Atheism is back—or so you might imagine from so many writers in recent months, one after another declaring a proud and militant rejection of God and all His works.
So, for instance, to his new book, God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens appends the insidious subtitle How Religion Poisons Everything. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts that teaching children religion is “child abuse” and ought to be outlawed. In Breaking the Spell, Daniel C. Dennett, in the guise of studying religion objectively, dismisses religion. Sam Harris follows up his bestselling but dyspeptic The End of Faith with a slim but insulting Letter to a Christian Nation.
And yet, there's an odd defensiveness about all these books—as though they were a sign not of victory but of desperation. Everywhere on earth except Western Europe, religion is surging. Each of the authors admits that most people, especially in America, do not agree with him. Each pictures himself as a man who spits against the wind. Each rehearses his arguments for atheism, mostly, it seems, to convince himself.
Certainly these authors are not convincing many others. According to a 2007 Princeton Survey poll for Newsweek, 91 percent of Americans believe in God. Only 3 percent say they are atheists. The whole group of nonbelievers—adding in persons who say they are of no religion and agnostics—account for 10 percent, at best, of all Americans. Worse for the new atheists, a full 87 percent of Americans identify with a specific religion: 82 percent Christian, 2 percent Jewish, and 1 percent each Muslim, Buddhist, and other.
Christopher Hitchens writes that several of his favorite conversation partners are religious people—as they would pretty much have to be, given the percentages. He becomes angry, he says, when these friends describe him as a “seeker.” I agree that he is not a seeker but must be almost out of breath from being hunted: I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears / I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Perhaps the defensiveness in these recent proclamations of atheism—the odd feeling they give of making one last desperate stand—derives from their timing, here at the end of an age. “We have, in recent years, observed two major events that represent turning points in the history of the twentieth century,” Irving Kristol remarked back in 1991. “The first is the death of socialism, both as an ideal and as a political program, a death that has been duly recorded in our consciousness. The second is the collapse of secular humanism . . . as an ideal.”
For many generations, secularists assumed that the triumph of secularism was assured and fast approaching. The secularist worldview has elements that are noble. Its moral resources are many and admirable, and with them some people can lead good and serious lives. But the evidence over the long years since it emerged shows that modern secularism bears certain significant incapacities.
In particular, as Irving Kristol also noted: “The philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver any such code itself. Moral codes evolve from the moral experience of communities. . . . Morality does not belong to a scientific mode of thought. . . . One accepts a moral code on faith—not on blind faith but on the faith that one's ancestors, over the generations, were not fools and that we have much to learn from their experience.”
The prevailing moral code of the West was informed for centuries by the wisdom of our forefathers, but in the new vision developed by secular humanism that old code is no longer relevant. The biting challenge of Nietzsche still nags at us: If God is really dead, by what authority do we say any particular practice is prohibited or permitted? In the resulting moral disarray in our society, the most immediate of moral questions has become unsettled: How shall we raise our children? What kind of moral example should we set? What moral instruction should we convey?
The second flaw in secular humanism is even more fundamental. Secular humanism, Kristol goes on, “encourages individuals,” faced with the ultimate meaninglessness of human life, to make something worthwhile of “autonomy” and “creativity.” Yet why in a meaningless world is creativity better than passivity, or autonomy better than submission? Even these bright goals are undermined by such skeptical nihilists and tormented existentialists as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre. With the tools of its own forging, secular humanism came to be mocked by the subsequent postmodernists and deconstructionists.
Since 2001, the prominent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has also been announcing “the post-secular age.” Habermas is not about to give up atheism—or even secularism—but his main point can be summarized this way: Secularism has been pushed into a new position in world history; it now appears to be the persuasion of a fairly small minority in a sea of rising religious commitment. The question is whether secular thinkers have acquired the internal resources to enter into respectful dialogue with religious peoples.
Habermas, at least, has become aware of limitations in secularist thinking. How many secularists today can summon up the moral strength not only to tolerate but also to respect and enter into the viewpoint of believers? Can all of them at last give up teaching cultural contempt, as if religion were (as in Freud) a neurotic dependency? For Habermas, the key to the morality of “communicative discourse” is the ability of each partner to stand in the other's moccasins and learn to sympathize with a viewpoint quite contrary to one's own.
In 2004, Habermas shocked many professors and journalists by affirming not only the importance of religion for civilization but also the obligation of secularist thinkers to engage with religion seriously and honestly. He questioned whether atheists are prepared to admit that Jewish and Christian Scriptures and long traditions preserved for millennia intuitions that are still crucial to moral and scientific life. Indeed, they not only preserved but also developed detailed formulations, with a sophisticated hermeneutics for interpreting sacred texts.
A year later, Habermas questioned whether secularists had the honesty to admit their debts to Judaism and Christianity for the basic formulations of the Enlightenment. Are not our enlightened concepts of equality and fairness, he asked, secular distillations of time-honored Judeo-Christian precepts? Quite obviously, fraternity is, and also modern compassion. What would secular humanism be without these borrowings? Further, can the “contract” theories of modern secular philosophy be fully understood apart from the great prestige attached to the “covenants” so central to both Jewish and Christian faith and history? Habermas means not only etymology and conceptual articulation but a reverence for moral obligation as well.
In this vein, he asks: “For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which spring the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.”
This question springs from the principle that, “for all their ongoing dissent on questions of worldviews and religious doctrines, citizens are meant to respect one another as free and equal members of their political community.” Of course, there is one conspicuous exception:
The liberal state has so far imposed only upon the believers among its citizens the requirements that they split their identity into public and private versions. That is, they must translate their religious convictions into a secular language before their arguments have the prospect of being accepted by a majority . . . but the search for reasons that aspire to general acceptance need not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from public life, and secular society, for its part, need not cut itself off from the important resources of spiritual explanations, if only the secular side were to retain a feeling for the articulative power of religious discourse.
Should this practice be allowed to continue? When secular thinkers can answer this question fairly, without insisting on their own monopoly of the public square, their new inclusiveness will mark what Habermas calls the post-secular age. Today it is not only believing Christians and Jews who discern the end of the secular age.
Ever since the fall of Rome, historians and philosophers have noted how often civilizations fall by way of moral decadence. In our generation, we have been driven to some questions of our own. What tools does secularism possess to arrest such decadence? How does a secularist society even diagnose moral decadence? By whose standards?
In secularist analysis, public “awakenings” are treated as matters best left to religions, not to the human sciences, and the secularist emphasis on the unencumbered individual often leads to an odd theory of the good. For instance, Judith Jarvis Thompson argues that the good is whatever an autonomous person chooses as a good. But such definitions deprive secularists of any standard by which to measure moral decadence, whether in a single person or in an entire culture. Moreover, precisely insofar as they define the good as whatever a person chooses, such definitions are inconsistent with everyday speech and strip human critical faculties of any useful role.
By contrast, historians teach us that the United States, chiefly because of its Protestant heritage, has historically experienced at least three Great Awakenings. Nobel Prize-winner Robert Fogel has written that the country is in the throes of a rolling wave, not yet crested, of a Fourth Great Awakening. This return to tradition and family values, to serious work and self-discipline, is not limited to religious people, let alone the religious right.
Still, the source of these fairly regular renewals seems to be several important biblical teachings: a high standard for what counts as fidelity to God and to moral duty, a call to repentance, a demand for conversion of life, the possibility of being “born again.” Even among people fallen deep into the slough of moral decadence, an inner call to awaken and resume the path of duty, self-governance, and personal dignity can sometimes be faintly heard. This inner call (in the biblical view) bears the promise of divine assistance, which imparts inner powers entirely beyond the strength of the autonomous and unencumbered will.
From this promise, many in history have drawn courage. Even those who do not believe in divine assistance may well observe changes in behavior among those who do.
Abraham Lincoln early in his political career explained why such new awakenings are necessary. After reciting some of the ills of his time, he publicly prayed for a successor to “the great Washington” who might awaken this nation, since it was from the contemplation of Washington that Lincoln much later conceived the need for “a new birth of freedom.” Lincoln had observed that moral life peaks in cycles of three or more generations, followed by a slow but steady decline. Thus, the generation that won the independence of the United States was revered for its courage because of its amazing steadfastness in the face of desolation, defeat, and lack of popular support. The children of that great generation tried to live up to the high example of their fathers but often failed. In the third generation, the grandchildren were weary even of hearing about their heroic grandparents and preferred more-pleasant paths. Lincoln called this process “the silent artillery of time.”
For secularists, a kind of Newtonian law of inertial moral decline presents two problems: By what public moral standard ought decline and progress to be measured? And secondly, what tools are stored in the secularist arsenal for converting large numbers of citizens from their downward drift back up to the levels of discipline, self-government, duty, and honor? The classical progressive remedies are “consciousness raising,” “education,” and “raising public awareness.” But such remedies imply publicly available universal standards and moral exemplars to constitute, as it were, a moral avant-garde. The moral relativism of far too many secularists prevents these remedies from getting under way.
The secularism stemming from the Enlightenment has been unable to keep its promise of forging a universal consensus in an ethics based on reason alone. Today ethical schools of thought may be more divided than ever. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has observed that there is now so little common ground shared by the various schools of thought that rational ethical debate has been reduced to exclamatory cheering sections that, faced with an ethical proposition, erupt into “Hurrah!” or “Boo!”
Professors in countless classrooms in many different disciplines report that students have already been well taught that, when they are faced with any moral proposition, the proper response is, “That's just your opinion.” They are resistant, then, to resolving disagreements by reasoned arguments. They aver, “You choose your good, and I'll choose mine.” Reasoned debate is replaced by naked will. I choose. Don't ask me to give reasons—I just choose.
This circumstance seems to be what Nietzsche meant when he observed that no man of reason should rejoice in the death of God. Experience will soon show, he was certain, that with the death of God arrives the death of reason. And what is the path out of nihilism?
(I have pursued this question in The Experience of Nothingness.) In a word, no one yet possesses the truth, yet we may agree that the presentation of evidence through reasoned argument is the most reliable path for coming closer to the truth. Further, mutual conversation about evidence that is available to all parties is the best guide for figuring out how to come closer to the truth of things. An old way of putting this: Civilization is constituted by reasoned conversation. Civilized humans converse with one another, argue with one another, offer evidence to one another. Barbarians club one another.
Still, the utility of evidence depends on there being truths to be discovered, or least to be more closely approximated. Thus, a regulative idea of truth is an essential constituent of any civilization worthy of reasoning animals. Without it, no conversation can amount to more than conjoined soliloquies. Without it, there is no evidence to point to, no mutual acceptance of rules of discourse.
But if God is dead, so also is the regulative idea of truth. If all is chance, random, and inherently meaningless, reason has no North Star and its needle spins mindlessly.
A further problem is that secularism has so little to say about human suffering. It is simply not satisfying to those who feel pain at life's extremities. Secular humanism lacks the resources to explain why self-sacrifice has meaning. Moreover, it offers little in the way of remedy to those who have done evil and now repent of it. Such persons cannot be fooled by therapy; they know exactly what they did and they know that they chose deliberately to do it. They are not seeking understanding but rather the erasure of real guilt for the real evils they have committed.
Secularism is not altogether speechless in the face of death, sin, human suffering, and “meaningless” human tragedy. Yet its voice does sound faint—which leaves it less than comforting to the weak and the vulnerable. What has secularism to say to them that it does not borrow directly from Judaism and Christianity?
So what are the long-term prospects of the secularism so prominent in Europe and the United States? Two difficulties stand out. The first is this: Faced with an extreme ideology such as political Jihadism, conceived in the white-hot passions of resentment and bloodlust, with what can relativism arm itself? Some of the most sensitive members of a secularist community are liable to make excuses for murderous opponents, out of a dread for a principled moral stand—that would be too “absolutist.” Some are liable to plead for understanding, tolerance, appeasement. Since they have no standard of moral truth that they might appeal to, they may rejoice in preemptive moral surrender, even if this means giving heart to a voracious enemy. (Appeasement, said Churchill, is throwing someone else to the crocodiles to buy time.)
The second difficulty is a demographic one. Secularism seems to give no motive to young men and women to have children in sufficient numbers to reproduce themselves. In fact, secularism serves up motives for not having children, whether out of perceived moral duties to the environment, fears of overpopulation, or simply a preference for enjoying a relatively carefree life, unencumbered by the long responsibilities of childrearing. (Even in nominally Christian countries such as France and Italy, it tends to be the churchgoers who have more children, the more secular ones fewer.)
Possibly, too, the conditions of the social-welfare state have the unintended consequence of discouraging childrearing: high taxes, small apartments, heavily regulated living arrangements, the weakening of personal responsibilities both to the older and to the younger generation. Add the unspoken but demoralizing perception that the welfare state has made many more promises than it can possibly satisfy. A certain foreshortening of a bleak future, a certain cultural pessimism, seems to be a natural concomitant of the
social- welfare state. Tocqueville predicted a new soft despotism that would result from an unchecked drift toward social equality untempered by a love for individual liberty and personal responsibility. He feared a dread sameness, an enervation, and a coarsening of life.
Since secularism means, and intends to mean, the death of God, can it propose an alternative? The trouble is that atheism is not a rational alternative; it is a leap in the dark. No person can possibly prove a negative or knows enough to be certain that there is no God.
That is why agnosticism has come to seem a more modest, skeptically open, and humanistically attractive position. Yet it does have one central flaw—it inclines us to a holding back, a contagious moral indecisiveness. As a spectator sport, agnosticism is at least understandable. Yet, every day, men and women have to go down into the arena of action. They must make decisions. There their actions fall under the principles of one theory—or else some other one. They cannot go on making decisions as if God does not exist, without having effectively made a pivotal decision about God. One can pretend to think as an agnostic, but the pressures of actually choosing how to act oblige one to declare one's relationship to God. In action, there are no agnostics.
Nonetheless, some people can and do decide that God does not exist. But it seems unlikely that whole societies can do so—and highly doubtful that ordinary, commonsense people can do so for long, across more than three generations. To be sure, religious societies are riven by sin. And churches, too, have perennial problems with laxity, backsliding, and sheer moral disorder. But the churches also have means and methods for addressing the problem of moral failure.
Where atheism and agnosticism flourish, one may also expect to find a certain moral carelessness seeping into common life, a certain slacking off, a certain habit of getting away with things. Secularism may be livable among specially gifted people, but its effects on the less educated seem to be less comforting.
One may find, for instance, a coarsening of daily intercourse, as we now seem to be experiencing in America, as we look back nostalgically to a time when one could leave home with the door unlocked. A number of British writers down the years have recalled with pleasure the old sweetness and courtesy imbued into the culture by Methodism in its early generations.
Furthermore, secular modernity offers few reasons for those who are religious—Muslims, for example—to change their religious commitments. Why should they exchange vivid experience, clarity, and certainty for relativism? And if they do not, what fault in that can relativists discern? To be alarmed by violence deployed in the name of religion—as in the bloody murder of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands—is to cease being relativist, to discover the reality of evil, and to stand on the verge of resolving to combat it. Judaism and Christianity, one may think, explain this sequence better than current-day secular humanism. One hardly ever meets these days the cocky rationalists of the kind that flourished a hundred years ago, secure in their powers of logic and scientific reasoning. Even Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens—in the contemporary context of moral relativism, nihilism, and postmodernism—whistle as they bypass the graveyard of classical rationalism.
One reason postmodernism has done so much damage to the modern secularist agenda is that the sort of reason lifted up by the Enlightenment is not well suited to justifying itself. Reason, as we are learning again, can be used to undermine reason. Reason has also been used to undermine the morale and self-confidence of the scientists whose whole lives have been committed to the Enlightenment—by calling them warmongers or insensitive robots, and the like. Science depends on a supportive culture and a measure of social admiration that make worthwhile all the sacrifices of acquiring a scientific education and professional practice. And to stiffen one's spine against manifold temptations to cheat.
Science is not just a methodology; it is a set of habits and practices, supported by a culture of a particular kind, forming students to be ready for commitment, discipline, and hard work. So, too, the life of reason is as much a culture as a method. A great many persons and institutions must be committed to its disciplines, its aims, and its long-term support.
It is not clear that science or reason alone, on the basis of atheism or agnosticism, can long inspire cultural commitment. If everything is at the end of the day a result of chance, what exactly is the point of a commitment to reason? Reason seems to be out of harmony with the fundamental nature of reality. The humanist who in all things seeks reason while insisting that, at bottom, there are no reasons is tangled in a spider's nest of self-contradictions. How long can a culture sustain the experience of the frustration of reason and still attract young people to necessary disciplines in the face of ultimate pointlessness?
As we have seen, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas—often cited as the last heir of high Enlightenment philosophy—has begun in recent years to be troubled by this question: How can a small island of people committed to reason and to science long survive in a great ocean of peoples who see in science and reason engines of demoralization and cultural decadence?
It became apparent after September 11, 2001, Habermas writes, that more than half the globe's population harbors not only resistance to but a madly destructive hatred for the West. The fact that the West is perceived as the culture of modern science and narrow rationality does not satisfy the souls of many. There may be other questions to ask about the limits of secularism. There may be other reasons for beginning to look over the nearest mountains to a vista of a post-secular age. It does seem that that is where we are heading. André Malraux once wrote that “the twenty-first century will be religious, or not at all.” But I do not believe that the end of the post-secular age will necessarily be, or even should be, a religious age. It may be something altogether different.
Habermas seems to talk good sense when he writes that in the world after September 11, 2001, secular and religious people in the West need one another if they are to put together all the elements of a sustainable humanistic culture. While it is true that the long contest between self-confident secularism and stubbornly confident religion is still in doubt—with the latter, at the moment, assuming more-powerful dimensions than the former had long predicted—we may at least mark out a ground on which both the people of the secular order and the people of the sacred order (as distinct from particular churches and particular cultures) can begin to learn how to cooperate, to the advantage of both.
Before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger held a widely publicized debate with Habermas. In his comments, Ratzinger made three surprising points. First, he argued, the secular intellect will always be necessary to curb and to correct some of the toxic temptations of religion.
Second, he claimed, neither contemporary secular reason nor any individual religion has as yet come adequately to understand other powerful cultural currents on earth or begun to converse with them intelligently. Intercultural relations at this date remain woefully superficial. Christianity and scientific rationalism must “admit de facto that they are accepted only in parts of mankind and are intelligible only in parts of mankind.” If we are ever to attain a planetary consensus on the reasonableness of certain moral principles—such as that to which the Western tradition of natural law and nearly all other cultures once aspired—we will need to interact far more deeply than anyone as yet has done with the Indian tradition of karma, the Chinese tradition of the Rule of Heaven, and the Islamic tradition of the will of Allah.
Third, Ratzinger noted, there are certain creative energies and intuitions that Christianity can bring to secular society. Christianity, after all, is by now found in all nations on earth, and it numbers among its baptized members one-third of all people on earth. It is a fount of practical knowledge about other cultures. Meanwhile, the secular too is a legitimate regime, with its own special autonomy, rules, and privileges—but also with its own responsibilities and self-inflicted limitations. There can be, is, and ought to be conversation between the religious and the secular; each must be properly distinguished from the other. But when they are incarnated in particular persons, particular practices, and particular institutions, each typically owes much to the other.
Down through the centuries, the Catholic Church has learned much from successive secular orders. From the East it learned a sense of the great mystery and transcendence of God—a more mystical and contemplative cast of mind. From the ancient Greeks it learned to love reason, proportion, and beauty. From the Romans it learned stoic virtue, universal administration, and a practical sense of law. From the French it learned the upward flare of the Gothic and the brilliance of idées claires and rapid wordplay. From the Germans, metaphysics, formidable historical learning, and metahistorical thinking. And from the Anglo-Americans, a dose of common sense and a passion for the religious liberty of the individual conscience.
There is no point in repeating here the lessons that secularist culture, according to Habermas, has learned from Judaism and Christianity—intuitions; habits of mind, heart, and aspiration; new standards of compassion and conscience, and the like. Even without sharing in Christian faith, secular persons ought in all fairness to give due recognition to intellectual indebtedness. In a word, pluralism cannot merely mean mutual toleration. Even to say that pluralism means mutual respect, while far closer to the heart of the matter, is not enough. For the parties committed to it, pluralism must also mean learning from each other.
If there is coming a post-secular age, it is not likely to be an age in which all intelligent people set aside their unbelief in Judaism and Christianity or their deep commitment to science and reason. But it will be, or ought to be, an age in which secular persons recognize at last that their own claim to universal superiority—the enlightened looming over those still walking in darkness—was premature. Not by pure secularism alone will the future be more fruitful than the immediate past. The times call for a global conversation among a multitude of human beings, for most of whom a sense for the sacred and the transcendent is as important as science and reason.
To be forced to choose between science and religion, or between the ways of reason and the ways of faith, is not an adequate human choice. Better it is to take part in a prolonged, intelligent, and respectful conversation across those outmoded ways of drawing lines.
Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the editorial board of First Things