Reflections at the End of the Millennium
For believers, the solution to the problem of secularism lies within the individual, whose faith must supply the ultimate meaning society cannot.
Western Culture as a whole has become secular in a way that it has never been before. One may plausibly argue that the eighteenth century was the first non-Christian century. Most leading thinkers and artists, even if they were not opposed to Christianity, ceased to take their inspiration from it. For the first time, the secular became dominant. In the beginning, however, culture continued to be so penetrated by Christian values and ideas that one might mistake entire passages of Voltaire or Diderot as having been written by believing Christians. Eighteenth-century culture was still steeped in a tradition that had been Christian since its beginning, and it was extremely difficult for its thinkers to free themselves from a language saturated with religion. The nineteenth century was different. It was an epoch marked by a virulent antitheistic campaign to clean the cultural slate of all Christian traces. Yet these attacks were the work of an elite; culture at large retained distinct remnants of its Christian roots.
Even today ties exist between Christianity and culture in Europe, and more so in the U.S. But on a more fundamental level the West appears to have said its definitive farewell to Christian culture. Little of the old hostility remains. Our secular colleagues are happy to recognize the debt our civilization owes to Christian faith to the extent that the faith, having been absorbed by culture itself, has become simply another cultural artifact. Christianity has become an historical factor subservient to a secular culture, instead of functioning as the creative power it once was. The new attitude of benign atheism was prepared in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries by the three most prominent secularizers of the time, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.
For them, the idea of forcibly eradicating religion had become unnecessary. Religion, they thought, was a passing, rapidly vanishing phenomenon. For Marx, fighting a belief in God distracts communists from the positive task of liberating humanity from social oppression. Lenin's active atheism, that used the state to eradicate religion, draws on an earlier attitude that Marx had abandoned. Freud admitted that no one can be forced not to believe. But as rational thought has produced not a single argument in support of religion and many against it, to persist in religion because no argument has decisively refuted it is for Freud the sign of a lazy mind. Nietzsche preached a spiritual gospel, a new religion without God, beyond Christianity and atheism, that could still learn much from the old faiths. Contemporary secular culture has moved further in that direction. Although it shows a surprising openness to religion, this interest rarely surpasses the purely horizontal, cultural level. Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, adsorbing traditional religion as a subordinate part of itself. It offers some of the emotional benefits of religion, without exacting the high price faith demands. Even believers have become secular, not in the hostile, antireligious sense of an earlier age, but in the sense that God no longer matters absolutely in our closed world, if God matters at all. The secularism of our time poses a more serious challenge to Christianity than the determined antitheism of the past. By its very nature, faith must integrate all elements of life if it is to survive; it cannot simply remain one discrete part of existence. Yet religion in the twentieth century has ceased altogether to integrate public life. The situation confronts us with the fundamental question: Is religion a part of culture that may or may not be important to society, or ought it to be a matter of ultimate concern. I am convinced that if it isn't somehow everything, it will die altogether. …