The Saint and the Secular – must they be in conflict?

In response to my post about Cardinal Newman’s imminent sainthood, Pete Baker referred me via several links to a post of his praising Richard Dawkins and rehearsing a favourite theme, the futility of Pope Benedict’s attempts to reconcile religion and science and in the process, making a sinister bid to undermine the Enlightenment. I agree about the futility but I very much doubt that what the Pope is doing amounts a full scale assault on a body of thought and experience as entrenched and received as the Enlightenment, the motor force of world civilisation. Just thinking about it makes attacks from any form of fundamentalism melt away. But why has the dispute between Christians and atheists reached such a pitch? Much of it stems from the shock of 9/11 and the response of both to meet the challenge, both of militant Islam and the growing presence of conspicuously devout Muslims in our society.
A good old fashioned dispute between two eminent and media-savvy philosophers rehearses the arguments between the defenders and opponents of religion perfectly.

John Gray, the pessimist, in his article “The Atheist delusion” and is his book ” Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Penguin, March 2008) argues that religions are myths which are not true or false in the way scientific theories can be true or false – but are more faithful to the human condition than the secular humanist myths of progress and enlightenment.

In a particularly provocative conclusion he “expresses the idea that the secular ideologies that have shaped our history since the Enlightenment, ones ostensibly based on rejecting traditional faiths, were actually expressions of repressed religion. Witness Marxism, free-market fanaticism, transhumanism, and (this is where the book is, in the current climate, particularly inflammatory, i.e. and attack on Dawkins et al ) militant atheism.”
i.e. Marxism, Fascism and atheists like Dawkins are the flip side of religion’s coin.

Ba-booom!! You can hear the intellectual artillery opening up right along the front….

But Gray is no supporter of authoritarian religion:

“Religion has not gone away. Repressing it is like repressing sex, a self-defeating enterprise. In the 20th century, when it commanded powerful states and mass movements, it helped engender totalitarianism. Today, the result is a climate of hysteria. Not everything in religion is precious or deserving of reverence. There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the Earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share. There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically. Nobody should be allowed to curtail freedom in these ways, and no religion has the right to break the peace”.

AC Grayling ignores Gray’s caveats and responds to him with nothing less than contempt:

“Now let us ask whether secular Enlightenment values of pluralism, democracy, the rule of independently and impartially administered law, freedom of thought, enquiry and expression, and liberty of the individual conform to the model of a monolithic ideology such as Catholicism, Islam or Stalinism. Let us further ask how Gray imagines that these values are direct inheritances from Christianity – the Christianity of the Inquisition, which burned to death any who sought to assert just such values. Indeed, the history of the modern European and Europe-derived world is precisely the history of liberation from the hegemony of Christianity.”

“One thing that cannot be let go by is Gray’s backhanded defence of religion as “at its best … an attempt to deal with mystery rather than the hope that mystery will be unveiled”, and regrets that “this civilising perception” (one gasps) has been lost in the current clash of fundamentalisms. This painfully vague excuse for one of the worst toxins poisoning human affairs will not do: invocation of mystery has been more a potent excuse for evil than a service to the greater good.”

Grayling is the optimist, the believer in the secular view of progress as a true narrative of incremental improvement in the human condition through education and political action.

In a now celebrated conclusion, Grayling argues that the apparent resurgence of religion is really about the opposite:

What we are witnessing is not the resurgence of religion, but its death throes.

This debate however visceral is essentially about different views of the same civilisation. I don’t believe that anything so fundamental as the Enlightenment t can be reversed. It’s even reductive to label it as a cause to be defended.

The main battles were won around about the time of Newman. Anything later is mainly skirmishes.
Gray has a point though about the persistence of religion. Think of its revival, popular as well as official, in Russia after decades of the most ruthless persecution.

The Enlightenment and religion have long since learned to live together, with notable exceptions.

However I agree that locally the secular forces of the Enlightenment should stay on guard. There’s the likes of Iris to keep on the defensive. And as for any attempt to bring intelligent design into science lessons in faith based schools – then let battle commence. They will need the liberal Christians to join them in the lists.

Adds: It’s only fair to give A.C. Grayling’s latest book a plug too – Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West (Bloomsbury)

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London