By Fr. George Morelli
Article found at OrthodoxyToday.org.
Secularism and its offspring including radical individualism, moral relativism, and religious and political correctness are a pernicious threat to the correct comprehension of Christian teaching. Secularism borrows the vocabulary and categories of the Christian moral tradition but fills them with a different meaning thereby evoking the authority of the tradition while changing its teaching. This bastardization of Christian thought is often promoted as a higher expression of the common good when in fact it causes grave moral confusion and sometimes justifies evil in the name of good.
Secularism is not new. Intellectual history scholars locate the emergence of secular thought in the French Enlightenment, particularly in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau who rewrote the Genesis narrative by placing the locus of the Fall in Adam’s socialization rather than his private decision to disobey God. Rosseau effectively shifted responsibility for sin in the world – including the deleterious social effects some sins engender – from the individual to society.
This reinterpretation of Genesis unleashed an idea that would have huge cultural ramifications. Society, not the individual, was responsible for the ills that beset it. The idea captured the minds of the intelligentsia relatively quickly. If the ills in society were primarily the result of socialization the thinking went, then the best way to heal the ills in society was through social reorganization. The first experiment in social enlightenment was the French Revolution – a popular movement that overthrew the medieval order in the name of Fraternity, Liberty, and Equality but ended up implementing a nascent totalitarianism in the crowing of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor.
The acceptance was not universal of course. England for example, was experiencing cataclysmic social changes of its own, but the ideas unleashed in Revolutionary France never jumped the Channel. Why? Historians contend the Great Awakening led by John Wesley effectively inoculated England against Rousseau’s virus.
Napoleon was effectively deposed when the French came back to their senses but Rosseau’s idea never died. They would reappear later especially in Marxism, which elevated the notion that the state was both the source and enforcer of the project to build a heaven on earth and set about to create the new utopia with ruthless efficiency. The count of the people who died under Communist brutality makes the French Revolution seem like child’s play and eludes the historians even today.
Secularism’s Goal: A Moral Consensus Without God as a Touchstone
Secularism rejects God as the touchstone of truth and meaning. Moreover, when God is rejected, the locus of truth — the place where truth emanates and where it is found — must necessarily rest in the created order. The locus shifts to man himself, and as pride and an inflated sense of self-sufficiency grows, ideas that find no court of accountability apart from the like-minded, are implemented in this quest for a new Jerusalem. When these ideas accept a-priori that improving the lot of man begins with social reorganization (the inevitable outgrowth of Rosseau’s initial assertion), the state becomes both the source and enforcer of morality — often with catastrophic results.
Communism fell but the dream of earthly utopia continues unabated. Susan Jacoby (2005), no friend of religion, recently asserted: “What the many types of freethinkers share, regardless of their views on the existence or non existence of a divinity, was a rationalist approach to the fundamentals of earthly existence — a conviction that the affairs of human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world.”
She went on to say: “Biblical authority is cited by politicians and judges as a rationale for the death penalty. Vital public health programs — the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, family planning aid to Third World countries, sex education for American teenagers (unless it preaches “abstinence only”) — are held hostage by the religious doctrines of a determined conservative minority.” She postulates that in a democratic society, “there must be a moral consensus, extending beyond and in some instances contradicting particular religious beliefs, to maintain the social contract.”
Overlooking for the moment the self-congratulatory term “free-thinker” that Jacoby ascribes to herself and her compatriots, note how the justification for the negation of any religious dimension of the social problems she cites rests in her assertion that rationalism alone is sufficient for solving those problems. Conditioned as we are to this assertion, it strikes our ears — initially at least — as entirely plausible.
But is it really? Take a closer look at it. The assertion is universal in character. It posits that rationalism alone, that is, a self-contained and self-referencing system of ideas that broaches no recourse to a touchstone outside of the creative capacity of the individual, is sufficient for solving the catastrophic moral collapse that looms before us.
Moreover, because Jacoby’s statement is universal in character, it functions as a religious precept even while simultaneously denying the existence of the transcendent. In denying religious authority (in this case arguing that the influence of the Holy Scriptures in judgments about human behavior should be dismissed), the statement also denies God and substitutes in its place the sufficiency of the human mind to script the social reorganization necessary to solve the social problems she listed. Jacoby is clearly a daughter of Rousseau.
Critical Question Concerning Consensus
Jacoby is correct in her assertion that a shared morality is necessary for social cohesion, a dynamic we call the cultural consensus. She is also correct in her brief historical analysis that in times past the consensus was shaped by Christian morality. Finally, she is correct that the cultural consensus is shattering.
This shattering creates considerable moral confusion that results in grave social problems, some of which she cited. A question arises that Jacoby never asked (although she answered): Where will the new consensus be drawn from? What happens if different groups conflict about what is morally acceptable, as is the case today? What rule (and who will be the arbiters of that rule) determines which consensus is favored when conflicts occur?
Several critical questions are raised by Jacoby’s queries. Which group of people determines the consensus? What happens if different groups are in conflict in terms of what is morally acceptable? Can distinct groups of individuals come to a different consensus on morality and acceptability of behavior? What rule determines which consensus is the right consensus when consensus conflicts occur?
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