Secularism and its Children

A number of modern political thinkers have held that the citizens could be made more docile and governable by depriving religious faith of its public significance – by putting the God question on the same level as purely personal preferences like whether to drive a Ford, a Honda, or a bicycle.  Trying to bring this about might be viewed as one of the great projects of the secular liberal state.

Several years ago, a scholar from another institution visited my own university to speak about the project.  I was a little disappointed in the talk, because although what he really wanted to know was whether the project had played out as the modern thinkers had expected, he spent most of his time on what the early modern thinkers had meant.  He was an interesting man, and I was sure his reflections would have been interesting if he had allowed himself to discuss them.

The most absorbing part of his talk came near the beginning, when he told anecdotes about his students at a nominally Christian university.  Though not himself a person of faith, he was amazed by their apparent religious indifference.  They found it difficult to understand why the God question ever would have disturbed the body politic.  I am reminded of some freshmen a colleague and I tried to teach several years ago.  When we assigned them classic pagan and Christian readings on things like the purpose of life and the meaning of happiness, one of them protested, “Why do we have to read these writers?  Their questions are not my questions.”  I wondered what his questions were.  After the visiting scholar’s talk, one of the social scientists in the audience revealed a similar blind spot, asking “Why should any of this interest us?  As scholars, we’re interested in reason, not faith.”  Most of my colleagues view faith and reason as opposites; that wasn’t surprising.  But I was surprised that he didn’t find religious faith interesting even as an empirical phenomenon that might have influence on politics.

Frankly, though, I don’t believe in all of this supposed indifference.  My own experience as a teacher suggests that apparent religious indifference results not from the destruction of godward longing but from its suppression.  We have become used to the Freudian notion that if we suppress the so-called id, it doesn’t go away but only goes underground, where it works in unexpected ways.  Displaced libido -- that’s nothing.  Want to see some really powerful unanticipated consequences?  Try suppressing the impulse to know the truth about God.  You can’t pull it out like a tooth; you can only push it down, and it always pushes back.  Strong motives are required, because the God question is at the root of the rational mind.  One must work not to think about it.  Denied all its normal modes of expression, it seeks abnormal ones.

What strikes me most forcefully about contemporary public life is not so much its irreligious character as its increasingly religious character – a religiosity which tends to pass unrecognized because it isn’t Christian, although it sometimes borrows language and ornament from Christianity.  In recent history, the most obvious examples come from recent Democratic presidential campaigns.  Barack Obama was presented more as a candidate for Messiah than as a candidate for political office; Bill Clinton, before him, had gone so far as to call his political program the New Covenant.  But the phenomenon is much wider than election campaigns, and it is increasingly divorced from even the outward trappings of Christianity.  For some people, atheism itself is a kind of religion.  Or consider the most devoted environmental extremists, who are so far along in Gaia worship that they invoke Her by name.  Or the transhumanists, who want Man himself to become God.  What, haven’t heard of transhumanism?  You will.

And so it is that the project of rendering the citizens more docile and governable by depriving religious faith of its public significance has been transformed.  So called secularism, in which religious faith seems to lose its potency, is turning out to be but the first stage of a process in which religious faith comes flowing back, strangely and disturbingly transformed.  The public square is not being cleansed of religion; it is being repaganized.  And the pagans were very religious.