One of the central themes so far in Pope Benedict’s trip to Britain has been the religious foundations of the modern west, and the threats to those foundations from “aggressive secularism”.
Jon Adams and I have been talking about this. I proposed a thesis (not unique to me) that the Europe is not only dying but that it is committing suicide. It is committing suicide because, increasingly, it simply hates itself. It is committing demographic suicide by being so taken over by nihilism that it does not even see fit to replace itself. And it is committing intellectual suicide by actively destroying its own intellectual tradition and its cultural deposits through postmodern deconstruction and reductionisms of all kinds. What is filling the vacuum left behind is the "dictatorship of relativism".
Now some of my secularist friends might say, “Good riddance to religion, who needs it?” My response: humanism needs it. Look at Europe. I don’t think that Europeans simply opted for weak-kneed relativism, nihilism, and increasing possibility of xenophobia (disclaimer: I am not sure if I am ready to say that the banning minarets, the banning of headscarves, the ejection of gypsies, etc are xenophobic, all might just be a function of militant secularism). What Europe thought it was choosing was a robust secular humanism. But the project cannot sustain itself. The fact is that the Enlightenment and so-called “age of reason” was simply incapable of sustaining its trust in reason.
Now you might say that you have plenty of trust in reason, as do secular humanists generally. My response: Perhaps new atheists didn’t get the memo that the Enlightenment project failed. If so, your eyes are closed if you do not see that the Enlightenment has already failed, modernity imploded. The ongoing failure / refusal of secular humanists to actually articulate their humanism and defend its ground in some philosophical anthropology is not an accident. Ultimately secular humanism is an unsustainable project. It currently lives, whether it recognizes this or not, on the fumes of the grand and religiously informed intellectual tradition that preceded it.
This is the context of Benedict’s remarks about Nazism yesterday. The remark has caused quite a stir among secularists (as caustic as new atheists are in their comments about religious people, they have really thin skin themselves). Worth noting that the comments the Pope made were historically accurate. While Nazism certainly tried to co-opt Christianity and use its symbols, their ultimate goal was the dissolution of religion. Hitler himself thought churches would naturally die out as science progressed, others in the movement wanted to be pro-active. (There is a reason why Pope JPII had to go to an underground seminary, after all). This is what people forget about Germany and its nazi history. Dr. Huenemann (an atheist) and I were just talking about this and both agreed – Nazism was the Enlightenment on steroids.
So Benedict’s point was NOT that all atheists are awful people, much less Nazis. Of course not. His point was that rationality reduced to science and stripped of religious foundations and orientation toward the transcendent has nothing to keep it from becoming xenophobic and tyrannical. Again on Nazi Germany – was there ever a more dedicated Enlightenment project? They had an absolute dedication to [reduced] rationality. Now you might argue that they got the Enlightenment wrong. But anything that can go that wrong has some intrinsic disorder from the start.
I would propose this thesis (again, this idea is not original to me). Western civilization is a three legged stool – it is built on Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome. Biblical faith teaches it the absolute dignity of the person. Athens gives it the trust in reason, and Rome gives it the rule of law as opposed to the rule of force. When one leg fails, the whole stool falls. When Jerusalem is undermined, Athens gets unsteady. We plainly see that the Enlightenment was incapable of sustaining on its own its faith in reason and so it devolved into postmodernity. What a world we live in when it is the Pope who has to undertake a campaign to defend faith in reason! New atheists don’t realize that they are simply rehearsing the Enlightenment, apparently unaware that the project failed. So they press on with an absolutely naive idea about a perfectly rational (and by "rational" we just mean scientific) society.
My view: ultimately you do need some kind of religious foundation to get morality going. Dr. Huenemann remarked that religion provides at least a “practically useful ideas” (see Kant on religion). If morality boils down to whether or not human beings have intrinsic dignity (and I think it does boil down to that), then the materialist has nothing to say. Nothing. They cannot get morality off the ground. How do you get it off the ground? With the religiously informed conviction that man has intrinsic dignity (in the West this is religiously informed because the view has been grounded in the idea that man is made in the “image and likeness” of God). Now I think once you get the plane in the air, it can fly on its own. But to get it in the air you need Jerusalem. Athens and Rome by themselves won’t do it.
This is why Benedict has spent so much time praising the freedoms and social goods of modern Britain while simultaneously insisting that Britain not forget the Christian/Jerusalem foundations of those freedoms. And this is why I wrote yesterday that Benedict’s project is the recovery and survival of the West. He is fighting for Europe itself.