The Fragility of Secular Faith

I have been reading a number of articles published on Ethika Politika, the online journal of the Center for Morality in Public Life. A recent contribution by Ryan Shinkel, “Nietzsche and the Vitality of a Post-Secular Europe,” makes the observation that Western society seeks to enjoy the ethical benefits of a Christian foundation without acknowledging its spiritual traditions.

Even a heterodox theorist like Friedrich Nietzsche, according to Shinkel, observed that it was “shortsighted to continue upholding the content of beliefs while rejecting what inspired them.” It is interesting that the German thinker was repudiating the secularized piety of novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) who thought that “intuitive” English notions of decency were sufficient. Britain’s rampant twenty-first century Yob culture, at any rate, seems to disprove Eliot’s spiritual complacency.  This reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s quip that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” The American skeptic could take the Christian ethos for granted because most contemporaries believed otherwise. Today, things appear rather different.

Shinkel says that an awareness of the stark metaphysical gaps in our civilization has prompted the non-believer Jürgen Habermas to lament the fact that our “enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping” with death. The nonconformist Marxist theorist, Terry Eagleton, has offered similar insights in his critique of Christopher Hitchens and others.

It might be said that Nietzsche, Habermas and Eagleton are acknowledging (in a purely negative way) Samuel Johnson’s unequivocal judgment: “Christianity is the highest perfection of humanity.” I realize this may seem a triumphalist or hypocritical boast. Certainly not every good man is Christian, and vice versa. Yet even the very judgments that critics tend to level against my religion are derived from Christian assumptions. When, for example, they condemn Christians of the past for practicing slavery or marginalizing women, they can do so only because the Church laid the groundwork for their sensitivity on these issues.

We are all aware of the shortcoming of believers. I would argue that those faults are unavoidable wherever you find people, regardless of their creed. At the same time these shortcoming are to a large extent ameliorated by Christianity. The faith is ultimately about the destiny of individuals — salvation does not come to us via ideologies, national identity or economic status. There is, however, something to be said for looking at its impact in the aggregate. Aside from the terrible and scandalous “Wars of Religion,” which Christians themselves were eventually able to overcome, the injustices imposed by anti-religious regimes are of a magnitude far beyond those of traditional Christian communities. Systems of morality and belief can never be justified on a purely statistical basis. But neither should these empirical facts be simply overlooked.

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