Recently, the influential German philosopher Jürgen Habermas spoke of the emergence of a “post-secular” society. It had long been thought that as societies grew in technological and economic power, and as the risks of daily life that had been so common for generations faded beneath the safety of plentiful food, a social welfare system, and medical skill, the need for religion would fade. This was the so-called “secularization thesis,” which held sway among anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists for decades.
However, as Habermas notes, this thesis has come under attack in recent years, and is now almost completely exploded. It suffered from a number of defects, not least of which was a Europe-centered approach and the confusion between modernization, which implies technological prowess, and secularization, which is a more charged term meaning the rejection of religious belief. What these post-secular societies shall become is still unclear, but Habermas concludes that citizens of secular states need to accommodate themselves to seeing their fellow religious citizens as equal participants in the public sphere, and implies that the age of the purely secular state has passed.
Catholics have a rich intellectual tradition reflecting on the secular, beginning with the earliest ages of the Church. After all, the term “secular” is derived from saeculum, which identified, for example, “secular” clergy, who were in the world and were not members of “regular” clergy, those governed by a rule (regula).
More generally, the word came to describe, as scholar Robert Markus has written, a middle ground between the sacred and profane, in which all can have a common interest. This was something new in Western history, as the Greeks and Romans did not have a strong concept of the secular. The development of this common space played a strong role in the development of Western political thought — resulting, in part, in the notion that people should be free to believe according to their conscience, and that political authority could not compel belief. It also assured institutions such as the Church freedom from political control, at least ideally. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have both written profoundly on the implications of an ideological secularism when applied to a living culture.
More recently, however, as the secularization thesis implies, secularization was thought to come at the expense of religion. The gradual elimination of religion was thought to be in some sense a “natural” and positive development for society. One modern Catholic thinker who entered this debate was Christopher Dawson (1889-1970). In 1934, in an essay titled “Prevision in Religion,” he elaborated the fundamental challenge to the secularization theorists:
Is the society that abandons its historic religion capable of persisting indefinitely in a purely secular atmosphere, or is this state of secularization simply the transitional phase through which society passes in its progress form one form of religion to another?
Dawson was not so sure a society could last in that indefinite secular atmosphere. He believed that societies comprised a religious and cultural unity, so that a religion will shape and define a culture. Even Western cultures — in which Christianity, an Eastern religion, was grafted onto a Greco-Roman civilization on the one hand, and (in the case of Britain, for example) an Anglo-Celtic tribal system on the other — would lose what Dawson calls its “inner cohesion” should religion disappear entirely. For Dawson, the history of Europe is incomprehensible without understanding the role Christianity has played in creating it, just as understanding Islam is crucial to understanding the history of Muslim nations.
Dawson held that the European rejection of its religious tradition was unprecedented and, far from being beneficial, would be harmful to its unity and indeed its very existence if allowed to continue. He would not have been surprised at the recent arguments over whether to include a reference to Europe’s “Christian” heritage in the European Union Constitution. That Christianity shaped Europe more than any other set of practices or beliefs is a simple fact of history. It is everywhere evidenced in the traditions, art, modes of thought, and languages of Europe.
Indeed, by its very interest in maintaining political unity and its concern for individual rights, the European Constitution bears at least an indirect relationship to the Continent’s Christian foundations. Any attempt to deny this background presents the history of Europe in a misleading way, which can only harm the chances for real and lasting unity. In that light, the reluctance of the European Union to acknowledge Christianity’s influence is a sign of a dangerous historical blindness.
There were two possibilities as Europe (and, by extension, all cultures influenced by Europe, such as the United States) passed through this secular phase. First,
the complete secularization of Western culture maybe followed by its gradual dissolution and by the reassertion of the traditional religion-cultures of Asia which have been temporarily overshadowed by the European world-hegemony.
Add Islam to that description of Asian religion-cultures, and Dawson has precisely anticipated the challenge facing Western cultures. With Christianity no longer binding Western societies together, they will instead be filled by other religious groups. We can see this already in the growth of revived pagan cults like Wicca, or more fanciful belief systems sponsored by the entertainment industry.
The second alternative is more hopeful:
It may be possible that the process of secularization may be checked or reversed either by the coming of a new religion or by a revival of the old religion with which the culture was formerly associated.
While secularist sociologists believe this revival to be “incompatible with the law of progress,” Dawson chided them for their short-sightedness. Christianity is highly adaptable, as examples from Byzantine Greece to Baroque Italy to Puritan New England demonstrate, and it is difficult for sociologists — trained as they are that religion is merely an expression of material or economic forces — to see real spiritual growth.
Who would have seen the expressions of religion from eastern Europe that would help topple Communism, or the great renewal of Catholic Faith since the election of John Paul II in 1978? These things cannot be predicted with sociological eyes; “as a rule,” Dawson writes, “the sociologist is peculiarly ill-fitted to pronounce on theological matters, since the natural bias of his own studies tends to make him emphasize those aspects of religion which are secondary and unessential from the purely religious point of view.”
Dawson, in contrast, combined rigorous scholarship with a religious point of view to see religion, as it were, from the inside. In books like Progress and Religion, The Movement of World Revolution, and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, he tried to see what secular scholarship missed about the relationship between religion, culture, and progress.
Although neglected today — even scholars such as Markus dismiss Dawson as too sectarian — that vision is necessary now more than ever, as the world leaves the illusions of secularism behind.