The Myth of Secularism: Religion Is a Natural Human Impulse, Which Our Society Tries to Repress Just as the Victorians Did Sex. That Is Why Atheists Are So Rancorous and Intolerant. (Christmas Essay 1)

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), December 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Secularism: Religion Is a Natural Human Impulse, Which Our Society Tries to Repress Just as the Victorians Did Sex. That Is Why Atheists Are So Rancorous and Intolerant. (Christmas Essay 1)


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


Of all the myths spawned by the Enlightenment, the idea that we live in a secular age is the most absurd. Throughout much of the world, religion is thriving with undiminished vitality. Where believers are in the minority, as they are in Britain today, traditional faiths have been replaced by liberal humanism, which is now established as the unthinking creed of conventional people. Yet liberal humanism is itself very obviously a religion -- a shoddy derivative of Christian faith notably more irrational than the original article, and in recent times more harmful. If this is not recognised, it is because religion has been repressed from consciousness in the way that sexuality was repressed in Victorian times. Now as then, the result is not that the need disappears, but rather that it returns in bizarre and perverse forms. Secular societies may imagine they are post-religious, but actually they are ruled by repressed religion.

When thinking about the idea that we live in a post-religious era, it is worth remembering that the secular realm is a Christian invention. The biblical root of the secular state is the passage in the New Testament where Jesus tells his disciples to give to God what is God's and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Refined by Augustine and given a modern formulation with the Reformation, this early Christian commandment is the ultimate origin of the liberal attempt to separate religion from politics. In this, as in many other respects, liberalism is a neo-Christian cult.

Liberalism's religious roots are opaque to liberals today, but a little history makes them clear. In Britain, until the late 19th century, most liberals were believers. It was churchmen who most consistently upheld causes such as the abolition of slavery; the more radical thinkers belonged to fringe Christian denominations such as the Quakers and the Unitarians. Only with John Stuart Mill, when he came under the influence of the French positivist thinker Auguste Comte, did liberalism come to be closely associated with outright rejection of conventional religion. Positivism is largely forgotten today, and not without good reason. Nevertheless, it was more influential than any other intellectual movement in shaping the humanist creed that has succeeded Christianity as the ready-made world-view of the British majority. The positivists were not liberals -- far from it. They aimed to found a new religion -- the Religion of Humanity; as they called it -- in which the human species would be worshipped as the supreme being, and they looked forward to a time when this new religion would have as much power as the Catholic Church had in mediaeval times. They were eager to emulate the Church's rituals and hierarchies. They sought to replace the Catholic practice of crossing oneself by a secular version, in which positivist believers touched the bumps on their heads at the points where the science of phrenology had shown the impulses of order and benevolence to reside. They also installed a secular pope in Paris. In its early 19th-century heyday, the Positivist Church had Temples of Humanity in many parts of the world, including Britain. It was particularly successful in Latin America, where a number of positivist churches survive to this day.

The Positivist Church was a travesty, but its beliefs chimed-with many of Mill's. Though he attacked Comte's anti-liberal tendencies, Mill did everything he could to propagate the Religion of Humanity. If he had some success, the reason was chiefly that the new humanist religion had a great deal in common with the creed it was meant to supplant. Liberal humanism inherits several key Christian beliefs -- above all, the belief that humans are categorically different from all other animals. According to humanists, humans are unique in that, using the power over nature given them by science, they can create a world better than any that has existed before. …

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