B. Thornton ii

I said in the last post on Prof. Bruce Thornton I would deal with his views as expressed in the 5 part Uncommon Knowledge interview on National Review. This link is to part-2, in my mind the most important.

It is where he deals with what I think is the key issue: the secularization vs. the parasitic thesis.

The secularization thesis, the dominant myth of the Enlightenment from Voltaire through Marx, Nietzsche, and on down to New Atheists, is that secularization comes as a movement of liberty and wresting control from the absolutist dogmatic tyranny of Christianity (particularly the Catholic Church).

The parsitic thesis is that the Enlightenment is parasitic upon the values created by the Western Christan world.

Thornton subscribes to the latter (not surprisingly). It is telling that Peter Robinson’s question is “How do you refute Voltaire?” A better question would have been to ask whether the two can be reconciled and if so how?

For I believe they can be. How after the jump.

It is true that the values that were later espoused in the Enlightenment had their roots in much Christian thinking: from legal theory, to scientific thought, to technological mindset.

e.g. John Locke’s notion of tolerance grew out of his Anglican faith and church praxis. Gottfried Leibniz’s call for essentially an EU-like structure similarly grew out of his Christian ecumenical faith.

There are many angles to why and how this occurred, but I’ll mention one I think that is crucial often under-valued: in Christian theology (both Catholic and Protestant) God was seen as under the law. A classic example in Protestant thought was Hugo Grotius’ governmental view of satisfactionary atonement theory. Similar thinking can be found in Aquinas, Neo-Scholastic Roman Catholic theology.

And yes (as Thornton points out) those also have roots in the humanistic tradition from ancient Greece, re-interpreted (incorrectly misnamed a “re-birth”) in the early modern period.

However (and here point secularization), these ideals were still locked into a social order that promoted church-state unions, aristocracy, and dictatorial monarchs. Again particularly in the Catholic Hapsburg and French lands. e.g. The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) was absolutely opposed by the Catholic Church.

The Christian Churches in Europe (this was not the case in English-speaking North America by and large) were aligned with the aristocratic order. Again especially the Catholic Church (Voltaire was French after all). In the German and Scandanavian Lutheran (as well as English Anglican) churches there was some more connection with bourgeoisie interests.

But with the era of mass industrialization–when secularization really beings–the churches on the whole abandoned the working classes and aligned with the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. When the working classes rose up either in extreme forms like communism or fascism or eventually in the post-War era forced a new governmental synthesis–the welfare state–Christianity lost. Because ideologically Christianity was aligned with European colonialism and empire. It did not stand up against (in fact flamed) the horrors of WWI and then WWII.

Conservative Christianity in 19th and 20th century W. Europe aligned with the old guard aristocracy and the premodern order. Liberal Christianity equated Western modernity with the gospel (and vice versa). When modernity died in Europe (post WWII) and entered the post-modern era, then Christianity died with it. [Among Europeans that is. Almost all of the Christians in church any Sunday in Western Europe, which is like 3% of the population, are almost entirely of Asian and/or African immigrant stock and mostly recently arrived].

This case shows the (partial) validity of Marx’s thesis that the base creates the superstructure.

Belief in God and so forth still exists strongly in many parts of Europe. It’s just that institutionally Christianity has failed in Europe and in its current formations (Protestant and Catholic) is not a place people will seek to go.

There is what Alvin Toffler calls a de-coupling of the religious beliefs and the social, economic, and political structure.

Conversely in the American context, the religious setting shifted during the Second Great Awakening (1800-Civil War) to a dis-established religious setting and aligned with the rising American constitutional order. Which is why Christianity (esp. Protestant soft Calvinist sectarian forms thereof) is still strong in America.

Canada as always playing an interesting in between role, where belief in God, etc. is still extremely high and church attendance/formal membership in churches extremely low.

Secularization in W. Europe was a direct result to the overly hardened position of the Catholic Church and Christianity more generally. The pendulum swung hard in the other direction. And when secularization takes place in a capitalist economic structure, then if one wants to change the structure (assuming the secular world’s mindset as such) leads of course to anti-spiritual revolutionary movements, which are the source of immense amounts of suffering and bloodshed.

To get a much more nuanced view of secularization–including its Christian heritage/influence–I can not recommend highly enough Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

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Published in: on March 20, 2008 at 5:37 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Have you read the book

    “The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God”

    http://books.google.com/books?id=as-RjoKdUkgC

    This is the summary:

    “Why do Europeans and Americans see the world so differently? Why do Europeans and Americans have such different understandings of democracy and its discontents in the twenty-first century? Contrasting the civilization that produced the starkly modernist “cube” of the Great Arch of La Defense in Paris with the civilization that produced the “cathedral” Notre-Dame, George Weigel argues that Europe’s embrace of a narrow secularism has led to a crisis of morale that is eroding Europe’s soul and threatening its future–with dire lessons for the rest of the democratic world. Weigel traces the origins of “Europe’s problem” to the atheistic humanism of nineteenth-century European intellectual life, which set in motion a historical process that produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, the Gulag, Auschwitz, the Cold War–and, most ominously, the Continent’s de-population, which is worse today than during the Black Death. And yet, many Europeans continue to insist–most recently, during the debate over a new EU constitution–that only a public square shorn of religiously-informed moral argument is safe for human rights and democracy. Precisely the opposite, Weigel suggests, is true: the people of the “cathedral” can give a compelling account of their commitment to everyone’s freedom; the people of the “cube” cannot.”

  2. No I haven’t that particular book that you mention, but have read a number who make a similar argument.

    I think it’s at best only half-right. From a religious point of view, it takes two to tango. One of the reasons secularism was embraced was because the Church (esp. The Catholic Church) was so regressive and censoring at this point. Not to mention that the churches stupidly aligned themselves with the landed aristocracy, such that when industrialization took place, they largely failed to reach the new working class urban dweller. That also plays a part in the rise of totalitarian ideologies: nationalist, communist, and fascist.

    I agree that the public sphere should have discussions of morality and religious language should be allowed, but only if people are willing to have their religious beliefs challenged. They shouldn’t get special treatment because of historical pedigree or longevity or claims to revelation–in the public sphere.

    peace. cj


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