Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Rise of Secularism

On the 23rd of this month I posted an article critiquing the tendency to treat government like a mother. I suggested, as an antidote to this tendency, that we should think of the church as mother. In the following two posts I wish to build on that foundation by considering the role that epistemology in general, and matter-spirit dualism in particular, has played in removing the mantle of motherhood from Church and bestowing it on statecraft. To do this I will have to take a long rabbet trial and explain about the origins of secularism.


Why has our society forgotten who Mother is? Since this is an historical question, there are necessarily a multiplicity of equally correct ways to answer it, seeing that every historical event is the product of a network of causation. Therefore, as I follow a certain thread of cause and effects, the reader should keep this in mind that there are dozens of similar threads that I might just as easily charted. This is an important qualification lest it be assumed that I am claiming more than I am. Just as the metaphor of mother was only one among many that I might have chosen to describe the Church (with each yielding its own peculiar field of insights), so the historical sequence I am about to outline is one among a myriad of causal progressions antecedent to the neurosis earlier described.

The problem on which I wish to focus our attention is matter/spirit dualism. While such dualism goes all the way back to the pre-Socratics, it is the philosophy of Empiricism that gives us the pedigree to the modern manifestation of this heresy. Empiricism is part of the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. Epistemology is the study or science of knowing. An epistemological question, therefore, is a question about knowledge.

Empiricism is an epistemological system which asserts that the only legitimate means for acquiring knowledge is through the five senses.

At first this doesn’t seem such a very strange thing to say. After all, it is difficult to imagine what we could know if we were deprived of our sense of smell, touch, taste, and most importantly, our sense of sight and hearing. But, of course, nobody would deny that the five senses play a crucial part in bringing knowledge to our minds. That is not the issue. The question is: are the senses the only means by which knowledge is acquired? If yes, then it follows that those things which are necessarily beyond the scope of sense perception – such as God, the soul, angels, heaven and hell, etc. – are necessarily outside the scope of objective knowledge.

Though the tension between the empirical method and abstract speculation has always been at the heart of the Western philosophical tradition, going back to controversies between Plato and Aristotle and then finding renewed expression in the debates between the medieval Nomists and Realists, the radical empiricism of the Enlightenment owes its roots to Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

Bacon and the Divided Field of Knowledge

Bacon believed that if the empirical method could be properly adopted, then science would flourish, enabling man to regain that mastery over nature which he had lost at the fall of Adam. Bacon’s vision of scientific progress was utopian in so far as he believed that science – as embodied in the concrete methodology of empiricism – would herald a new age of mankind and progress.

Bacon’s thinking was in reaction to the Western philosophical tradition of the medieval Scholastics, with their emphasis on deductive proofs and a priori categories of logic. The legacy of such abstract, non-empirical thinking, Bacon believed, held the West back from the scientific revolution that lay at the door.

Not only did Bacon teach that knowledge through concrete observation was the way of the future and progress but he also preached that this was the only truly ‘humble’ way. To vainly presume our minds capable of discovering any truth through abstract reasoning was symptomatic of the worst type of intellectual pride.

The implications of Bacon’s divided field went beyond simply a polarization between deduction and induction or between the experimental method vs. deductive reasoning. It affected the more practical categories of science vs. religion, reason vs. faith, nature vs. theology, etc.. This is because the principles on which religion, faith and theology depended were outside the realm of empirical observation (or so Bacon assumed). According to Bacon, each of these realms operated according to a different set of rules. As Tarnis put it, summarizing Bacon’s thought, “Each realm had its own laws and its own appropriate method…. Kept rightly separate, both theology and science could better flourish…”[1]

Because belief in God belonged in the non-empirical category, it followed necessarily that it is impossible to infer anything about God from the natural world. (A walk round the pond with Coleridge and Wordsworth would have been torture for Bacon.) Thus, Bacon wrote that

Nothing of God’s nature and essence is to be found through the study of this world. There is no divine efficiency in its movement or divine form in its structure. It possesses no divine causation, divine motivation or any attributes of divinity. It is formed matter acting through varieties of locomotion inherent within itself and nothing more.[2]

Bacon was followed by others who advocated this rift between religious truth vs. normal truth and knowledge vs. faith. For example, Benedict De Spinoza (1632-77) taught that the purpose of scripture and religion is to give a simple moral message, as epitemized in the injunction “Love your neighbor”, but is quite distinct from what he called “natural truth.” In his Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza was very concerned to show that faith is something separate from philosophy and that “philosophy and religion, reason and faith, inhabit two distinct and exclusive spheres, and neither should tread in the domain of the other.”[3]

Empiricism and Rationalism

During the 17th century, thinkers continued to develop the empiricist concept with an increasing degree of philosophical sophistication. On the other side of the coin, there continued to be thinkers who followed in the Scholastic, Aristotelian tradition against which empiricism was a reaction. These were known as rationalists. The goal of the rationalist was to attain certainty through abstraction rather than observation. Where the empiricist began by opening his eyes to the world around him, the rationalist began by defining his terms and stating the first principles or axioms from which to reason. The paradigm for the rationalist was not science but geometry, yet at the same time they used rationalistic principles as the basis for learning about the natural world (a method which, if they were not careful, could lead to an unhelpful imposition of conceptual categories onto material nature).

Descartes was the prime example of a rationalist. He started by doubting everything, including the elements of perception. He was then able to deduce his own existence since he must first exist in order to doubt (hence, his famous Cogito ergo sum.) From there Descartes gradually reasoned his way to a belief in a perfect God, the material universe and other truths.

The rationalist method and the empiricist method were, in one sense, diametrically opposed. The rationalists affirmed the existence of metaphysical realities such as God and the soul, both of which were thought to be logical necessities, while the empiricists were scathing at the idea of objective knowledge about anything invisible. Yet, in many ways, both ideologies were two sides of the same coin. Both camps began with man’s mind as the starting point, believing it was possible for the intellect to autonomously attain certainty about reality. Both camps strongly reacted against external forms of authority. Both camps rebelled against what they perceived to be an irrational, unthinking past, and both camps championed a constricting, lopsided criteria for knowledge which ultimately reinforced the widening dived.

The Rift Widens

It was both these streams of thought that ran into the Enlightenment of the 18th century. The Enlightenment inherited a complex mesh of ideas, many of which were contradictory, but which contributed to a whole network of intuitions. The result was a kind of philosophical soup that could be constantly amended but which was rarely adequately assessed. Thus it was that the method of empiricism could be more loudly advanced during the 18th century while still retaining an emphasis on selected aspects of the rationalist method, such as reasoning from first principles and the assumption that there are a priori normatives of human nature. Similarly, we find Enlightenment writers like Hume and Diderot pushing abstract metaphysics firmly into the distance of a non-scientific past, but resurrecting it on certain select occasions in order to construct an argument for deism or to attack a specific tenet of Christian doctrine.

Contradictions not withstanding, it was the empiricist outlook that dominated the intellectual landscape of the Enlightenment, as epitomized by the Lockean dictum, “Nihil est in intellectu quod non antea fuerit in sens,” (“there is nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses”). One of the factors contributing to the domination of Empiricism was its confluence with a materialistic metaphysic. In a world where the only reality is that of material forces, it follows that our knowledge must come through the purely physical means of sense observation. Yet just as empiricism was the logical consequence of materialism, so the reverse is also true: materialism logically follows from empiricism. If the only kind of knowledge is that which we can attain through physical observation, then that which is beyond the scope of the physical world can never come under the category of knowledge. Therefore, since belief in such non-physical entities as the human soul, God, angels, heaven and hell, cannot be the subject of empirical observation, they must have arisen instead out of superstition, ignorance and lack of true knowledge.

With this outlook came a gradual, but eventually pervasive, acceptance of empiricism’s natural corollary, Bacon’s divided epistemology. This comes across in the seventeen volume Encyclopédie assembled by Diderot.[4] At the heart of this work is the recurring idea that the only reliable knowledge is that which comes through “particular observation”, as Diderot put it. This led to a pronounced scorn of metaphysics that confronted the reader right on the pictorial front piece of the work where there is a visual depiction which included, among other things, a female personification of Truth, Metaphysics, Reason, Theology and Philosophy. Significantly, truth is adorned with a veil which Reason and Philosophy are lifting off, which is a clear statement about the role reason and philosophy play in illuminating the truth for us. But what is Metaphysics doing? “Proud Metaphysics”, to quote from the ‘explication’ that accompanied the frontispiece, “tries to divine her {Truth’s} presence rather than to see her. Theology turns her back and waits for light from on high.”

The implied disjunction here between Reason and Theology, and similarly between Truth and Metaphysics, is indicative of Bacon’s divided epistemology. The fact that Theology turns her back on truth to await light from on high suggests the schism between religious truth and normal truth that was quickly widening during the Enlightenment. We see a further disjunction between thought (abstraction) and sight (induction/observation) implied by the picture of Reason and Philosophy removing the veil to look at Truth, while Metaphysics turns away to think about Truth.[5]

These bifurcations implicated a further series of dualities. If – as empiricism taught - any knowledge not acquired through the medium of the senses was outside the limits of objective publicly accessible knowledge, then matters of religion, metaphysics and spirituality must be subjective and private. Religious ideas could be a personal kind of truth that, by its very nature, need not have any relation to the outside world of fact.

Prior to these developments, thinkers had generally tried to achieve integration between these two spheres. The Enlightenment, following in the steps of Francis Bacon, said not only that such integration was unobtainable, but that to even seek it was a category confusion. Factual coherence need not be antecedent to religious belief since such belief is a personal, private, autonomous affair, freed from the constriction of objective fixity.

Lessing and the Three Rings

Gotthold Lessing (1729-81) was an important figure in the German Enlightenment. Lessing is probably best remembered for his play, Nathan the Wise, and the message of religious tolerance that it preaches. However, beneath the message of tolerance is another more subtle message which relates to the concept of truth and faith. To fully appreciate the significance of this, however, some background information about Lessing will be helpful.

In 1774, Lessing published the first of six extracts, collectively referred to as Fragments of an Anonymous Author. These extracts were taken from an enormous manuscript written by the lately deceased Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768). Reimarus had not published this work while alive because of the hugely controversial nature of its contents. The book is an outright attack on the Bible, suggesting that Jesus was an imprudent Jewish agitator whose messianic dreams came to nothing, that the disciples faked the resurrection for political purposes, and so on. Not surprisingly, when Lessing began publishing sections of Reimarus’ work, the Lutheran clergy were scandalized. A fierce debate ensued between Lessing and a few Lutheran pastors, in particularly the pastor Johann Goeze. In the course of 1778, Lessing wrote eleven diatribes to attack Goeze’s views. While Goeze upheld the inerrancy of scripture which Reimarus had attacked, Lessing argued for a separation of the spirit of the Bible from the letter of the Bible. In this way, Lessing hoped to clear away the mud in order that the “true Christianity” of the Bible might flourish, disengaged from the inessential and damaging doctrines also found in scripture.

For all Lessing’s high-minded ambitions, the debate with Goeze turned into little more than a mud-slinging match, with the famous champion of tolerance accusing Goeze of everything from hypocrisy to barbarity. Scandalized, Goeze approached the Duke of Brunswick who ordered that all Lessing’s future works be submitted to the censor. The result of this restriction was that Lessing simply began to promote his ideas through more subtle, innocuous means. Thus it was that in 1779 Lessing published his most famous work, Nathan the Wise.

Nathan the Wise takes place in Jerusalem at the time of the crusades, so Lessing is able to have interplay between all three of the main religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The portion of the play that is most famous, as well as most significant, is a parable that the wise Nathan tells to the Sultan. The Islamic Sultan had asked the Jewish Nathan to tell him which religion was the true one. Suspicious of the Sultan’s motives, Nathan answers with the parable of the three rings.

In this parable, there was once a rich man who possessed a magic ring. This ring had secret power which caused the owner of the ring to gain favour in the sight of God and humankind. Now the owner of this ring took precautions to leave the ring in his family, ensuring that it was faithfully passed on from generation to generation, from son to son. Finally, the ring reached a man who had three sons, each of which he loved alike. As the father drew near his death, he was in a quandary as to which son to leave the ring to since he had promised the ring, in turn, to each.

As a solution, the father secretly contacted a craftsman who made two identical replicas of the ring. Not being able to distinguished the original, the father left each son with one of the three rings. Of course, when the father died, disputes immediately arose between the sons since each believed the one they possessed to be the genuine ring.

At this point, Nathan pauses the story to say that just as it was impossible to distinguish which was the correct ring, in a similar way, we cannot trust ourselves to distinguish the grounds on which the different religions rest.

The story continues with each of the three sons believing their ring to be the true one since each had received it directly from the hand of the father. In the end the brothers take their problem before a judge. The judge enjoins the brothers that what is more important than knowing the truth about their rings, is the motivation and inspiration each will achieve through believing that their ring is the genuine one.

Thus ends the parable that Nathan used to answer the Sultan’s question, namely, which religion is the correct one. The important thing is not what is true but what you believe.

There are many things we could say in response to this tale. We might point out that in actual fact the religion of Islam, and even Judaism, is distinguishable from Christianity. Or we might say that since one of the rings actually was the correct one, it follows that two of the brothers would have spent their life believing something false. But that misses the whole point Lessing is trying to make. His point is that truth doesn’t matter. There is something far more important than questions of truth and falsehood in the narrow, letter-of-the-law sense. “Stop trying to defend what you believe is true”, he seems to be saying “and instead concentrate on letting that belief motivate and inspire you.” There is no need for factual coherence to be antecedent to religious belief as it must be with scientific belief; rather, the nature of religious belief is such that it can exist on its own, so to speak, without needing to appeal to historical grounds. In fact, Lessing saw the very attempt of Christians to defend the historical veracity of their faith as intolerant since it failed to recognize that all the major religions, if rightly understood, were equally valuable routes to God.

Lessing’s parable illustrates the Enlightenment commitment to relegating religious belief to the realm of the subjective, private and unverifiable. This idea began to gradually affect popular thinking from the 18th century forward, even among those who had never heard of Empiricism. This divided epistemology invited people to view religion and worship of God as a personal matter - a solitary experience between the individual and God that had little relevance to the objective world. What you believe is up to you, but don’t let that infringe on public reality. To seek objective verification about a matter of faith was now almost to commit a category mistake, since the ‘truth’ of religion is a personal truth that is discontinuous with the fixity of the external world of science, history and public life. Nancy Pearcey well described this aspect of secularism:

Religion is no longer considered the source of serious truth claims that could potentially conflict with public agendas. The private realm has been reduced to an ‘innocuous play area’, says Peter Berger, where religion is acceptable for people who need that kind of crutch – but where it won’t upset any important applecarts in the larger world of politics and economics.[6]

The Rise of Secularism

Postmodernists may be exaggerating when they claim that power games are always behind the history of human ideas. Nevertheless there is some truth to the claim. Certainly when we consider the epistemological debates of the 18th century, questions of political and social power formed the impetus behind most of the developments.

By the time Europe reached the 18th century, it was weary from years – even centuries – of religious conflict. Whether it was because of Protestants persecuting Catholics or Catholics persecuting Protestants or Anglicans persecuting Puritans or Puritans persecuting Anabaptists, the secular intelligencia of Europe perceived religion to be antithetical to social peace, harmony and justice. The reigns of civil power had to somehow be wrested out of the hands of the Church and given to a thoroughly secularised government. Empiricism gave this project the legitimisation it needed. After all, if religion – by virtue of being a non-empirically derived belief – was a personal and private matter, then it had no place in the public square. If religion was confined to what occurred between someone’s right ear and their left ear, then there is no point in fighting anymore about those beliefs.

Thus arose the division between religion and politics that has been a truism ever since. In fact, the contemporary notion of the ‘State’ arose out of this ideological matrix. N.T. Wright tells us how “the word ‘state’ in the way we use it today is basically an Enlightenment invention, designed at least in part to be precisely the sort of self-operating system, free from religious influence, never mind control, that the world had not seen before.”[7]

Diderot advocated a disjunction between the state and religion on just such grounds. “Whenever civil power supports religion or seeks its support, the progress of reason must necessarily be retarded[8] wrote Diderot, joined the general chorus that religion should occupy itself exclusively with the internal landscape of the individual rather than the sphere of the objective world. To achieve this goal, a reduction of Christianity was required. Not only was it necessary to conceive faith in fideistic terms (i.e., blind faith completely divorced from objective knowledge), but the sharp and craggy message of Jesus was reconstructed in terms of timeless platitudes. This enabled Jesus to be seen as a great moral teacher whose example might be brought forward to champion humanitarianism and condemn religious hypocrisy, but whose relevance in the public, objective world of truth was either limited or non-existent. The exclusivist truth claims of Christian theology were replaced by a ‘faith’ that was common to all religions, underpinned by a vague pseudo-inspirational rhetoric of brotherly love.

The corollary of reducing religion to a personal and private affair, divorced from the concerns of the objective, external world, was that now humans could run the world however they liked without being accountable to God. As N.T. Wright recently pointed out in a lecture presented at Asbury Theological Seminary, kicking God upstairs like that always was a way for humans to claim power over the world. Naturally, when humans seek to augment their power base, they will favour political models such as the maternal paradigm discussed above. And there is a certain consistency to that. After all, if ultimate power does not rest with God, then it is hard to argue why it should not rest with the state. If God is an absentee Father, then there is a power vacuum which Mother state will rush to fill.

Thus emerged the idea of Secularism. Originally secularism was not about getting rid of faith but simply making sure that it remained in its place (i.e. a personal and private affair). This is where many Christians often misunderstand the real threat that secularism poses. As David Wells puts it,

"It is axiomatic that secularism strips life of the divine, but it is important to see that it does so by relocating the divine in that part of life which is private. Viewing the process from one angle, one can quite validly say that secular humanism is irreligious in its effects; from another angle, it is equally valid to say that it allows for a cohabitation with religion under certain circumstances. Those who have become alarmed by its first aspect, attacking ‘secular humanism’ for its irreligion in the public sphere, may sometimes have done us a disservice by failing to acknowledge its other aspect, its effect in the private sphere, its religiousness."[9]

Secularism effectively privatised Christianity as “‘sectarian,’ while secular philosophies like materialism and naturalism were put forth as ‘objective’ and ‘neutral,’ and therefore the only perspectives suitable for the public sphere…. Faith is often reduced to a separate add-on for personal and private life – on the order of a private indulgence, like a weakness for chocolates – and not an appropriate topic in the public arena.”[10] This created a hitherto unprecedented gap between the sacred and the secular spheres, with religion having increasingly less relevance to everyday life in the real world. It is unprecedented because, as Irving Kristol noted:
religion that is a merely private affair has been, until our time, unknown in the annals of mankind…. Such religion quickly diminishes into an indoor pleasure, a kind of hobby of one or more individuals, like reading a book or watching television.[11]
Lesslie Newbigin made the same point in his book The Gospel in Pluralist Society:
The sharp line which modern Western culture has drawn between religious affairs and secular affairs is itself one of the most significant peculiarities of our culture, and would be incomprehensible to the vast majority of people.[12]

In his survey of the Western mind, Tarnis speaks of the “double-truth universe” that followed the advent of secularism:

"Thus arose the psychological necessity of a double-truth universe. Reason and faith came to be seen as pertaining to different realms, with Christian philosophers and scientists, and the larger educated Christian public, perceiving no genuine integration between the scientific reality and the religious reality."[13]

The sure sign that Secularism is fully entrenched in society is when we are precluded from even asking whether a particular religious belief is true or false since it is a universally accepted axiom that faith is completely outside rational discourse. In such a society, the real crime of the Christian is not what he happens to believe, but that he claims objectivity for his beliefs in the first place. As David Wells points out,
Critics of Christian faith used to set themselves in opposition to it on the grounds that this or that tenet was unbelievable. Today, postmodern critics oppose Christianity not because of its particulars, but simply because it claims to be true.[14]

[1] Tarnis, Passion of the Western Mind, p. 274.

[2] Cited by Rietkerk, The Future Great Planet Earth (Nivedit Good Books, 1989), p. 11.

[3] Steven M. Nadler, A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), p. 239.

[4] The Encyclopédie was paradigmatic of Enlightenment thought. It consists of seventeen volumes, put together in France under the supervision of Diderot, during the years of 1751 and 1772. This Encyclopédie attempted to catalogue the whole of human knowledge. It was a noble undertaking with its aim to create “a universal and rational dictionary…to bring together the knowledge scattered over the surface of the earth,” as Diderot wrote of it. The Encyclopédie has almost become synonymous with the Enlightenment, for it offered more than what we think of an encyclopaedia offering. Not only did it give the latest facts about everything under the sun, it was full of ‘enlightened’ interpretation. Put another way, it was rather like a massive editorial on all aspects of life. So controversial were many of the viewpoints that the writers were frequently in trouble with the censor. Indeed, Diderot even had to spend some time in prison as a result of his controversial opinions. Nevertheless, the message of the encyclopaedists did get out. Their message was that we should view reality in a whole new way, with man rather than God being the centre. The quotations I am using are taken from extracts of the Encyclopédie from The Enlightenment: Texts, I, edited by Simon Eliot and Keith Whitlock (Milton Keynes: The Open University, 1992).

[5] To this might be added many other dualities that were popularised at the time of the Enlightenment. Bishop Tom Wright has written that the splitting apart of history and faith, facts and values, religion and politics, nature and supernature, liberal and conservative, can all be traced make to the 18th century. The consequence is that “each of those categories now carries with it, in the minds of millions of people around the world, an implicit opposition to its twin, so that we are left with the great difficulty of even conceiving of a world in which they belong to one another as part of a single indivisible whole.” N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (London: SPCK, 2000), p. 9.

[6] Nancy Pearcey, ibid, p. 68. See also Peter Berger, Facing Up to Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 18.

[7] Wright, ibid.

[8] From his Encyclopédie article ‘Pyrrhonian Philosophy’.

[9] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 79.

[10] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), pp. 98-99.

[11] Irving Kristol, ‘The Welfare State’s Spiritual Crisis,’ The Wall Street Journal 229, no 23 (February 3, 1997), A6.

[12] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 172.

[13] Tarnis, op. cit., p. 302.

[14] David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Leicestershire, England, Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), p. 19. The American edition is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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