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The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now

Misunderstanding what it means to be secular.

The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now
Edited by George Levine
Princeton University Press, 272pp, £24.95

Societies become truly secular not when they dispense with religion but when they are no longer greatly agitated by it. It is when religious faith ceases to be a vital part of the public sphere, not just when church attendance drops or Roman Catholics mysteriously become childless, that secularisation proper sets in. Like art and sexuality, religion is taken out of public ownership and gradually privatised. It dwindles to a kind of personal pastime, like breeding gerbils or collecting porcelain. As the cynic remarked, it is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up. In this respect, it has a curious affinity with alcohol: it, too, can drive you mad.

Most recent defences of secularism, not least those produced by "Ditchkins" (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), have been irate, polemical affairs, powered by a crude species of off-the-peg, reach-me-down Enlightenment. It is scarcely a caricature of Dawkins's work to suggest we are all getting nicer and nicer and that if it wasn't for religious illusion, we would collectively outdo Kenneth Clark in sheer civility. (I refer to the deceased patrician art critic, not the living, beer-bellied politician.) One might call it the view from north Oxford.

This present collection of essays, by contrast, is a much less fiercely contentious affair. Here, there is no callow and triumphalist rationalism, which in any case is simply the flip side of evangelical fervour. Indeed, the blandness of some of the book's contributions could benefit from a judicious dose of Hitchens-like was­pishness. In customary American style, the editor, George Levine, couches his acknowledgements in a language soggy with superlatives and sentimental clichés. One can already hear the sound of the Hitch sharpening his darkly satirical daggers.

Not many of the contributors seem aware of the copious body of literature about secularisation, which ponders, among other things, the question of whether it actually happened.

After all, eroding the distinction between sacred and secular can be traced back to the Christian gospel. Salvation is a matter of feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, not in the first place a question of cult and ritual. There will be no temple in the New Jerusalem, we are told, as all that religious paraphernalia is finally washed up and superannuated.

Adam Phillips, a superb writer whose outlook on the world is that of Islington Man, quotes Paul Éluard's remark that "there is another world, but it is in this one". He fails to note that this could easily be a translation of the biblical claim that "the kingdom of God is among you". The new world must indeed be inherent in the old if it is to transfigure it, which is how Marx conceived of the relations between socialism and capitalism. Christianity is certainly other-worldly, and so is any reasonably sensitive soul who has been reading the newspapers. The Christian gospel looks to a future transformation of the appalling mess we see around us into a community of justice and friendship, a change so deep-seated and indescribable as to make Lenin look like a Lib Dem.

“This [world] is our home," Levine comments. If he really feels at home in this crucifying set-up, one might humbly suggest that he shouldn't. Christians and political radicals certainly don't. By "world", of course, Levine means the material world around us, whereas when St John's Gospel uses the word it sometimes means the oppressive power structure under which we live. John is being political, Levine is not.

Like some other contributors to the book, he suspects that Christian faith is other-worldly in the sense of despising material things. Material reality, in his view, is what art celebrates but religion does not. This is to forget that Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit. It is also to misunderstand the doctrine of Creation, which, whatever Richard Dawkins may suppose, has nothing to do with how the world got off the ground. It relates, among other things, to its unique preciousness.

The 13th-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that material things were good in themselves. It is good that there are cobras and garbage cans around the place. This, to be sure, is a hard doctrine to swallow when you come to the existence of Donald Rumsfeld. In fact, one of the most persuasive of all cases against religion is that if God does exist, he must be madly in love with Rumsfeld. Who needs to appeal to Darwin, or to the problem of evil, for a more knock-down refutation of the idea?

There are some predictable misunderstandings in these essays. No theologian worth his or her salt would see God as an "entity" as Philip Kitcher does. Several contributors confuse the terms "transcendent" and "transcendental". Adam Phillips writes suggestively of human helplessness as opposed to the sense of protectedness that religious faith supposedly brings us, without noticing that the signifier of God for the New Testament is the tortured and executed corpse of a suspected political criminal. Those who fail to realise that this is where the claims of love and justice are likely to get you are known, among other things, as liberal secularists. The finest piece in the book, Bruce Robbins's sensitive literary-critical reading of Max Weber on the so-called disenchantment of the modern world, is by a radical secularist, not a liberal one.

None of these writers points out that if Christianity is true, then it is all up with us. We would then have to face the deeply disagreeable truth that the only authentic life is one that springs from a self-dispossession so extreme that it is probably beyond our power. Instead, the volume chatters away about spirits and Darwinian earthworms, animal empathy and the sources of morality.

Kitcher asks himself why people should need to be united by a belief in some "transcendental entity" (his use of both terms is inaccurate) rather than by their mutual sympathies. "What exactly," he enquires, "does the invocation of some supernatural being add?" A Christian might reply that it adds the obligations to give up everything one has, including one's life, if necessary, for the sake of others. And this, to say the least, is highly inconvenient. Anyone, even a mildly intelligent badger, can entertain "mutual sympathies". The Christian paradigm of love, by contrast, is the love of strangers and enemies, not of those we find agreeable. Civilised notions such as mutual sympathy, more's the pity, won't deliver us the world we need.

Secularisation is a lot harder than people tend to imagine. The history of modernity is, among other things, the history of substitutes for God. Art, culture, nation, Geist, humanity, society: all these, along with a clutch of other hopeful aspirants, have been tried from time to time. The most successful candidate currently on offer is sport, which, short of providing funeral rites for its spectators, fulfils almost every religious function in the book.

If Friedrich Nietzsche was the first sincere atheist, it is because he saw that the Almighty is exceedingly good at disguising Himself as something else, and that much so-called secularisation is accordingly bogus. Secular thinking, too, had to be demythified. "God had in fact gone into hiding," Robbins observes, "and now had to be smoked out of various secular terms, from morals and nature and history to man and even grammar." Even Nietzsche's will to power has a suspiciously metaphysical ring to it.

Postmodernism is perhaps best seen as Nietzsche shorn of the metaphysical baggage. Whereas modernism is still haunted by a God-shaped absence, postmodern culture is too young to remember a time when men and women were anguished by the fading spectres of truth, reality, nature, value, meaning, foundations and the like. For postmodern theory, there never was any truth or meaning in the first place, and so mourning its disappearance would be like lamenting that a rabbit can't recite Paradise Lost.

Postmodernism is properly secular, but it pays an immense price for this coming of age - if coming of age it is. It means shelving all the other big questions, too, as hopelessly passé. It also involves the grave error of imagining that all faith or passionate conviction is inci­piently dogmatic. It is not only religious belief to which postmodernism is allergic, but belief as such. Advanced capitalism sees no need for the stuff. It is both politically divisive and commercially unnecessary.

And then arose the greatest irony of all. No sooner had the postmodernists and end-of-history merchants concluded that faith was as antiquated as the typewriter than it broke out in blind fury where it had been least expected - in the wrathful, humiliated world of radical Islam. The globe was now divided down the middle between those who believed too much and those who believed too little, as dark-skinned fundamentalists confronted lightly tanned CEOs. And if that were not irony enough, the fact is that these two camps are not simply antagonists. They are also sides of the same coin.

Terry Eagleton's most recent book is “Why Marx Was Right" (Yale University Press, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit