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)


    But why has the dispute between Christians and atheists reached such a pitch?

    I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that atheists are no longer content to allow religion to carry on uncriticised from a proteted position.

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

    I absolutely agree with this point of view.
    I think the term extinction burst is most apposite.

    While extinction, when implemented consistently over time, results in the eventual decrease of the undesired behavior, in the near-term the subject might exhibit what is called an extinction burst. An extinction burst will often occur when the extinction procedure has just begun. This consists of a sudden and temporary increase in the response’s frequency, followed by the eventual decline and extinction of the behavior targeted for elimination.

    Great blog by the way Brian.

    And for all those who are admirers of the wonderful Dawkins, there will be a new series begining soon.
    Details and interview with the great man at this link.

  • Pete Baker


    Whilst I’m glad a past post of mine was able to be the starting point for such a considered post, I would just attempt to clarify a couple of points.

    Strictly speaking I was praising Dawkins’ public intervention on the topic, noting that his “attacking [of] Gods, all gods, anything and everything supernatural..” was a “self-declared, ambitious intention”.

    On Benedict and The Un-Enlightment.

    What you have described as “Pope Benedict’s attempts to reconcile religion and science” I prefer to describe, and indeed have done so, as “an attempt to equate, or entwine, religion and science..” Benedict does so by appealing to [his] authority – a “greater form of reason”. And he has plenty of allies.

    That attempt is, in my view, more about re-elevating religion, and specifically the papacy, to its pre-Enlightenment status than it is about undermining science.

    My objection to that attempt is that undermining science and, in particular, rational thought is a direct consequence of it.

    Indeed, Benedict specifically chose that particular line of attack in his encyclical “‘SPE SALVI facti sumus’ – in hope we were saved”.

    As I noted then,

    Benedict points the finger of blame for, among other things, the French Revolution, Marxism and the Russian Revolution at “the foundations of the modern age” which “appear with particular clarity in the thoughts of Francis Bacon [added link]” – and, in particular, Bacon’s ‘New Instrument for Rational Thinking’ – Novum Organum, published in 1620.

    The weakness in Benedict’s criticism comes from the fact that it has an entirely theological, and supernatural, basis.

    “Anyone who reads and reflects on these statements attentively will recognize that a disturbing step has been taken: up to that time, the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: herein lay “redemption”. Now, this “redemption”, the restoration of the lost “Paradise” is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis.”

    In fact Bacon believed that by increasing knowledge of the natural world the day of judgement would be hastened – a not uncommonly held belief of the time, 1600s.

    Benedict was careful not to highlight that point.

    But Bacon’s legacy was not that belief.

    It was his advocacy of a systematic approach to investigating the natural world and to rational thinking.

    And that is what Benedict chose to attack.

    “Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it.”

  • Pete Baker


    Here are the final paragraphs from my previous post. I could reword them but I think they make the point clearly enough.

    “However, Francis Bacon himself had a view on such thinking, from Novum Organum

    “Finally, if anyone objects that the sciences and the arts have been perverted to evil and luxury and such like, the objection should convince no one. The same may be said of all earthly goods, intelligence, courage, strength, beauty, wealth, the light itself and all the rest.”

    And Bacon also added an argument which, if Benedict did not seek to criticise that which followed – The Enlightenment – could have seen him call for a return to Bacon’s original ideas.

    “Just let man recover the right over nature which belongs to him by God’s gift, and give it scope; right reason and sound religion will govern its use.”

    But perhaps the criticism of Bacon is also down to some of his other thoughts.. and their clarity.

    Idols of the cave have their origin in the individual nature of each man’s mind and body; and also his education, way of life and chance events. This category is varied and complex, and we shall enumerate the cases in which there is the greatest danger and which do most to spoil the calrity of the understanding.

    Men fall in love with particular pieces of knowledge and thoughts: either because they believe themselves to be their authors and inventors; or because they have put a great deal of labour into them, and have got very used to them. If such men betake themselves to philosophy and universal speculation, they distort and corrupt them to suit their prior fancies.”

  • pauljames


    what Dawkins et al are attempting to do is raise conciousness in the same way that civil, black, women and gay rights movements have done. This is the zietgeist for the 21st century. It only appears strident to those who have invested so much in the supernatural and who object to the light of reason being shone upon it.

  • Rory

    Benedict may say as he pleases and no doubt he will, albeit after thoughtful prayer, but he might need to pray more deeply for understanding if he is to so lightly to dismiss the one true great spiritual writer of the modern age, Karl Marx.

    Erich Fromm says simply that the great spiritual leaders are: the Buddha; the Christ; the Meister Eckherdt; Marx and Freud. By their example I take it that Fromm would arm us to avoid the twin perils of bad religion and bad science.

    Great spiritual truths are akin to great scientific truths in the simplicity of their expression and understanding – that “But of course…” moment that we experience when something that we had hitherto seemed unaware of was made obvious and we realise we had merely been blind to it – we had known the simple truth all along.

    Remember discovering that Santa Claus was mythical or that babies were rarely found growing under cabbages? Do you really remember any resulting disappointment at this knowledge or is it not more likely that you were more filled with an excitement of curiousity as to how these new regimes which you were now required to take on board actually panned out?

    There can be no real dichotomy between spirituality and scientific research, each must demand of the other as do those other expressions of that which we call the human soul – art, literature and music (of which music is chief) but there clearly are difficulties with these expressions of human spirituality with some, if not many religions.

    The difficulty that Jesus, the Christ, proffered, with his warning about rich men, heaven, camels and the eye of a needle was largely resolved by the rise of protestantism and a switch in emphasis from salvation through good works to one of salvation by grace which could best be observed by the grace that the Redeemer had showered on the very obviously saved rich – the richer a man was then obviously the more saved he must be.

    I cannot locate the exact source but I remember reading a piece from Marx where he wrote that if a man, by the age of forty, was not universally loved by virtue of his own loving nature then he may as well throw himself in the river.
    But then, as we cannot blame Jesus, the Christ for all the mad Christians, nor the Buddha for all the mad Buddhists, we must not blame Marx for all the Marxists.

  • Pete Baker


    Just a couple of other quick points.

    I didn’t actually argue that Benedict’s attempts were ‘futile’. I restricted myself to arguing against the aim of those attempts.

    And since, by implication, you place me in the “dispute between Christians and atheists” I will point out that my posts do not “[stem] 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.” That would be somewhat reductionist, surely?

    Rather my posts are reactions to specific articles, and even TV programmes, promoting a less than rational approach – as well as Benedict’s attempt to restore past glories.

    I’ve also detailed more local concerns.

  • Brian Walker

    Pete, I bow to your study of the Pope’s thinking. And I last read Bacon about 35 years ago. Most of us agree that science is no route to Xian salvation, so in a narrow sense Benedict has a point: but which of us ever said it was, we might ask him. We now tend to think of the C17 forward thinkers as the successors to religious thought, even though they, inc even Newton, thought they were adding to it. Hobbes appeared to pay only lip-service in Leviathan to the Xian God; and the religious fig leaf starts to fall away in Locke.

    Any attempt by Benedict to invoke the C17 context is of doubtful relevance. His follow-on, pointing the finger at the French Revolution, Marxism and the Russian Revolution is standard clerical stuff, which would have made him at home among the French right and Kulturkampf Old Catholics in the mid C19. At best, they were the monstrous spawn of the Enlightenment, though the French Revolution was somewhat better than that. Ideas, although they contribute mightily to events cannot be blamed entirely for them.

    I grant you that the RC Church is great at revivals but any attempt at such a throw back seems absurd.

    What political vehicle would Benedict use to translate ideas into action? Clerical parties are no longer de rigeur. The Christian Democrats in western Europe have either gone secular or merged, or disappeared in puffs of corruption.

    I simply can’t get worked up about any supposed threat from the Pope. But I value the debate, Dawkins very much included.


  • Brian Walker

    P.S Pete. Our last comments crossed. My reply was to your first. On your second, I take your point about what you were saying. I used you as a ramp to jump off, I’m afraid. Do forgive me.

  • Pete Baker


    “Any attempt by Benedict to invoke the C17 context is of doubtful relevance.”

    And yet it is central to his argument. Which is what I pointed out.

    I’m all for a debate on the topic but let’s at least treat the contributions to that debate on their merits.

    Whether or not you believe that Benedict’s aim to restore past glories is absurd misses the point – that is his semi-declared aim.

    You ask – “What political vehicle would Benedict use to translate ideas into action?”

    I suggest that he has identified just such a political vehicle.

    I note that you “simply can’t get worked up about any supposed threat from the Pope.”

    That’s fine.

    I’ll just continue to argue against his attempts to mount such a threat.

  • Pete Baker

    Comments crossed again, Brian.

    “I used you as a ramp to jump off, I’m afraid. Do forgive me.”

    No problem.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    What political vehicle would Benedict use to translate ideas into action?

    What exactly did Ben say about his time with the National Socialists? Anything worth reading out there?