There is a grim, ongoing culture war between mainly two forces. Western culture is torn between those who think that it is rational to keep traditional and historical values and those who think that the only sensible thing is to alter society in an increasingly anti-Christian, extreme liberal direction.
Secularism and the Misuse of Power
THE WARS OF RELIGION in sixteenth-century Europe were an important reason for the development of the ideal of a secular society. Religion was to be excluded from the public and relegated to the private sphere. It was an understandable reaction. People were tired of political and religious leaders whose geopolitical agendas, again and again, led to war on the continent. Protestants fought Catholics who fought sectarian groups and the whole of Europe suffered.
Many Church leaders seemed to use the opportunity to secure their own privileges, rather than tending to the welfare of the largely Christian European population. It was in this stage that the Peace of Westphalia was implemented in 1648, which laid out treaties for respect of national sovereignty and each country’s right to determine which cultural, religious and national values it would pursue. This did not end all wars, but still created a foundation for the modern concept of respect for national sovereignty and international law that forms the theoretical basis of, for example, the United Nations.
One of the driving forces behind secularism and allowing religion to be a private matter which would not interfere with the state was that Europe finally would be rid of the conflicts between Protestants, Anglicans, Catholics, Quakers, Puritans and other groups. With the original concept of secularism, religious freedom for all was implemented. The secularism practiced respected religious freedom and in fact ensured it. The point being that a secular state would protect different religious group’s right to coexist, without one dominating the other.
The attempt was to ignite a positive secular system, an effort to bring respect for religious differences. The idea was that different religious or non-religious groups were to tolerate each other, allowing differences to coexist. However, the point was not to use “secularism” to persecute believers and ridicule religious faith, but to end persecution by implementing secularism as the protector against persecution.
New secular worldviews eventually came to the forefront among European intellectuals, views that attempted to provide meaning to life in the metaphysical and philosophical cultural vacuum left by Christianity: liberalism, Marxism, Darwinism, and nihilism among them. Many of which were pursued with just as much “religious” zeal as any traditional religion before them.
During the 1800s, a widespread optimism on behalf of the scientific and technological progress of modern society was predominant. The flaws inherent in scientific materialism and the belief in the human ability to solely act with reason went unrecognized. European culture became disconnected from its historically moral and religious anchor, without implementing a sufficient substituting moral codex.
The quest for relegating Christianity out of the public sphere overlooked vital points that today are at the forefront of the debate: Removing religious ethics from the centerfold of society ended up, to many secularists’ surprise, to weaken vital ethical principles in society. This gradually became evident in the 1970s onward. Intellectuals in the Western hemisphere did not realize that by removing the focus on Christian philosophy from public awareness, as the elites increasingly grew hostile to religion as a whole, the founding ethics of solidarity were no longer preached to the same degree as before. It was not fashionable anymore to speak about the ten commandments as vital ideals to maintain stability, order and empathy in society. Today, many scholars assert that secularism simply has not been able to sufficiently motivate individuals to care for one another. Other values took hold. To a large degree, egocentrism and materialism have become socially acceptable, while solidarity, selfishness, humility, and spirituality lost ground.
As we have seen, the original understanding of the word secularism has been used as a tool to redefine this concept to mean something completely different. Today, secularism is often understood as a political strategy that seeks to outroot religion as a whole. To be “secular” implies to be against religion.
Optimism on Behalf of the Modern World
European civilization was probably at its height in the very early 1900s, before the Great War and before Great Britain lost its economic and colonial empire. The economic growth was world-leading, prosperity sifting down to a rapidly rising middle class. Optimism on behalf of Western economic achievements was booming.
The late 1800s was the European heyday of conquest, international trade, and colonialism. At the time, modernism represented the epitome of human development, the survival of the fittest society – the best the world had ever seen. Western secular society scored highest on the scale of development, and the urbanization process caused people to move en masse from the countryside into the cities. Industrialization gave new hope; the middle class grew all over Europe. Market Capitalism – the economic system in which capital and property are privately owned, and prices for goods and services are set by forces of supply and demand in the market, making the art of competition and hard work essential – gave ordinary people a possibility of unprecedented economic growth.
Between 1870 and 1950, economic revolutions helped improve the Western standard of living immensely, providing electric light, household appliances, cars, radios. Many moved to North and South America and other colonies and found a new life based on better conditions.
The British Empire was world-dominating. This was the Golden Age of Imperialism. Darwin’s biological theories inspired a strong Social Darwinism within the humanities and cultural studies. From the late 1800s onward, as we have seen, the dominant understanding increasingly viewed history in light of Social Darwinism. This theory became the dominant social paradigm, as the British Empire ruled the world. The broad assumption was that the Western civilization would always remain at the “top of the ladder” of civilization. The progressive mindset tends to assume that reforming society always represents an improvement. Social Darwinists at that time also believed that the world continually moves in the direction of progress. History is viewed as linear, pointing upwards – not circular and thus implying that history repeats itself, though in different time spans and ages.
Modern secular society, therefore, stands, according to this world-view, higher in the hierarchy of development than traditional collectivist societies. Western European democracies were seen to be at its highest level of development, and African, South American, and Asian people as the most underdeveloped.
Today we readily profess that the paradigm of Social Darwinism is well behind us, but truth be told, it still fuels our view of history just as it did one hundred years ago. It dominates the progressive universalist view that all cultures should embrace the “liberal Western democracy,” an ideological view that implies a stern lack of respect for national sovereignty of other nations and their right to govern their own regions.
When describing the process that led to the growing anti-Christian sentiments among Western intellectuals in the 1900s, it is easy to overlook the contributions done, for example, by the British Empire, of which the United States of America of today is but a continuing part. In regions such as Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, the British trade influence ended up forming protectorates and colonies, brought infrastructure, well-functioning British institutions, schools and universities as well as hospitals and trade. It is probably not possible to underestimate the value of the development that the British brought to continents such as Africa.
The industrial revolution and technological progress had brought immense optimism coupled with a strong belief in secularism. At one point, Westerners controlled almost three-fifths of the surface of the earth, and accounted for three-quarters of global economic output, as stated by historian Niall Ferguson in The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. This was the height of Social Darwinism – defined as the application of biological Darwinian evolution to social fields, which came to the conclusion that the European civilization marked the evolutionary high point in history – Europe’s growing might and prosperity led to an intense Western emphasis on materialism.
A hostile attitude towards religion lay buried within this frame: the more modern man becomes, the less faith in God he will have. He will gradually understand that the concept of God and a supernatural world above us are relics of old superstitions. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm F. Hegel supported this view. He saw religion and the history of the spiritual as a continuous development towards illumination. To Hegel, philosophy was the highest form of thought that would eventually surpass the role of religion.
With optimism regarding the human mind, religion tended to be increasingly deemed something that belonged to the “lower cultures” and primitive peoples who had yet to enter the “Age of Western Enlightenment” and its scientific revolution. Western societies were widely regarded as “developed” or “advanced,” while other societies or cultures were viewed as “backward” and “unintelligent.” With the new, secular society implemented came a growing consciousness of the division between believers and non-believers. Although the idea of secular governance did not originally imply a society that marginalized believers, but rather one that empowered all citizens, “secularism” now increasingly became an anti-Christian movement.
During the 1800s, a deeper divide between believers and agnostics/atheists had already become imminent. The latter position was considered the more prominent stance among the political and intellectual elites, yet the European people remained essentially deeply religious. This is puzzling. Even today, after a century of an extremely aggressive atheism, which often frankly ends up bullying and belittling Christians, Muslims, and other religions, surveys still show that approximately 72% of the European population still call themselves Christians, as stated earlier. There seems to be a deep divide between the ideological, anti-religious elites and the people.
Increasingly anti-religious thinkers became the new atheist clergy who preached about reason, freedom, and tolerance, implying that these values were opposed to traditional religion. They spoke of a universalist view of human history, which was thought to evolve into an inevitable world triumph of Western principles and institutions. The popular sentiment among the elites was that man needed no God, and if he had to believe in something, he should at least not speak about it publicly.
By the early 1900s, the intolerant version of “secularism only” came to dominate nearly all branches of science. Religion and its traditions were by now unpopular among the intellectuals – increasingly politically incorrect, forming the atheist notion that rational, intelligent and modern people did not believe in a God and the spiritual dimension.
At its metaphysical core, this also implied a major revolt against the idea that God is the Creator of all things, residing high above man and will one day judge him. It implies a fundamental opposition against the concept of the Eternal Eye. Consequently, if God is no more, man needs no morality. At least, he needs not to fear the judgment that religion states lie ahead. If he needs morality, it is only to the degree it helps him get a better life than he otherwise would. He exists for himself and for his own benefit only. He needs to concern himself with the afterlife no more, as “nothingness” awaits him there.
Atheism attempts to remove man of the burden of what he must face after death, allowing man to do as he pleases without fear of the consequences of his actions. Omitting God from the equation of life relieves man of the eternal obligation towards his fellow man and the spiritual “burden of solidarity.” The moral implications are evident. In such a system, man is obliged to do good to no one, but himself. There is no God Almighty, a Creator to whom one must be thankful for the gift of life. Humility and respect for the divine disappear. In short, man took the place of God in the new, Western ideal of morality as the West headed towards its new destiny.
God Is Dead
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was among those who pursued the progressive Darwinian world-view that fought for a world without traditional, European values and pushed towards radical change in the Western social fabric. He defined his worldview in books such as Thus spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche’s theories about the übermensch – the super human – was one of the concepts in his thinking that later became important to National Socialism and its elitism as it found its form under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.
He proudly declared that the human condition was meaningless, in stark contrast to the Christian message that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” Nietzsche questioned the rationale of the Christian faith, embedded in the notion that man may do well on his own, freed from the chains of a religiously-motivated morality. The world was an existentially empty vacuum where each individual was left alone, to Nietzsche – who, by the way, ended his life in an insane asylum. Cosmos was deemed to be empty, with no spiritual forces, unable to help anyone on earth with anything. Nietzsche confidently proclaimed that “God is dead” – as if an Eternal Creator would “die” just because some mortal philosopher said so. In Nietzsche’s view, no God was watching from above, only empty space.
The whole concept of the Creator that will hold us accountable for our own actions, was not only ridiculed by Nietzsche, but also by the earlier Karl Marx, who stated that religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. Religion was, to Marx, the opium of the people and he thought up a remedy: Communism. The French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre later followed the same thought process.
Nietzsche maintained that religion developed a slavish mentality whereby people performed rituals only to keep in good graces with gods and other supernatural powers. His conclusion was that people would only become mature and independent in “the scientific stage” when the reference to one’s “conscience” dissipated. He sought to free himself from that which he labeled the constraints of the conscience; and hailed a nihilistic way of life, which advocates a hedonistic morality that offers no constraints on the individual.
Men like Nietzsche vehemently proposed the ultimate revolt against religion and its morality. This became a force that pushed society in the direction of what we see today, a modern permissiveness, extreme liberalism and its remarkable disdain of boundaries. It took a strong stance for the legitimization of selfishness and promiscuity which now engulf Western culture.
The revolt against God was given a seductive, philosophic veneer and justification. Sigmund Freud called religion an illusion. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud described spiritual belief as an infantile, subservient safety net from which people should liberate themselves.
Evil may be defined as morally wrong acts that cause harm, injury, pain, and destruction to others. When examined closely, evil is closely interlinked to selfishness as a characteristic of humans who only care about their own well-being, and disregard their action’s harmful and destructive effects on others. Being immoral thus implies acting without consideration of the social effects of one’s actions has on others. Legitimizing evil becomes a serious business. It is but natural that the first step in order to go “beyond good and evil” is to get rid of the conscience.
We often state that hatred is the negation of love, but the true enemy of love is ultimate selfishness, the quality of egoistic men who only care about their own pleasure. In this environment, all kinds of evil breed: complacency, carelessness, murder, rape, theft of other people’s property, adultery, envy, deceitful behavior, a lying tongue, selfishness, lack of humility and respect for one’s fellow humans. It all stems from a lack of love.
The atheist–nihilist doctrine ended up shaping the new Western paradigm. The intellectual elites perceived Christians as reactionary parts of an undesirable, unfashionable past, an unenlightened part of history where Christian philosophy denied man his right to do as he pleased. Intellectuals smiled condescendingly at believers. To the increasing hedonist European elites, it was only a question of time before the Christian era ended in Europe. History was later to prove them wrong, as the 2000s became a century of major religious revivals – both within Christianity, Islam, and other religions. None of the hard-line atheists had thought this possible.
Depression on Behalf of the Modern World
Challenges associated with globalization and individualization have led to intense reactions against modernism from within the culture itself, as pointed out by Andrew Heywood in Global Politics. Communitarian theories have criticized the modern form of liberalism with its inherent tendency to legitimize selfish individualism and become anti-traditionalist. If the individual is seen as logically outside of the community, liberalism ends up legitimizing a selfish behavior that downgrades the importance of solidarity within a collective identity.
When the first wave of optimism on behalf of modernity subsided, many started to notice that secular society also presented dilemmas. Even in the early 1900s, before the Great War when the decline of the British Empire took hold, the sociologist Emile Durkheim worryingly declared that rapid social change caused considerable uncertainty as values increasingly became individualized. The eventual breakup of the collectivist family structure with its growing number of bachelors turning to the cities to find work, the lack of anchoring in old traditions and social regulations, left the individual vulnerable. Society was in a quick spiral of change. Modern man was now more or less alone, in a new structure that broke away from the tight family ties of the pre-modern, collectivistic era.
In Suicide, written in 1897, Durkheim investigated the reason for the higher number of suicides in predominantly Protestant states in Europe as opposed to Catholic countries further south. He pointed out that in countries where the ideal is to uphold respect for historical norms and values, solidarity correlated with low rates of suicide. In Protestant countries, where individualism and revolt against old rituals stood stronger, the trend was an increased number of suicides. In Catholic countries, that to a greater degree maintained traditions and traditional religious rituals, Durkheim observed the opposite. In these countries, far fewer experienced life as meaningless, which according to him was the main reason for its lower suicide rates. He found disturbing trends in societies where the traditional family structures and social frameworks fell apart. Durkheim’s term anomie signifies a condition in which society provides little moral guidance to the individual, in a breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community. This produces a fragmentation of social identity and a rejection of self-regulatory values.
Durkheim explains anomie as a state of derangement that arises from a mismatch between personal and community standards, as well as from the lack of a joint social ethic. The term attempts to describe the confusion of identity that typifies modern people, a sense of inner bloodlessness, striving to find his place in society, but without a clear social ethic he never really succeeds and never understands why. Durkheim’s analysis of the social conditions for suicide attempted to measure the effects of individualization and the legitimization of egoism. Where solidarity was strong, Durkheim found lower suicide rates. Although many remain critical of parts of Durkheim’s analysis, it is a study that attempts to analyze the consequences of breaking away from traditional social systems and disentangling the individual from the group.
 Nietzsche’s idea of an overman and life from his point of view (Wednesday, August 16, 2017) https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~pj97/Nietzsche.htm
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