Special Report

Islam and the Closing of the Secular Mind

The  "enlightened" Western mind can no longer think seriously or coherently about religion.

By 9.19.12

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Given the decidedly strange response of the Obama Administration and much of the Western commentariat to the violence sweeping the Islamic world, one temptation is to view their reaction as simple incomprehension in the face of the severe unreason that leads some people to riot and kill in a religion's name. But while the Administration's response has plenty to do with trying to defend a foreign policy that has plainly gone south, it also reflects something far more problematic: the Western secular mind's increasing inability to think seriously and coherently about religion at all.

This problem manifests itself in several ways. The first is the manner in which many secular thinkers seem to regard all religions as "basically the same." By this, they often mean either equally irrational or as promoting essentially similar values.

A moment's reflection would indicate to even the most militant atheist that this simply isn't true. Islam and Christianity, for instance, have very different understandings of who Jesus Christ is. Christians believe that he is God, the second Person of the Trinity. Muslims do not. Ergo, Islam and Christianity are not effectively the same. At their respective cores are fundamentally irreconcilable theological positions. It's also very difficult to find robust affirmations of free will outside Judaism and Christianity (at least the orthodox varieties of these two faiths).

Likewise, as any informed Muslim will tell you, Islamic theology has no real equivalent of the Christian idea of the church. The Greek word for "church" (ekklesia) literally means to be "called out." That, alongside Christ's words about the limits to Caesar's power, had immense implications for how Christians think about the state and its relationship to religion. Among other things, it means Christianity has always maintained significant distinctions between the temporal and the spiritual realms that are far less perceptible -- again, as any pious Muslim will inform you -- in Islamic theology and history.

All this, however, is a little complicated for those secular intellectuals who simply regard religion as just another lifestyle-choice rather than being essentially about people's natural desire to (1) know the truth about the transcendent and (2) live their lives in accordance with such truths.

That's why the left talks so much today about "freedom of worship" (as if your faith-decisions are akin to choosing which mall you shop at) and are trying to peddle a version of religious liberty that basically confines religious freedom to what happens inside your church, synagogue, mosque or temple on your given holy-day of the week. The notion that religious liberty is all about creating space for people to live out their beliefs consistent with others' freedom to do the same and even permits us to peacefully argue -- gasp! -- about the truth of different religions' claims seems to be beyond their grasp.

Then there is the sheer ignorance of history prevailing among much of the secular intelligentsia. This was unfortunately exemplified by the lamentable historiography that was on full display in President Obama's once much-touted, now much-forgotten 2009 Cairo speech. Among other things, the President referred to how Islam "carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment."

Really? Did the President's advisors and speechwriters know that this thesis has been subject to withering critique for over 100 years? Were they conscious that, as the French professor of Arabic and religious philosophy Rémi Brague demonstrated in his book Europe, La voie romaine (1992/1999), the statesman-scholar-monk Cassiodorus (c.485-c.585 AD) not only collaborated with Pope Agapetus I in arranging for the translation of classical Greek texts into Latin, but also established a monastery-school on his family estate to safeguard and study the same works? Were they aware that the works of Antiquity never somehow vanished but were preserved for centuries by Greek-speaking Eastern Christians? Or that Aristotle was known and read in the medieval West long before Arabic translations appeared in Europe?

The answer to all the above questions hardly needs to be stated.

In other words, civilizational development is a much more complicated affair than many secular-minded people are willing to concede. And that partly reflects their ongoing efforts to whitewash Christianity's immense civilizational achievements out of history.

Today's history textbooks, for example, are full of mythologies about the so-called "Dark Ages." These publications invariably overlook, for instance, the powerful contributions made to the development of the modern sciences by figures such as the 13th-century saint Albertus Magnus or the profound advances made in constitutional theories of limited government by medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Why? Because acknowledging such facts raises the question of whether the various Enlightenments (which saddled us with such intellectual dead-ends as David Hume's skepticism and Rousseau's egalitarian-obsessions) were as radical and enlightened as many liberals make them out to be.

And that brings us to yet another problem with the secular mind regarding religion: its increasing embrace of what might be called suppressive tolerance. This is the art of discouraging people from expressing their views on particular subjects on the grounds that saying what you think might involve what's become the ultimate crime of modern times: hurting other peoples' feelings.

Of course, most secular intellectuals are very selective about applying this. You can, after all, say the most uninformed and truly bigoted things about Christians and that's free speech. If, however, you ask polite but direct questions about aspects of particular schools of Islamic thought (even while acknowledging parallels with specific Christian thinkers) as Benedict XVI did in his 2006 Regensburg lecture, then you're being "hurtful."

Lastly there's the difficulty of wishful thinking. This might be described as many secular intellectuals' belief that, deep down, everyone really wants to be like them: what George Weigel calls "debonair nihilists."

Eventually, or so the theory goes, the unwashed masses will "get over" all those pesky questions about the meaning of life, death, good, and evil to which religious faiths attempt to provide comprehensive answers -- many of which are far more convincing that the default philosophical materialism, relativism, and skepticism that passes for sophisticated thinking in the faculty lounge these days. Instead, they expect we'll eventually accept that life is meaningless and the most we can do is, as Marx described his future society, "one thing today and another tomorrow; to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening and criticize after dinner, just as I please."

Unfortunately for the urbane hedonist crowd, God's death has been forecast on numerous occasions by figures ranging from Marx and Nietzsche, to the Economist in 1999. The latter, however, was smart enough to retract this assertion in 2007 in the face of overwhelming evidence that, globally speaking, the world was becoming more religious rather than less.

And that perhaps points to the greatest tragedy of the secular mind's remarkable close-mindedness to any serious contemporary conversation about religion. Its core operating assumptions, historical unawareness, and reliance upon numerous legends for legitimacy translates into many Western intellectuals having little of a meaningful nature to say about how we address real problems of religiously inspired violence and of truth-suffocating intolerance masquerading as tolerance.

Put another, more troubling way, one of the West's greatest impediments in its struggle against religious extremism may well the fact that the secular part of its soul turns out to be far less enlightened than anyone imagined possible.

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About the Author
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including Becoming Europe and most recently Tea Party Catholic.