None So Blind: How Secularists Ignore the Value of Religion

It’s the same argument we’ve heard so many times before, except now with increasing frequency and intensity: The world’s troubles are caused by religion. If only people would at last abandon these silly superstitions and get with the times.

Late this summer Zenit, the international Catholic news agency, reported on an increasing tendency in the Western press—particularly in the wake of the July bombings in London—to criticize not simply “Islamic fundamentalism” but also religion in general as sources of discord and violence. Thus in the pages of Scotland’s Sunday Herald Muriel Gray declared that “the cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror and ignorance is of course religion itself,” which she went on to dismiss as “Dark Ages nonsense.” “For the government of a secular country such as ours to treat religion as if it had real merit instead of regarding it as a ridiculous anachronism, which education, wisdom and experience can hopefully overcome in time, is one of the most depressing developments of the 21st century,” she continued.

This is no isolated voice. “It is time now to get serious about religion—all religion—and draw a firm line between the real world and the world of dreams,” wrote Polly Toynbee in the London Guardian. Along the same lines, Matthew Parris suggested in the London Spectator magazine that “what unites an ‘extremist’ mullah with a Catholic priest or evangelical Protestant minister is actually much more significant and interesting than what divides him from them.”

Statements like these, added Zenit, were becoming increasingly common even before the London bombings. Thus earlier this year Sam Harris argued in the Times of London that “incompatible religious doctrines” had led to terrible divisions in the world and that these divisions in turn had become “a continuous source of bloodshed.” He went on: “If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.”

More recently, retired Royal Military College professor Bob Ferguson argued on Canada’s state-owned CBC radio for government control of religion. “Given the inertia of the Catholic Church,” he observed, “perhaps we could encourage reform by changing the environment in which all religions operate…. Couldn’t we insist that human rights, employment and consumer legislation apply to them as it does other organizations? Then it would be illegal to require a particular marital status as a condition of employment or to exclude women from the priesthood.”

A “key item” in the “code of moral practice for religions” that Ferguson proposes “would have to be a ban on claims of exclusivity. It should be unethical for any RRP [registered religious practitioner] to claim that theirs was the one true religion and believers in anything else or nothing were doomed to fire and brimstone.” The Vatican would be displeased, said Ferguson, but “they would come to accept [the terms of the code] in time as a fact of life in Canada.” “Can’t religious leaders agree to adjust doctrine so all religions can operate within the code?” he wondered.

These days, more and more Protestants seem all too happy to wave incense before the shrine of almighty Bob. The past several years have witnessed the growth within Protestantism of the “emergent” or “emerging church” movement, which emphasizes “religious experience” and downplays both the need for and the desirability of religious doctrine. (In other words, it is in almost every detail the very thing condemned in Pope St. Pius X’s 1907 encyclical Pascendi.) “There’s a sort of comfort,” one woman recently noted to a PBS interviewer, “in knowing that…I don’t have to have the answers, and that there aren’t necessarily answers.” According to Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon’s Porch Church, “It’s more important for us to feel like we’re representing a beautiful expression of our life with God than it is to be right about everything.”

Catholics cannot afford to be complacent in light of these Protestant difficulties; recent polling data showed 88 percent of Catholics agreeing with the statement that, “If people are generally good, or do enough good things for others during their lives, they will earn a place in heaven”—in effect, the very Pelagian heresy that St. Augustine went to such lengths to refute.

This kind of milquetoast Christianity—in addition to being, quite frankly, a betrayal of Christ—will not satisfy the secularists’ anti-religious fatwa any more than constitutional priests’ initial concessions to the revolutionary regime spared them from an eventual death sentence during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. To them, encouraging religious moderation is no solution, since it still amounts to preserving a way of thinking that they consider hopelessly out of step with modernity. “In so far as religious moderates attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion,” Harris wrote in the Times, “they close the door to more sophisticated approaches to human happiness.”

What is needed instead is a renewed emphasis on the enormous contributions that the Catholic Church has made to civilized life. Whether Islam is in fact a “religion of peace” or—of its very nature—is committed to expansionism and violence is a matter for people more expert in Islamic theology than I to decide. The point here is that we cannot permit the intelligentsia to go unanswered when they extrapolate from the fact of Islamic terrorism the conclusion that all religion is a blight on human existence whose alleged drawbacks dramatically outweigh its virtues (if indeed any are conceded to exist at all).

For example, for all the many virtues of the civilizations of classical antiquity, which the Church herself admired, conspicuously absent was anything like the Christian view of the sanctity of human life. It is true that the ancient Greeks placed much emphasis on the nobility of man, contrasting his rational nature, moral conscience, and self-directedness with the instinct-driven action of the beasts. But it is also true that even a figure as otherwise admirable as Plato could observe that a poor man too sick or feeble to work should be left to die. In ancient Rome, Seneca noted blandly that deformed children were routinely killed, a practice codified in Roman law as early as the fifth century B.C. It was Catholic belief and practice that at last put an end to infanticide.

The Roman gladiatorial contests, the closest thing the ancient world had to modern reality television, were a terrible offense against the dignity of human life inasmuch as they made the destruction of that life a matter of entertainment. It was thanks to Catholic pressure that they were at last abolished.

Catholic charity, which was itself based on the very conception of human life that inspired the Church to labor so diligently against these ancient abuses, likewise brought something new and good into the world. I argue at much greater length in How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Regnery, 2005) that ancient Greece and Rome did not exhibit charitable activity of the sort that the Church introduced. Certainly, Greeks and Romans from time to time displayed great liberality toward their fellow men, but all too often the poor were treated with either contempt or a pity that bordered on contempt. Particularly in ancient Rome, this liberality—which was often indiscriminate and aimed at the poor and non-poor alike—was undertaken in order to call attention to oneself and to put recipients in one’s debt. The idea of helping and sympathizing with your fellow man and rendering him aid without thought of self-interest or reciprocity would come to dominate Western thought thanks to the Catholic Church. Apart from its observance among the Jews, it was simply not to be found in the ancient world.

The point here is not to catalog all the achievements that the Catholic Church has to show for herself—though such a list, in addition to what we have covered already, would have to include very substantial contributions to the development of Western science, the university, international law, economic thought, just-war theory, art and architecture, the idea of natural rights, and a great deal more besides. The point, simply, is that she has in fact done much good, indeed far more than most secularists (and even most Catholics) realize, and that it is far from certain that these good things would have developed in the Western world in the Church’s absence. And if secularists are going to cite religious warfare and intolerance against us, we might reply by noting the unprecedented destructiveness of the wars and revolutions of the 20th century, undertaken by and large by self-professed atheistic or religiously indifferent regimes, and by adding that the single year of the Reign of Terror, which was carried out by anticlerical deists and atheists, claimed far more lives than did the entire history of the Inquisition.

So impressive was the system of Catholic morality that even the Enlightenment, which was so often a conscious and willful rebellion against Catholicism, typically sought to retain the Church’s moral code—which, the philosophes’ mistresses notwithstanding, it professed to admire—while dispensing with its ritual and dogma. But Catholic morality, beautiful and sublime as it is, is also rigorous and challenging, and indeed contrary to the baser aspects of our nature. Catholic faith and dogma, therefore, far from dispensable adjuncts, are its most reliable safeguard. Early last century, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Patrick Ryan made this very point in the course of criticizing the idea that morality could be effectively taught in isolation from the Christian doctrines that gave it force:

One of the most fatal and demoralizing superstitions of this country is this attempted separation of morality from doctrinal teaching. Doctrines are as the granite foundation to the whole edifice of Christian ethics, and with them that edifice must stand or crumble into ruins. What underlies the value of holy childhood but the doctrine that the child has an immortal soul? Abolish this, look at the child only in the light of its utility to the state, and soon infanticide will commence again, and deformed children will be put to death, when men shall have lost the tendencies which Christianity has produced and fostered. In the name of our Christian civilization, I, a Bishop of the Christian Church, lift up my voice to warn you that the popular modern system of teaching morality without the doctrines that motivate it, whether that system be called Christian ethics or moral instruction or unsectarian teaching, is sapping the very foundation of Christianity and Christian civilization.

The French philosopher Simone Weil, a non-Catholic, reinforced Archbishop Ryan’s view when she said it was impossible to shed Western civilization’s Christian inheritance without becoming degraded. A passing glance at the present state of Western Europe, which is distinguishing itself in such areas of human endeavor as euthanasia, welfare statism, and nihilistic “art,” shows us what that degradation looks like.

Since the Enlightenment, Catholics have frequently if erroneously been described as irrational for their belief in Christ and the Church. But what are we to think of the rational faculties of someone who, surveying the condition of the West today, concludes that its problem is too much religion?


  • Thomas E. Woods Jr.

    Thomas E. Woods Jr. is the author of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization and the first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards for The Church and the Market. His most recent book is Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts will Make Everything Worse. Dr. Woods earned his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University.

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