Stones for bread: the growth of secular religion in the West

September 04, 2016
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"Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” Matthew 7:9

One of the wonderful things about vacations is that they give you a chance to read books and articles you might not otherwise come upon. A good example is an op-ed piece I saw recently in the French language newspaper, Le Journal de Québec, by sociologist, Mathieu Bock-Coté, entitled, “Les nouveaux curés” (“The New Priests”).1 In it he expresses the view that Quebec - a region that has pursued aggressive secularization ever since the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s - has not really rid itself of religious dogmatism. Rather it has simply replaced Catholicism by a rigid secular religion based on politically correct ideas du jour.

According to him, this new way of looking at the world has many elements that justify calling it a religion. For example, it has a priesthood which seeks to regulate important aspects of people’s daily lives - including their diet and sexual lives. And these modern day priests feel called upon to prohibit any number of pleasurable activities that are in their view harmful or undesirable. Not content to simply tell people how to live their daily lives, this clerisy makes pronouncements on a wide range of social and political issues – such as supporting higher taxes, big government, a world without borders and the idea that the sexes don’t exist but are merely imaginary constructs that must be deconstructed. As with other religions, this new secular creed possesses powerful tools to deal with “heretics” who question its dogmas. And should you commit the sin of expressing doubts concerning this new religion, the consequences will be swift and severe. For, as Bock-Coté points out, their reaction may be as follows: “On vous fustigera, on vous excommuniera. Raciste! Xenophobe! Islamophobe! Sexiste! On vous collera ces etiquettes pour vous transformer en monstre.” (Trans. “We will whip you. We will excommunicate you. Racist! Xenophobe! Islamophobe! Sexist! We will paste these labels on you to transform you into a monster.”)2

Strong stuff - to be sure! But is he right? Are we seeing the development of a new secular religion that seeks to replace Christianity? Or is this simply a case of a few politically correct busybodies who cannot resist the temptation to meddle in other people’s live?
 
To answer these questions we need to take a closer look at the ideology of secularism in order to better understand its goals and how they are being translated into reality in our modern world.

The Roots of Secularism

As anyone with even the briefest knowledge of history knows, the problem of reconciling religion and secular power is as old as human civilization itself. An early example is the attempt by the 14th century BC Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaten, to introduce monotheism against the wishes of a strongly entrenched polytheistic priesthood - a battle of wills which ended badly for both the ruler and his legacy. Almost a millennium and a half later, another great religious reformer, Jesus of Nazareth, also waded into this religion versus State conflict, calling on his followers to give onto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and onto God that which is God’s. Sadly, this eminently sensible formula was unable to save Christendom later on - in no small measure because ecclesiastical and secular rulers frequently differed on just what exactly was Caesar’s and what was God’s. This ongoing disagreement came to a head with the 17th century bloodbath we now call the Thirty Years War. Originally a religious dispute between Protestants and Catholics, it quickly became a political and military tar-baby that sucked in much of Europe, killing millions of quite innocent human beings and ending only with the more or less total exhaustion of all concerned.

This particularly nasty holocaust, whose devastation has been compared by some German writers to that which might be seen following a nuclear war, scarred the European intellectual psyche, planting in it the idea that religion - when applied to the political realm - is simply too dangerous to be left unchecked. A little more than a century later this idea would see its full flowering in the French Revolution for which secularism became a hallowed article of faith - a key principle which has become part of the culture and continues to impact our lives even today.

Implementing the Philosophy

As with most ideologies, secularism sounds quite reasonable at first glance - especially given the seriousness of the past abuses it seeks to address. Simply put, it involves two basic principles: “the strict separation of the state from religious institutions” and the idea that “people of different religious groups and beliefs are equal before the law”.3 Who, you might ask, could disagree with such a reasonable set of goals? Who indeed! The problem is that, as with everything else in life, the devil is in the details.

Part of the problem is that Man does not live by bread alone (or at least shouldn’t), as Jesus notes in the Gospel of Matthew - a truism with which even many non-believers agree. One excellent example being that great hero of secularism, the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that all societies need some sort of religion or common belief system to hold them together. Viewing Christianity as too supernatural in its orientation, he called for the creation of a civic religion that would link citizens and bind them to some central political authority.4 Taking his recommendation to heart, many such experiments have been conducted since then to fill the void left by the expulsion of Christianity from the intellectual and cultural life of the West.

Two particularly noteworthy experiments in the creation of a civic religion involve those seemingly polar opposites - Nazism and Communism - each of which contain elements (e.g. holy books, dogmas, saints, adoration, myths and rites) which qualify them as true political religions. Still, no ideology or system of government lasts forever. And when they inevitably do collapse, their appeal to adherents evaporates quickly. That is clearly the case with Nazism whose supporters are restricted to tiny numbers of fanatics in Europe and the United States. And to a lesser extent it is also true of Communism whose true believers are to be found only in isolated enclaves in North Korea, Cuba, China and college campuses across Canada and the United States.

Still, no truly bad idea ever dies completely, does it? So it should come as no surprise that the collectivist fantasy which is Communism has not disappeared totally but has instead simply morphed into cultural Marxism - the West’s current ideology du jour which brings together a mishmash of bourgeois sexual and racial obsessions that would make Marx and Lenin spin in their graves. And it is here that we find the roots of our current experiment in secular religion.

Current Practice of Secular Religion

The idea that secularism might somehow be a religion seems laughable to those who support and advocate for this particular ideology. And the very suggestion is dismissed as a vile canard bandied about by right-wing loonies and fundamentalist Christians. In their minds secularism is just common sense, pure and simple. For instead of relying on the pie-in-the-sky mythology that Christians seem to require, secularists can take their reality straight (or so they say), basing pretty much everything on truth and hard facts.

And to hear secularists talk, their philosophy is not a threat to religion but rather the best guarantee of religious freedom. That’s certainly the claim made by the National Secular Society in the United Kingdom whose website says that secularism “seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens”. It adds reassuringly that “secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non‑believers alike.” And better yet, “Secularism protects free speech and expression. Religious people have the right to express their beliefs publicly but so do those who oppose or question those beliefs.” 5

That sounds great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, there is a catch - namely, that the right to freedom of religion and speech may be subject to some limitations. For in the mind of some secularists, there are ideas and policies that are so obviously right and moral that they take precedence over what some religions may say on the subject. One sees intimations of this in the Society’s statement that, “Secularism champions human rights above discriminatory religious demands. It upholds equality laws that protect women, LGBT people and minorities.” 6 Such a qualification virtually guarantees that those religions of the Abrahamic tradition which hold unfashionable views on the social and moral issues of the day will find themselves at a considerable disadvantage in the cut and slash of public life and run the risk of being marginalised or even suppressed because of their beliefs.

And while secularists often talk a good game in terms of equality and freedom of speech and religious belief, the playing field can at times be anything but level when secularist principles are put into practice - a truism obvious to anyone who has ever followed Supreme Court deliberations or mainstream media coverage of contentious social issues. To paraphrase George Orwell in his book, Animal Farm, all ideas are equal but some ideas are more equal than others.

In a way, this reluctance on the part of some in government, the judiciary and the media to allow a level playing field is understandable - flowing as it does from the major cultural shift that took place in most Western industrial countries during the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s. As anyone old enough to have witnessed the chaos of the period knows, this was the golden age of political hell-raising by middle and upper-middle class students who brought entitlement to a whole new level. Coming from comfortable - and at times privileged -backgrounds, these young troublemakers were treated with a patience and forbearance previously unheard of - as authorities caved in time and again to the young people’s demands. In time these young rebels entered the workforce, quickly rising to positions of authority in politics, government, education, journalism and the media, bringing with them the idea that compromise is unnecessary and undesirable. And eventually this intolerance toward the ideas of others became fixed in stone in the culture.

Of course, not everyone back then sold out their principles in order to gain entry into the establishment. Rather, small numbers of activists did remain faithful to the dogmas of their respective secular religions - successfully transmitting their faith to new generations of believers. And this new generation of true believers - which includes some of the more radical advocates of abortion on demand, gender issues, atheism, and various forms of socialism, communism and anarchism - continues to march under the secularist banner today, injecting great energy into the movement.

As you can imagine, these hardy souls are a study in themselves, at times demonstrating a fortitude and commitment that is really quite admirable. To begin with, many believe themselves to possess a special knowledge not available to their less-enlightened fellow citizens - in no small measure due to the inspired work passed on to them by their ideological ancestors. As such, they resemble the 1st and 2nd century Gnostics who posed such an existential threat for the early Christian Church. Armed with this special knowledge, they see themselves as locked in mortal combat with the forces of evil - where the stakes are nothing short of the future of mankind. Given such a vision, it is little wonder that they are unwilling to consider any concessions to their foes. And little wonder that they are in such a hurry to bring about their respective secular utopias. For as Marx stated in another context in the Communist Manifesto - “They have a world to win”. And if winning means playing political, judicial or media hard ball, well, so be it. For, as every revolutionary knows, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

Sadly for believers, many long-cherished tenets of Christianity have ended up as broken eggs in recent years - apparently much to the delight of those zealots who nurse a certain animus toward the Christian faith. Why this should be such a source of great joy for them is a difficult question to answer, given that people vary enormously - as do their motivations. I presume that for some this is a highly personal matter - possibly flowing from some injustice or trauma suffered at the hands of one or more of those less-than-consistent adherents of the Christian faith we all have met at one time or other. While for others, it is just business - a simple tactical necessity flowing from a belief that religion (especially Christianity) must be confronted since it stands in the way of human progress. The feminist version of this objection to religion was ably laid out some years back in a Guardian op-ed piece, entitled “I’m not praying”. In it, feminist Cath Elliott states, “Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women's freedom and equality, but it's certainly not alone in this. Whether it's one of the world's major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression.” 7

Unfortunately, this view that there is something inherently regressive or repressive about Christianity has gained considerable traction in recent years - with many in government, the judiciary and media embracing this notion as if it were holy writ. Acting on this less than neutral view of what secularism is all about, political, media and judicial elites have handed social conservatives setback after setback in such areas as abortion, gay rights and euthanasia. And with each year the slope gets ever more slippery - as seen by the recent strange preoccupation of the President of the United States with the question of where people should go to attend to their bodily functions.

Faced with the prospect of even more defeats in the future - no matter what they might do to try to reverse the trend - some Christians have concluded that the fix is in. Realizing the full extent of their marginalization, many now believe that they have also been abandoned by the Church - a conclusion that is far from ridiculous, given some of the actions and statements of Pope Francis, that most politically correct of Pontiffs. Whether it be his down-playing of the importance of abortion, his mocking of Catholic wives and mothers who in his opinion breed like rabbits, or his laissez-faire attitude to sexual morality (“Who am I to judge?”), many Catholics who take their faith seriously are finally getting the message. Namely, that for the next few years at least, the agenda of Holy Mother Church will bear a striking resemblance to that of the secular religions now holding sway over the industrialized West. And recent Wikileaks revelations suggesting that billionaire George Soros may have spent large sums of money to influence Catholic bishops during the Pope’s U.S. visit only strengthen the suspicions of the faithful.8

Preparing for Better Times

So what is to be done?

Well, to begin with, we need to recognize the extent of the mess we are in. As noted earlier, the last few hundred years have not been good ones for Christianity in the West – which is, after all, the spiritual heart of Western civilization. This rich spiritual legacy has been elbowed aside time and again, only to be replaced by a succession of secular religions masquerading as the real thing. And our current age is no exception with Western elites seemingly determined to consign our Christian spiritual heritage to the dustbin of history. Like it or not, this is a serious matter that strikes at the very core of everything we in the West are and believe. And hoping that we will be left alone if only we are nice and willing to make a few small compromises is just not in the cards. For the reality is that those in our elites who are determined to drive religion (especially Christianity) from the public square have no intention of leaving us alone - or our children or our grandchildren. So we need to accept this hard truth and act accordingly.

While facing this reality is bound to be unpleasant, the good news is that there is reason to hope – and it is to be found in the most unexpected places.

One major source of hope is the experience of Christians forced to live under Communism - an aggressively atheistic philosophy that made no secret of its hostility to religion. For decades governments motivated by this ideology tried to completely secularize the countries they ruled, launching program after program aimed at eradicating religion in any form. As history shows, try as they might, many of their efforts failed. And in some countries – such as Poland, Slovakia and possibly Russia as well - they failed miserably with faith quickly rising from the ashes. Even more telling is the explosive growth of Christianity in a number of communist countries – such as China – that never had a very strong Christian presence. All of which suggests that the Christian message has an eternal relevance that can be suppressed for a time but which can never be eradicated forever.

To my mind, one other important source of encouragement and counsel must surely come from that most un-Christian (or even anti-Christian) of political theorists, Niccolo Machiavelli, who has unwittingly provided believers with a model for how they should act during the dark years to come.

For Machiavelli, human affairs are often driven by an external force – which he calls luck, chance or fortune (‘fortuna’ in the original). This force, he believes, is very much like a raging river. When the river floods, it cannot be controlled and carries away everything in its path. Realizing this, wise people build dams, dykes and canals in advance when the river is quiet so that its flood waters can be controlled later on when it overflows its banks yet again – presumably either to control the damage that might otherwise occur or to use the water for beneficial purposes.

Of course, Machiavelli’s concern was not with agriculture and hydrology, but rather with how these lessons from nature could be applied to life – and in particular public life. And the lessons to be drawn are many and striking – with the recently ended 20th century providing more than a few examples of how powerful social, economic and political forces, if unforeseen or uncontrolled, can destroy the lives of tens of millions of ordinary human beings in a just a few years.

Machiavelli’s vision of the forces that drive history – and how wise men and women can control and benefit from them – should be of special interest to those of us in our current century who are appalled on a daily basis by the mayhem and moral decay that greet us whenever we open a newspaper or turn on the television. For he provides us with a way to mentally survive the current flood tide of those most toxic fruits of secularism – cultural Marxism, materialism and the Culture of Death, which Pope John Paul II described so eloquently in his ground breaking work, Evangelium Vitae. 9 And Machiavelli provides us with a helpful way of viewing the current period where the fortunes of Christianity clearly resemble a once raging river that is now very quiet indeed.

Given this backdrop, the question then becomes, “What are we to do?” My own view is that instead of capitulating or becoming despondent, as is often the case now, Christians should rather use Machiavelli’s model and prepare for that time in the future when the river of faith (and social sanity) once again floods its banks and the situation on the ground changes for the better.

For many people such a strategy will seem unrealistic or pointless, especially given the strength of the forces ranged against them, which include virtually all of the corporate, political, judicial and cultural elites in the West. And they do have a point. However, so do those unfortunate souls forced to live under communist rule, who eventually saw their nations rise from the ashes following the fall of communism. For such people communism at one time also felt invincible. And yet, as strong as it appeared, it did collapse – and quite suddenly and unexpectedly at that! When it fell, those people who had prepared in advance for such an eventuality and who had a plan for reconstruction were able to direct events as they wished and minimize the pain experienced during the transition.

To my mind this is one of the great lessons we can draw from the fall of communism - namely, that even the most powerful regime eventually comes to an end. And when it does, those who keep the faith during the dark times and patiently draw up plans in advance for national and spiritual revival are the ones who determine the course of events later on.

This then should be the great hope and call to action for believers living in an increasingly anti-religious West – namely, that the nightmare will one day end and better times will come. And rather than becoming despondent and resigned, we instead need to prepare for that day when our current secular religions are replaced by the real thing – when we can once again give our children bread instead of stones.


  1. [1] Mathieu Bock-Coté. “Les nouveaux curés”. Le Journal de Québec. August 18, 2016. p. 16.
  2. [2] Ibid.
  3. [3] National Secular Society.  "What is Secularism?" Retrieved from: http://www.secularism.org.uk/what-is-secularism.html
  4. [4] "Political Religion". Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_religion
  5. [5] National Secular Society.  Op. Cit.
  6. [6] National Secular Society.  Op. Cit.
  7. [7] Cath Elliott. “I’m not praying”. The Guardian. August 19, 2008. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/aug/19/gender.religion
  8. [8] John-Henry Westen. “Leaked e‑mails show George Soros paid $650K to influence bishops during Pope’s US visit”.  LifeSiteNews. August 23, 2016.  Retrieved from: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/breaking-leaked-e-mails-show-george-soros-paid-to-influence-bishops-during
  9. [9] Pope John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae. Retrieved from: http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html
Article copyright: Paul Malvern, all rights reserved. Please contact author for rights to republish or translate.

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