Myth of the Secular West - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Myth of the Secular West

In a widely quoted essay a well-known Catholic writer recently stated “secularism cannot defeat jihad.” Silly me. I hadn’t known secularism was attempting to defeat jihad. I thought that was the job of the U.S. Armed Forces and the CIA.

The author, Elizabeth Scalia (apparently no relation to the Supreme Court justice), suggests the West is fast becoming a “post-faith society — disdainful of religion and confident in the primacy of reason alone,” thus “rendering itself ineffective and mute” to battle religious extremism.

This seems a popular, if erroneous, notion — that the West is overrun with bug-eyed atheists, freethinking fanatics, and villainous infidels. Where so many pundits and journalists get the idea that Westerners are largely disciples of Darwin and Dawkins is an utter mystery. Certainly they don’t get it from the research. The fact is the United States — the largest, richest and most culturally significant Western nation — is one of the most religious societies in history. Only about 10 percent of Americans claim to be neither spiritual nor religious. Another survey finds a mere 6 percent confess to be atheists or agnostics. Sure, that’s America for you. What about Europe? Again, few persons in so-called “secular” Europe are genuinely irreligious. The latest European Union poll (pdf) finds a mere 18 percent of Europeans say “they do not believe there is a spirit, God, nor life force.” Probably the same percentage as in Muslim countries, though one would be butchered for saying so.

Sweden is often cited as typical of Europe’s secularism, though even among the suicidal Swedes a mere 23 percent report that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force.” The skepticism of the backsliding Lutheran Scandinavians is more than offset by Catholic Poland, Ireland, Spain and Italy where the percentage of nonbelievers is minuscule.

France has one of the highest percentages of nonbelievers (19 percent atheist, 16 percent agnostic), but this is hardly a recent trend. The French have had a problem with organized religion going back to the Albigensian Crusade (1209–29) when the Catholic Church dispatched crusaders into southern France to massacre upwards of a million Cathars for their unorthodox beliefs. Hardly a way to win converts. It was in France — not Spain — that the Inquisition was born. What’s more, it was after the French Revolution — in part a reaction against church and state entanglement — that Robespierre, a deist, sought to establish a new state religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. These revolutionaries were not irreligious radicals. They simply (and violently) opposed the regime-coddling Catholic Church.

Like most complex concepts, religion is more complicated than we like to think. Take, for instance, the term “atheist.” An atheist is one who does not believe in gods. He is the opposite of a deist, or one who believes in gods. But many non-Western religions do not have gods — at least not in the way Westerners think of them. In this sense, arguably the world’s most spiritual man, the Dalai Lama, is an atheist, and readily admits as much.

Doubtless some will argue that simply being spiritual, or a “spiritual atheist,” like his holiness the Dalai Lama, is not the same as being religious in the traditional Western sense. And indeed, most popular surveys equate spirituality with irreligiosity, and are interested only in whether the subject “believes in God.” Obviously, this makes the West seem much more irreligious than it in fact is. Even in the U.S., one fifth of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” or belonging to a non-theistic religion.

To complicate matters further, some Christians have long maintained secular humanism is a religion, though a heretical one. Usually, fundamentalist Christians make this claim when they hope to exclude the teaching of evolution from schools. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1961 agreed, noting, “religions” need not be based on a belief in the existence of God. Again in Welsh v. United States the Court similarly found that: “If an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content…those beliefs certainly occupy in the life of that individual ‘a place parallel to that filled by…God’ in traditionally religious persons.” For the courts, at least, non-theistic religions occupy a place parallel to that filled by God. Taken to this extreme — if extreme it is — every one, save perhaps Christopher Hitchens, is religious.

Of course many purists will say that’s hogwash. Any true religion requires a belief in a creator god. Being spiritual doesn’t count; one must be religious. And of a particular religion. Such traditionalists remind one of Fielding’s the Rev. Mr. Thwackum who said, “When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.” And indeed some secular humanists wholeheartedly agree with the religious fundamentalists. As Austin Cline, a regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism, points out, “the very label ‘secular’ means, essentially, non-religious. A non-religious religion isn’t logically possible.” In that sense, secular humanism is no more a religion than is feminism, communism or vegetarianism.

AT ITS BASE, Ms. Scalia’s real objection is not with the West’s fictitious lack of faith, but with the Enlightenment and arguably its greatest accomplishment: separation of church and state. “These groups [secular Jews, elites, governments and the media] are stymied by their own enlightenment,” she offers as her contribution to the increasing perception that conservatives are anti-intellectual.

Incredibly, Ms. Scalia says the West should, in this instance at least, follow the lead of the jihadists — not by discrediting the language of jihad, but by adopting it: “By failing to speak in the same language, [the West] has no weapons for victory, short of destroying whole cities.” Do we really want our leaders speaking the “same language” as the jihadists? And if our leaders should adopt jihad-speak, does anyone besides Ms. Scalia believe that will end terrorism? Or will we have to go further, and adopt the actions of jihad too?

Why we should have to defend continually the fruits of the Enlightenment to Americans — whose Declaration of Independence, and whose ideas of separation of powers and separation of church and state, were the direct result of its ideas — is beyond my poor powers of understanding. Apparently Ms. Scalia would have us travel back to the good old 17th century, when Christian sects battled unto the death. For myself, I like to think we can be a spiritual or religious people without abandoning the Enlightenment, and certainly without parroting the language of jihad.

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