Acton Institute Powerblog

The political theology of global secularism, part 2: secularization and the re-emergence of myth

This is part two of our series, “The Political Theology of Global Secularism.” You may read part one here. Check back frequently for forthcoming installments. – Ed.

David Foster Wallace wrote of our secular age:

[I]n the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

In the first part of this series, I distinguished different facets of globalization from the rise of global secularism as an ideology distinct from, and more ambitious than, mere economic integration.

Before discussing some of the main characteristics of global secularism, I think a brief overview of the genealogy of secularization will help put in context the “religious” nature of contemporary global secularism.

As Western secularism reaches its final stages, instead of perfect scientific rationality, we are seeing the reemergence of mythology, pantheism, irrational religion, and fascination with the occult. We hear of chiliastic, techno-utopian visions of transhumanism and “fully automated luxury communism” in which artificial intelligence and robots do all the work, inequality disappears, designer babies divorce procreation from natural reproduction, and death has been solved by biohacking and uploading ourselves to servers. These ideas, many of which animate global secularism, cannot be understood apart from the idea of secular redemption. In order to comprehend this impulse, we need to see it in light of the history of secularization in the West.

What is secularism?

The first distinction to make is between “secular” and “secularism.” “Secular” simply refers to anything having to do with the natural world rather than the sacred. Secular is different from secularism, which is a principle that there should be no religious interference in the things of the world. Radical secularism, which is growing today, is the view that religion should be at most a private matter or possibly banned altogether.

Secularization is the process of removing religion from the world, or at least clearly demarcating the sacred and the profane or worldly. In the West, secularization has gone through a number of iterations A good working definition comes from Peter Berger in his book The Sacred Canopy: “Secularization is a process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”

In Europe and the U.S., Christian churches are no longer involved in areas of political and social life that were formerly under their influence. Religion and church leaders have decreasing to no influence on the state. Arenas like marriage and perjury laws are no longer under Church jurisdiction. Expropriation of church property and the rise of state education are all aspects of this secularization.

Berger argues that secularization affects the totality of cultural life. He says we see this in the “decline of religious contents in the arts, philosophy, literature, and most important of all in rise of science as autonomous, secular perspective on the world.”

Berger notes that this has profound influence on individual consciousness. Individuals look at the world and their own lives without any framework of religious interpretation or meaning. This is similar to what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has called practical atheism – living as if God did not exist. Rene Girard notes that there is an increasing inability to see the religious roots of civilization. In one sense, secularism is a manifestation of modernity and the focus on the empirical. As Roger Scruton explained:

We know that we are animals, parts of the natural order, bound by laws which tie us to the material forces which govern everything. We believe that the gods are our invention, and that death is exactly what it seems. Our world has been disenchanted and our illusions destroyed.

Secularism is very complex and has many causes over the centuries. Yet I think a brief look at the genealogy of secularism in the West can help shed some light on the current state of global secularism, especially its paradoxically religious nature.

A very brief genealogy of secularism

The development of secularism is not simply a linear progression. But looking at the work of thinkers like Peter Berger, Christopher Dawson, Joseph Ratzinger, and others, we do see a trend toward increasing secularism.

Israel

The first movement or stage of secularism is found in ancient Israel’s demythologization of life. It may sound surprising that secularism begins with the Hebrew Bible, but ancient religions in Mesopotamia, Greece, and throughout the world worshipped nature and saw the world as the product of primordial forces. The Hebrew Bible contradicts this narrative. Contrary to dominant religious beliefs of the time, the Hebrew Bible declares that the sun, moon, stars, and nature are not divine. The world is not run by competing demonic powers or made out of dragon’s flesh but is created by a God of reason and declared good. As Ratzinger noted, “To the people of that age it must have seemed a terrible sacrilege to designate the great gods sun and moon as lamps for measuring time.” By rejecting the pagan myths, Ratzinger argues:

[T]his creation account may be seen as the decisive “enlightenment” of history out of the fears that had oppressed humankind. It placed the world in the context of reason and recognized the world’s reasonableness and freedom.

The Hebrew Bible rejects the divinity of the world and posits a God of love and reason as the Creator of an intelligible universe. This, along with the rise of philosophy in Greece, also de-divinizes the world and leads to a shift from mythos to philosophy and what Eric Voegelin calls the “differentiation of the psyche.”

Christianity

A further force driving secularization is the rise of Christianity. First and foremost, Christianity universalizes the Jewish rejection of myth. It also affirms the creation of a good, reasonable, and intelligible world. As Girard notes, it exposes the violence that lies under all myth. Myths were not simply stories but religious events that ritualized violence, often culminating in human sacrifice. Christianity, following Judaism, rejects this. It also aligns with certain Hellenic philosophical traditions to further demythologize the West.

One of the most important things that Christianity does is that it desacralizes the state. It declares that the state and the emperor are not divine. Jesus’ commandment to “[r]ender to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” were revolutionary in their time, because it created a separation of religion and politics. The Church, “by definition, limits the state,” Lord Acton noted, whereas in the ancient world, “in religion, morality, and politics, there was only one legislator and one authority.” Christianity de-divinizes the state and politics, creating space not only for religion, but for the secular order. This is not to say that Christians have always followed this paradigm. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants have all politicized religion, but the essential distinction between the secular and the sacred remained.

Medieval and Renaissance thought

The medieval period and the Renaissance saw different contributions to the secularization such ass the rise of cities (city air makes one free), the commercial revolution, the development of the scientific method, and the rise of national languages. Christopher Dawson has argued that the seeds of modernity were found in the Renaissance, which “represents a secularization of the world from the monastic ideal of religious contemplation to the active life of lay society.” He writes that “life was regarded not as a pilgrimage towards eternity, but as a fine art in which every opportunity for knowledge and enjoyment was to be cultivated.” Dawson also notes the role of the discovery of the New World; new discoveries in art and science; and a new, aesthetic attitude that was less religious and more worldly.

The Protestant Reformation

The next major factor in the genealogy of secularism in the West was the Reformation. This was a decisive turn. Berger describes Protestantism as an “immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality.” Among other things, the Reformation did away with sacramental order and the sacerdotal priesthood. It generally removed prayer for the dead and both devotion to and the intercession of the saints. This had a profound impact on the connection between the living and the dead and the rise of a new kind of individualism and orientation toward the future.

Berger argues that the Protestant believer no longer lived in a world penetrated by sacred beings and forces. Reality became polarized between a “radically transcendent divinity” on one hand, and a radically “fallen” humanity devoid of sacred qualities on the other. What remained was the “natural” universe, lacking any sacred character. Gone were ideas like those of St. Bonaventure and his semiotic metaphysics, which sees everything as both a thing in itself and a sign pointing to God. The world is too natural to be a carrier of the divine.

Berger argues that the person is “thrown” into this fallen world, which makes him totally reliant upon a God Who is extrinsic to it. The theological purpose was to highlight man’s fallen nature and his radical need for God. But after a time, the “disenchantment” and desacralization of sacred creation made God’s presence in our daily lives, and ultimately His existence and care for daily life, less plausible.

This also carried political implications. The rise of Protestantism led to national religions where the state, the king, and the people “chose” the religion. Catholic and Protestant states sprang up in which religion became highly politicized, and often subsumed by the state.

This is a complex topic, but what is significant for our purposes here is that we see both a politicization of religion and the re-divinization of the state. As religious belief declines, the divinization of the state becomes unchecked by any competing “divine” power, and the state becomes immanently re-divinized.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a watershed in Western secularization. During this time, God became increasingly privatized. Francis Bacon argued for a shift from knowledge for its own sake to seeking knowledge for power or practical reasons. Immanuel Kant argued against the superstition of religion and in favor of a religion of purified reason. The radically transcendent God of the Reformation is transformed into a Deist conception of “Providence.”

The Enlightenment was not a monolithic rejection of God, of course. Religion was still practiced, but it became an increasingly private affair. We also see different manifestation of secularism between the United States – where religion was not formally established but widely practiced, and where it exerted great influence on social and political life – and the radical secularism of the French Revolution, where churches were destroyed and religious believers were persecuted.

Nineteenth-century materialism

The nineteenth century saw the radical extension of the Enlightenment, where the remnant god of Deism soon gives way to pure materialism and the rejection of anything divine or transcendent. Matter is all there is, and faith is replaced by science, which will explain all of reality. Like the myths of old, the Judeo-Christian God is now completely removed from the picture.

Ludwig Feuerbach and others declared that God is an obstacle to man’s greatness. Darwinism explained our origins and obviated the need for a telos. Freudianism replaced the need for the soul. And Marxism offered a technical solution to suffering and poverty. At this time, what Max Weber calls the “disenchantment of the world” came to full fruition.

The Enlightenment’s secular project had been completed, but the dark underside of reason unhinged from creation and goodness began to appear. The removal of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the rejection of Jesus as the Logos came at a cost to reason itself.

The end of secularism?

An essential part of this disenchantment is the loss of what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination, a stripping away of anything non-empirical. We become what C.S. Lewis described as “men without chests,” robbed of our patrimony and our humanity. There is a loss of any authentic sense of the self. We are simply the product of random forces.

In this late stage of secularism, we profess our devotion to reason purified from anything but the empirical. Empirical facts alone are reasonable. Goodness, beauty, justice, and morality are archaic concepts of our religious past. Reason and science will lead the way to progress.

But if nothing is good, neither is reason or progress. If there are no moral principles, why then is reason better than irrationality? The descent to nihilism is unavoidable. Stanley Rosen writes in Nihilism:

A completely factual description, whether of the universe or human action, makes no claim to define good, whereas this is precisely the claim of a moral principle. Either, then, moral principles are not rational, or to be rational means something more than “to assert what is the case,” or finally, there are more things that are the case that is currently dreamt up by spokesmen for reason. Thus, the question of the relationship between reason and goodness goes much deeper than the nature of morality. For unless reason is good, I venture to say that morality has no nature, but is mere conventionalism, or arbitrary attribution of sense to nonsense. Even worse the “choice” of reason however resolute or sincere, is itself the certification of nonsense as the basis for the significance of sense, and this is nihilism.

Reason apart from the goodness and intelligibility of creation cannot hold. Man cannot live by reason alone. And of course, he does not.

We don’t actually live like this. We are religious beings, and we will have a religion of some kind or another: The question is whether it will be rational or not. Hyper-rationality ultimately results in irrationality and opens the door to new types of paganism and religious fervor.

Nihilism and the re-emergence of myth

G.K. Chesterton wrote that when you stop believing in God, you start believing in anything. What we are witnessing today is the re-emergence of myth. A disenchanted world can only last so long before re-enchantment takes place. But without the Jewish or Christian God, irrational myths emerge.

We saw this in the French Revolution, and twentieth-century totalitarianism is a testament to it. And we are witnessing it, albeit in a different form, in modern technocracy. Transhumanism, techno-utopianism, fascination with aliens, the idea that we might be living in a computer simulation run by a more advanced civilization, the multiverse, psychedelics, Burning Man, pantheism (as predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville), fascination with Eastern meditation, the occult, Wicca, tarot and so on are all on the rise. I once heard a podcast interview with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio where he and the hosts laughed about religion and Adam and Eve, and then proceeded to talk about how the world might have been created by aliens.

The re-emergence of myth and gnostic insight into the mysteries of the universe is often dressed up as science. It is a widespread phenomenon that infects everyone, but it holds a special allure for the elites because of their intelligence, and because they think themselves immune. They are inebriated by the promise of technocracy. They believe that the time has finally come, and a global, secular order guided by science can solve the problem of man.

I have given an admittedly very cursory overview of the genealogy of secularism. My purpose is not to explain secularization as such, but rather to highlight the re-emergence of myth and irrational religion, and thereby put into context the phenomenon of technocracy and global secularism. As I argued in the first essay, in order to understand the process of global secularism, we have to go beyond political economy and see it as a recurring theme of the Tower of Babel: a religious attempt to solve the problems of evil, division, and death through technical means. In the forthcoming essays in this series, I will examine several characteristics of global secularism and discuss its religious character.

Related:

Part 1: globalization and the ideology of secularism

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute