Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Sources of Secularism: Science, Globalization and Our Religions

7/24/2007--A massive shift is occurring at the beginning of the 21st century in which millions of people are moving away from the religious traditions of their cultures into the technological/commercial inferno we can call secularization. By and large this is not a good thing for people. Yes, many people are liberated from barbaric traditional practices and gross superstition. And secularization brings medical marvels and sometimes economic prosperity. But not always and at great cost.

The cost does not really matter because the trend seems to me to be permanent. In fact the trend seems to be growing. Secularization did not begin in the 20th century and it will not end in the 21st century. I imagine its victory, in the sense that secularism will no longer seem even to be significant--it will just be the way things are--sometime after 2100.

What makes the process of secularization seem inevitable is that it works at the level of what is believable. According to the political philosopher Eric Voegelin, epiphanies—revelations of the truth of order—occur throughout history, from Genesis through Buddhist teaching to Christianity, and in many other manifestations. Each new revelation succeeds to the extent that its symbols express the “ ‘common sense’ of a period, that is, its ability to speak not in a distant-alien idiom but with an ‘authority commonly present in everybody’s consciousness.’”[1] Secularism today captures our common sense of how things are. This is the same idea that Pope Benedict intends when he writes that the heart of the Christian message--that God allowed the healing of man through the death of his Son—“no longer seems plausible to us today.”[2] It isn’t so much that we deny these as that they don’t seem possible and therefore do not really challenge us at all.

The unreality of Our Religions is what has happened to me and perhaps to you. At one time I was a believer--more or less--a liberal Jew. Then, at a certain point, it took too much effort to listen to words that could not be true. And the worst part of this process, the part most revealing of how cut off you are from your tradition, is that you don’t even feel you have lost anything. It is true that Soren Kierkegaard wrote of “the leap of faith” as the basis for religious life and I suppose that the message of salvation has always seemed unlikely. Nevertheless, I simply can no longer believe, at least not in the old way.

Our Religions do not disappear in this process. In fact, they remain robust, first in opposition to secularism and then later in dialogue with it. Most people will probably remain believers in every generation. The deterioration of religious civilization takes a long time. I am certain that in the period after 2100, when I have said the triumph of secularism will be complete, Judaism, Christianity and all Our Religions will still be present and viable to many. But they will be secondary to the culture.

This event, the displacement of Our Religions, although it will take place gradually, will signify a new era in human history. Whatever you may think of secularism today, I assure you that religion is still primary. The religious struggle against secularism is still ongoing. When it ends, the world will look quite different.

[1] Fred R. Dallmayr, Margins of Political Discourse, 77 (SUNY Press 1989)(quoting from Eric Voegelin’s Search for Order).
[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 159 (Doubleday 2007)(trans. Adrian J. Walker).

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