Wednesday 21 May 2008

Demystifying secularism?

A Short History of Secularism, by Graeme Smith (IB Tauris)

Graeme Smith’s A Short History of Secularism should be titled ‘A short history of Western Christianity, and why, despite appearances to the contrary, it isn’t really in crisis’. The book wrestles with the ‘secularisation thesis’, the commonly held assumption that the development of rational understanding would progressively squeeze religion out of the mainstream, into the private sphere, then finally banish it entirely when it was no longer necessary for human life. Smith’s intervention into the debate is a well written and engaging one, but the underlying weakness of his central hypothesis leads to some slightly strange places.

Smith’s contention is that despite lower church attendance and a less central role in public life, Western society is at base still Christian. He sets about comparing the Christianity of the Middle Ages with that of the Victorian era, and finds that despite modern ideas of the medieval period as a priest-ridden ultra-religious period, people’s day to day faith was far more relaxed. He argues that their faith played a more ‘technological’ role – explaining phenomena and attempting to treat diseases (a role now taken on by science); that church attendance was widely lower than currently assumed; and medieval religion was ‘vicarious’- meaning that people wanted others to be religious on their behalf, rather than attempting to live the lives of saints themselves. He draws a parallel with today’s society, where people still often maintain a quiet belief in the supernatural, but don’t attend church or take religion too seriously. Smith suggests that contemporary theories of reduced religiosity stem from people comparing the highly religious Victorian era, when the first data on church attendance was being collected, with today’s more relaxed attitude, more appropriately compared with less pious Middle Ages.

Attempting to construct a historical narrative of Christianity is a useful starting point in trying to come to terms with its (or any other social phenomenon’s) development. It manages to get across the changes Christianity underwent as it moved across Europe, and the markedly different mindset that influenced people in the medieval period, suggesting for instance, that understanding even the simple phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’ is contingent on the social context and contemporary conception of the word Lord.

But then the author withdraws from his method when it threatens to contradict his conclusions. Smith suggests that religiosity has undergone ‘peaks and troughs’, and is returning to a ‘normal’ level now. But there isn’t really any ordinary level of religiosity that can be called constant across such diverse historical periods. Ancient Athens and contemporary London both have democratic governance and toleration of homosexuality, but these facts tell you precisely nothing about either society or the origin of the beliefs held by them. It’s similarly ridiculous to equate the laid back and ‘vicarious’ nature of modern and medieval Christianity on such a superficial level.
Smith is on fairly firm ground when he’s dealing with the historical and sociological facts of medieval belief, but when addressing contemporary religion is much more wobbly. He claims there’s a strong Christian identity in contemporary society, but this is superficial since it seems the mood more closely resembles religious apathy; likewise, census statistics concerning self-defining Christians don’t prove the existence of a strong Christian movement, but are often used to counter the fact of lower church attendances; and the lack of popularity of secular and humanist societies proves, if anything, people just aren’t interested rather than they are religious really. So the upshot of his argument is that Christianity lives on in another form, having morphed into liberal secularism.

Smith suggests that ‘because of the radical equality of Christianity, expressed in the universal notion that all people are moral agents… then liberalism is but a different form of Christianity’. The individual relationship with god that characterises Christian thought thus enables the individual-centred outlook that respects human rights, so that the relationship is continued in a modern ‘secular’ form.

It’s a matter of historical record that almost all Western thought is influenced by Christianity in one way or another, so on one level this view has purchase. And it’s true, as Smith states, that the Enlightenment scientists and philosophers, who supposedly overthrew Christianity’s central role, were often Christians or deists themselves; and that the anti-clerics’ primary focus was the abuses of the church rather than religion per se. But unfortunately, it doesn’t quite follow that the liberal consensus that has gradually emerged since is Christian in any robust or real sense.

To support this non-sequitur, Smith leans on some strange allies: the anti-Enlightenment philosopher Nietzsche, and in particular John Gray. Both can be read as lambasting the human-centred morality of the Enlightenment, declaring that man is really an animal, and that morality is bunk – nothing more than repackaged Christianity. By putting these philosophers to one side as exceptions, he manages to elide liberalism and Christianity (hey, at least we all have some morality!).

Smith concedes on the second to last page that ‘of course it [basic liberal ethics] by no means matches the Christian ideal. But if we compare it with the evolutionary nihilism of Gray, then it does’ (Well Gordon Brown’s Britain isn’t socialist utopia, but if you compare it to Burma, then it is…). This seems like a belated admission that what we’re talking about in the current circumstance isn’t really Christianity; but Smith seems unable to admit that the liberal ideas and values immanent within Christianity transcended their mystical trappings and became social and political ideals that could stand on their own two feet.

I know this is a slightly strange endorsement for a book, but if you can ignore the central thesis, it is a fairly interesting wander though the history of ideas, with some good insights into medieval and Victorian society. However, despite Smith’s best efforts, those facts don’t add up to Christianity being in anything resembling a healthy state – and his desire to paint almost everything except belief in God as Christian is representative of this.

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