Secularism’s Victory through Osmosis

The German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) began his education as a Lutheran seminarian during the cultural ferment that we now refer to as the French Enlightenment. Later, as a philosophy professor at Jena, in a chapter in his 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit on “the struggle of the Enlightenment with Superstition,” he offered a philosophical analysis of the success of the Enlightenment that took the world by storm in the previous century. He describes the swift, consummate, but initially bloodless victory over the “idols” of superstition as follows, including a quote from Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew:

Now the Enlightenment, as an invisible and subtle spirit, slinks through the honorable segments little by little, and soon has essentially achieved control of all the innards and organs of the unsuspecting idol. And then, “on one fine morning it gives the idols of its contemporaries a shove with the elbows, and crash! bam! the idol is lying on the floor.” On one fine morning, whose noon is not bloody, as long as the infection has pervaded all the organs of spiritual/cultural life; then only memory still preserves the dead form of the previous stage of spirit, like a history that, somehow or other, has run its course. The new serpent of divine wisdom which is elevated for worship has thus, when you come down to it, merely painlessly shed its wrinkled old skin.

In the span of a couple decades, the Enlightenment took over France, spread to England and Germany and other European countries, and even to the shores of America. This took place not by force, or even by learned argumentation, but rather by gradually surrounding everyone, so that the new spirit functioned like the air they breathe in, or like an infection that has taken root and travels ineluctably and irreversibly through the social organism.

The historical background involves the lumières, the “brights” of the 18th century — including the agnostic Voltaire, the atheist Diderot, and the emergence of the worldwide best-selling Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, to which both contributed. Such brights tried valiantly to raise their contemporaries out of the “simple faith” inculcated by “scheming priests” traditionally ensconced in positions of power and prestige, and to discountenance philosophers like Blaise Pascal, who famously recommended that, if you have doubts about your Catholic faith, you should simply “ask your confessor.” Soon the Goddess of Reason was celebrated in Notre Dame Cathedral, and remaining proponents of Faith all over France slinked to the sidelines, rendered relatively irrelevant and speechless.


In a similar fashion, secularism, as an “-ism” opposed to religious “superstition” in our own era, has little by little gained the upper hand. Signs of the victories it has gained surround Christians on all sides: The Bible is no longer the “Word of God,” but an interesting anthropological remnant from times bygone, subject to analysis to determine the sources of the strange mentality prevailing in early centuries of Judeo-Christian developments. Strange doctrines, like the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, and especially the Resurrection, are traced to myths prevailing in ancient civilizations. Anything with the scent of the miraculous, in our enlightened age of Science, can be, and must be, explained away in terms of natural causes.

But even more clearly and firmly, secularism has won the victory over once-embedded moral norms, championed throughout the ages by Christians and other defenders of the natural law, religious and non-religious. Contraception had been condemned from the earliest Christian eras by Barnabas, Clement of Alexandria, and many others down through the centuries; until the 1930 Episcopalian Lambeth Conference drilled the first hole in the dike, followed by almost all other Protestant denominations. Thus we are confronted at present with a fait accompli in industrialized nations where almost everyone is using contraceptives. Polls indicate that about 98 percent of Catholics as well as Protestants say that they have used contraceptives in the past; and that more that 80 percent of Catholic married couples use contraceptives, especially the Pill, to regulate births (omitted from these statistics are the massive number of Christians and non-Christians who now live together before marriage).

If and when pills and contraceptive devices don’t work, the contraceptive of choice, of course, is abortion. Ironically, a considerable portion of contracepting Catholics oppose abortion but give no serious consideration to the opinion of many members of the Association of Pro-life Physicians that, in spite of the Pill, eggs sometimes become fertilized but are effectively aborted because changes in the cervical mucus and endometrial lining prevent implantation. Morning-after pills and IUDs are more clearly abortifacient, as well as the latest “advance” in abortion procedures, produced by IPAS (International Products Assistant Services) — a “manual vacuum aspirator” that any woman can use to suck out babies from their wombs like the machines used by abortionists.

Following upon contraception and abortion like a third apocalyptic horseman, we encounter the gradual emergence, almost through stealth, of the acceptance of homosexuality as something one is born with — although, in spite of numerous attempts, no scientific evidence has been produced to substantiate that claim. Dr. Robert Spitzer, who in 1973 persuaded the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, has more recently reversed himself, citing success in reorienting many homosexual patients.

Apparently the authors of After the Ball: How America Will Conquer its Fear & Hatred of Gays in the 90’s (1989), Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, have achieved their strategic goals, almost as if following the patterns of the Enlightenment as recorded by Hegel. Their strategy: saturating our cultural environment, including films, TV, and other media, with images of gays who are respectable and as normal as the neighbors next door; pointing out celebrities and famous historical personages as gay; equating criticism of homosexuals by pro-family supporters as “hate” crimes; and so forth. It cannot be denied that the goal of Kirk and Madsen is within reach — not just acceptance, but celebration of homosexuality as a contribution to cultural diversity, and even responsible for special individual gifts and talents.


Surrounded on all sides by such changes in the cultural atmosphere, wouldn’t it be naive and hopelessly blind to expect any reversal of this handwriting on the wall? Would it not be rational and realistic to accept the changes that have taken place as inevitable and irreversible, so that opposing them would amount to a quixotic tilting at windmills? Almost everyone is using contraceptives; the latest Gallup poll indicates a majority of Americans support gay marriage; abortion is accepted almost everywhere — except for a few holdout enclaves — and touted as a necessary and indispensable element in female empowerment. This constitutes our present social atmosphere. Or shall we end up like the proverbial ostrich, putting its head in the sand?

But going back to Hegel’s analysis, and proceeding a few pages further, we find that the strategy of the Enlightenment eventually turned out to be only a pyrrhic victory. The Enlightenment strategy backfired when the lumières, at the height of their success and power, overreached themselves, enforcing the volonté générale (the new “universal will”) on the volonté de tous (the often recalcitrant “individual wills”), leading to Robespierre, the Jacobins, dissenting factions, and the infamous Terror.

In the middle of the 19th century, Marxists, systematically trying to resurrect a new and “scientific” version of the Enlightenment’s smothering of religion, eventually suffered in the Soviet era a similar reversal, clearly overreaching themselves as they tried to impose an ideology of “communist man” on an unwilling world.

A similar development may take place in our own day, as the proponents of secularist ideology systematically push to the limits their power and influence. Evidence of this has already begun to appear: Organizations and courts siding with atheists in preventing any display of crosses, religious figurines, or depictions of the tablets of the Ten Commandments; liberals outdoing themselves to find ways to fund and support abortion providers like Planned Parenthood; governmentally supported movements to prohibit exceptions of conscience, requiring doctors and pharmacists to supply contraceptives, and insurance companies to cover contraception and abortion; ignoring scientific findings (e.g., by the National Institute of Health in 2006) regarding the connection of contraceptives with breast cancer, and scientific studies showing statistical correlation between abortion and breast cancer; requiring adoption agencies to entrust children to homosexual couples; portraying any criticisms (especially biblically based criticisms) of homosexuality as “hate crimes”; and major Catholic colleges and universities going out of their way to offer contraceptives to students, honor campus GLBT groups, support Planned Parenthood, and feature pro-abortion and/or gay commencement speakers at graduation.

At the present time, like the denizens of the 18th century that Hegel describes, we have to admit that the victory of rampant secularism over Christianity in the Western World is an unmistakable cultural accomplishment, a fait accompli. But the possibility of the sort of reversal that Hegel points out may also be on the horizon. As the ideological secularists begin to overreach in all the ways just described — like their Enlightenment predecessors — we also begin to see the possibility of their (hopefully bloodless) defeat. We may feel a spiritual kinship with many of the citoyens at the end of the 18th century in France, after being subjected to the abolition of all classes and governmental structures, witnessing the resultant radical factions that wanted to exercise control over all individuals in the interests of the “general will,” and being confronted with the new worship of the goddess of Reason. A new, powerful, and all-pervasive conviction might emerge among the citizenry now, like then, that enough is enough.


Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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