Is Nothing Secular Anymore?

I haven’t been keeping count, but in recent conferences and conversations I have several times heard people refer to the secular media as “the so-called secular media.” I doubt very much that they mean the media pay more attention to religion than is commonly thought. No, the “so-called” is intended to say something not about the behavior of the media but about the dubiousness of the idea that anyone or anything is really secular. We are witnessing, I believe, a rapidly spreading challenge to the very concept of secularization.

Almost twenty years after “the secular city debate” sparked by Harvey Cox and others, the question is no longer whether secularization is good or bad, whether it is the necessary product or antithesis of biblical religion; the new debate is whether or not there is in fact a phenomenon which is appropriately termed secularization. In popular consciousness, this question is confusedly joined in the polemics of the moral majoritarians against “secular humanism.” On the one hand, it is alleged that there is a secular humanist conspiracy pledged to the eradication of religion, at least from public life. On the other, it is argued that secular humanism is in fact a false religion that is being undemocratically imposed upon American society. In short, secular humanism turns out not to be very secular at all. Opponents of the moral majoritarians have routinely referred to “so-called secular humanism,” intending to throw into question the existence of the alleged conspiracy. Soon I expect the moral majoritarians will speak of “so- called secular humanism,” intending to throw into question its alleged secularity.

At several removes from popular polemics, a growing number of scholars are expressing their misgivings about the concept of secularization. British sociologist David Martin has more than misgivings: “The whole concept appears a tool of counter-religious ideologies which identify the ‘real’ element in religion for polemical purposes and then arbitrarily relate it to the notion of a unitary and irreversible process…It should be erased from the sociological vocabulary.” In his remarkable Modern Times, Paul Johnson writes: “The outstanding non-event of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear. Nietzsche, who had so accurately predicted the transmutation of faith into political zealotry and the will to power, failed to see that the religious spirit could, quite illogically, coexist with secularization and resuscitate the dying God. What looked antiquated, even risible, in the 1980s was not religious belief but the confident predictions of its demise once provided by Feuerbach, Marx and Comte, Durkheim and Frazer, Wells, Shaw, Gide and Sartre and countless others.”

In this century of the martyrs, the perdurance of religion has often been bad news for those who adhere to the religion called Christianity. Religion transmuted into political zealotry — Stalin, Hitler, Mao et al. — has declared open season on religion that dares to speak its name as religion. Nazism, Stalinism, or Castroism are not, according to some current writers, ersatz religions or political movements with powerful “religious dimensions.” They are religions. The reason we and they fail to recognize them as such is that almost everyone has been taken in by the mythical notion of “the secular.” Sometimes we end up referring to them as “secular religions,” thus adding to the confusion.

A recent and forceful statement of this argument is offered by Harry Ausmus, a teacher of intellectual history at Connecticut State College (The Polite Escape; On the Myth of Secularization, Ohio University Press). The “polite escape” of the title is Ausmus’ term for Nietzsche’s insanity. “Nietzsche, that unholy saint of SiIs-Maria, was also the tyrant of Turin, unable to escape his own religiosity, which took the form of hope, a hope he did not devaluate. Therefore, he never understood these words of Jesus: ‘My God! My God! Why has Thou forsaken me?’ Insanity was Nietzsche’s polite escape.” Toward the end of his essay, Ausmus implies that he has made the breakthrough into true secularity by abandoning hope (he writes a book about it only to “relieve the pain.”) His position is “beyond nihilism,” for he agrees with those critics who have suggested that nihilism is the illusion of the last religion. For reasons that need not delay us here, Ausmus’ personal point of arrival is both unattractive and unconvincing. Of much greater interest is his thorough and frequently brilliant survey of the theological, philosophical, sociological, and historical efforts to establish “secularization” as an explanatory concept.

The secularization deplored, for example, by Christopher Dawson is really a decline from the supposed “age of faith” under the hegemony of medieval Catholicism. This, according to scholars such as Ausmus and Martin, says something about the diminished influence of a particular religion but very little about the decline of religion as such. The argument here is similar to that found in one of Andrew Greeley’s earlier and more thoughtful books, Unsecular Man. Dawson himself implicitly recognized the inadequacy of the concept of secularization to explain the phenomenon he deplored since he emphasized the transference of the religious impulse in the modern world from the church to the state. At a much less sophisticated level, Francis Schaeffer’s writings also reveal the bind of railing against secularization while at the same time implying that there is no such phenomenon; there is only the rise of false religions, political and scientific, which have largely displaced earlier adherence to Christianity. While the true religion for Dawson is Roman Catholicism, for Schaeffer it is an emphatically Protestant and anti-Catholic tradition, but the shape of their arguments are much of a piece.

The challenge to the concept of secularization rests, of course, upon a much more comprehensive understanding of religion. Religion, from religare, is that binding cluster of symbols, sensibilities and truth claims which provides a “meaning system” for human life. It is Tillich’s notion of “ultimate concern,” Schleiermacher’s feeling of “absolute dependence,” and, much earlier, the Lutheran and Augustinian claim that your god is that in which you finally place your trust. Ausmus’ particular contribution is to focus on hope as the characteristic religious sentiment of moderns. In politics, notably Marxism, in psychology, notably psychoanalysis, and in other fields he demonstrates the ways in which hope for some ultimate vindication is the answer given to the question of suffering, it is the common and clearly religious product of various ways of wrestling with the problem of theodicy.

If these writers are correct, we must demythologize, indeed completely abandon, the idea of secularization. There is no such thing. According to David Martin, we have been sold a bill of goods by people who have employed the myth of secularization in order to put down the religions they don’t like and to advance the religions that they favor. There is understandable resistance to giving up a concept that has been a staple in western intellectual life for nearly two hundred years. The objection is sometimes raised that, if religion is defined so comprehensively, then everything is religion, and if everything is religion then nothing is religion. The objection, I believe, is of limited merit. There are other dimensions of life which we recognize to be all pervasive, such as sexuality. The assertion that sexuality is engaged in every aspect of being human is not the same as saying that everything is sexuality.

If, however, we follow Martin and eliminate “secularization” from our vocabulary, we may be left with some linguistic problems. We can only go on for so long saying “so-called secular.” If The New York Times, for instance, is not a secular medium, what should we call it? Like the other prestige media, it is mainly a political medium, but it is not only that. We might say, for example, that NBC News is a pagan medium, but that would mainly be understood as meaning that it is not guided by Christian beliefs and values. Terms are needed for indicating positively what are its guiding beliefs. We might want to say that the religion of the prestige media is a mix of political utopianism and cultural hedonism. They would not like that, of course, so perhaps they should be permitted to choose their own terms to describe their religion. The one thing that they and we must not call them, if Martin, Ausmus and others are right, is nonreligious or secular. It stands to reason that what applies to the media applies also to other institutions in the society, such as universities. When today we say an institution is secular, it usually means simply that it is not connected with a brand name religion. In our cultural conflicts candor might be enhanced if our language habits did not so readily offer these institutions a polite escape from the requirement of naming the religion they profess.


  • Richard John Neuhaus

    Richard John Neuhaus was a prominent Christian cleric (first as a Lutheran pastor and later as a Roman Catholic priest) and writer. Born in Canada, Neuhaus moved to the United States where he became a naturalized United States citizen. He was the founder and editor of the monthly journal First Things and the author of several books, including The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984), The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987), and Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (2006).

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