a trend of teenagers taking an interest in Neopaganism and then mostly discarding it, rather like teenagers who have experienced a Christian conversion. At its heart, Neopaganism requires discipline and knowledge for rituals, and those who dabble on the fringes at one time or another often lose interest; it is for the committed as much as Christianity.
For many people, Christianity will remain for rites of passage - baptism of children, marriage in church, funeral services, as it can provide a structure which has not been replicated by humanists. But church attendance is probably becoming something of a minority practice for those committed, in its more traditional forms.
But the ideal of an increasingly secular society, as envisaged in the 1960s, and seen as the direction of progress, has shown itself as an illusion. The older notions of history, still vestigial in the 1970s, saw a progress in technology, and a discarding of non-scientific beliefs. But history has no direction, and the secular dream has failed; it is just as likely that religious extremism and fundamentalism will become more militant over the next decade.

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