Does Modern Secularism Have a Memory Problem? | Word on Fire

Source: Does Modern Secularism Have a Memory Problem? | Word on Fire

This is a truly superb article, to which I was pointed by a friend (you know who you are!); such that I almost cannot praise it strongly enough. Among the many excellent insights contained herein:

“After many years of awkward silence, the secular media is finally recognizing some of the most profound social problems facing American society… The Atlantic woke up to smell the coffee earlier this year, running an article arguing that America’s secularization has made the political climate less tolerant and more antagonistic…

To publications that often criticize religion, like The Atlantic, rising secularism breeding unrest is counterintuitive. But it makes perfect sense. Sociologists have long known about the link between religious observance and social stability. A devout person is more likely to be financially stable, avoid addiction, maintain a marriage, and generally healthier than a less observant person in the same socioeconomic profile.

“In other words, religious people perform better in key categories of social stability than their less religious peers living under the same conditions. That stability (or lack thereof) has serious political implications, and we see it playing out now with certain grassroots political organizations showing flashes of violence and demagoguery.”

As I read this, I cannot help but think of our first President (under the Constitution), the ever-wise George Washington, who warned us – literally centuries ago – in his Farewell Address (1796) of what could happen:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.”

Yet that is exactly what far too many people have been doing, for the last five or six decades. And we are surprised that things are going poorly?

Then there is this:

“For the secular humanist, the uncomfortable reality is that the modern notion of human rights is rooted in Christian social morality… However, the modern secularist faces perhaps an even more uncomfortable reality: the modern concept of human rights, being so inextricably linked to religious principles, may need religion in order to survive. Contemporary secular ethics may be running on the warped residue of Judeo-Christian morality, but that residue is thinning. Will it be enough to stop the ‘will to power’ that so thoroughly infected secular ideologies in the last century but has so far been avoided in this one?”

And this reminds me of a point that I have made, for more than a few years (decades…?), now, and in a number of different contexts, myself: that what we often think – and its practitioners very much like to think – of as “secular ethics” is, in fact, living off the interest accrued by the moral capital accumulated over two to three millennia of Judeo-Christian morality.

That is to say, there are indeed secularists and even atheists whose moral standards – whose virtue – is incontestable; the equal, in some or many cases often the superior, of many who profess devout religious faith. But when you look at the actual content of those ethical beliefs and standards, what you will find is that they conform, in all or nearly all essentials, to Judeo-Christian morality (or occasionally Buddhist, to be fair).

In other words:

a) they were not created out of whole cloth by the person concerned; they are part of a classical ethical / moral tradition – which in the West, is nearly always the Judeo-Christian tradition; and

b) even if it is rooted in Classical (pre-Christian) philosophy, that philosophy itself has informed and infused the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, alongside the Scriptural witness of the Old and New Testaments; and furthermore

c) if one is, in fact, Christian, one cannot avoid the realization that those pre-Christian philosophical precepts which are indeed morally virtuous are examples of human response to the moral law implanted in the Cosmos by its Creator.

When one tries to break away from any classical tradition of ethics (whether rooted in natural law, Biblical teachings, or both), and create one’s own ethics out of whole cloth, one finds oneself in the realm of situational or utilitarian ethics, relativism, and social Darwinism. In other words, you end up with a system of “ethics” which is in fact ethically vicious (tending toward vice) rather than virtuous (tending toward virtue).

I think of George Washington, once again, from the same Farewell Address:

“And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principle.”

And I would add, or personal morality, either, for that matter!

Author: The Anglophilic Anglican

I am an ordained Anglican clergyman, published writer, former op-ed columnist, and experienced outdoor and informal educator. I am also a traditionalist: religiously, philosophically, politically, and socially. I seek to do my bit to promote and restore the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in a world which has too-often lost touch with all three, and to help re-weave the connections between God, Nature, and humankind which our techno-industrial civilization has strained and broken.

One thought on “Does Modern Secularism Have a Memory Problem? | Word on Fire”

  1. Excellent! I’m embarrassed to say that I had never considered the “running on the residue” idea. That explains a lot, and it’s a good arrow to have in my quiver.

    Liked by 1 person

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