The Secularism of the West


We have all heard it said that the war on terrorism pits liberal democracy against religious fanaticism. There is a measure of truth in that. Others say the conflict is between a secular understanding of society and a society defined by religiously based morality. That, I suggest, is both untrue and dangerous.

It is untrue because it ignores how, as a matter of historical fact, liberal democracy came to be. It is dangerous because it pits liberal democracy against a world that is, as a matter of present fact, overwhelmingly religious, and becoming more so.

Taking the second fact first, the extraordinary thing happening on planet Earth today is the de-secularization of world history. This is not how things were supposed to have turned out. Since the rise of modernity and up until very recently, most intellectuals assumed that there is a necessaryconnection between modernity and secularization. As people become more modern, more educated, more enlightened, religion will either disappear or will be confined to the purely private sphere of life. In this way of telling the story, religion becomes, in the words of philosopher William James, "what a man does with his solitude." It is no longer a public factor that "interferes" with the way we order our life together through culture, laws, and politics. That way of telling the story dominates our textbooks from grade school through graduate school.

Until recently, sociologists of religion were puzzled by what they called "American exceptionalism." The United States is the most modern nation in the world, yet it is also strongly religious. It violates the rule that modernity — and modernity's political expression in liberal democracy — goes hand in hand with secularization. Some of those same sociologists have now decided that the ule was wrong. For instance, Peter Berger of Boston University now speaks of the "exceptionalism" of Western Europe, for Western Europe (and North American intellectuals who take their cues from Europe) sticks out as the secular exception in a world that is becoming ever more religious.

Since Sept. 11, we are newly aware of the more than one billion Muslims in the world who, sometimes with suicidal zeal, reject what they view as the secularism of the West. Given a choice between Islam and democratic modernity, they will choose Islam. If the choice is between religion and liberal democracy, the war on terrorism will go on and on with no end in sight. The same phenomenon is evident in India with newly politicized forms of Hinduism. But the most overlooked part of this global picture is the explosion of Christianity, especially in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This is vividly desribed by Philip Jenkins in his new book The Next Christendom. Most of us think of Christianity as a European import, but the rapidly growing Christian movement, which now has 2.5-billion adherents, is mainly in the Southern hemisphere. Within a few years, three-quarters of the Christians in the world will be "people of colour." They are no more likely than Muslims to embrace liberal democracy if it comes at the price of accepting secularism.

Suddenly, Western Europe looks like an island of secularism in a sea of global religion. The de-secularizing of world history is an aspect of globalization generally neglected in current discussions.

The great question is whether modernity and liberal democracy can be secured in ways compatible with vibrant religious faith. That question is answered by remembering how, in historical fact, these achievements were secured. While modenity and democracy sometimes met with ecclesiastical resistance, they were generally inspired by religious conviction. From Magna Carta in 1215 through the Cromwellian revolution to the Declaration of Independence and its appeal to "Nature and Nature's God," the champions of freedom have invoked transcendent truth in the vindication of their cause. Michael Novak's recent book, On Two Wings, documents the deep religious convictions that shaped the thinking of the American founders in launching the world's oldest and most influential experiment in liberal democracy. It is a way of thinking that has been largely omitted from our bowdlerized textbook tellings of the story of democracy. Accurately told, it becomes evident that religion is not the enemy but the foundation of modernity and freedom. There is probably not, for instance, a more comprehensive contemporary argument for a democratic, free, and just society than Pope John Paul II's 1991 encyclical, entesimus Annus ("A Hundred Years," marking the centenary of modern Catholic social teaching.)

Can Islam produce a comparable religious argument in support of modernity and democracy? The answer is that we do not know. We must hope and pray that it can and will. But this we do know: If it is true, as some still say, that liberal democracy is inseparable from secularism, liberal democracy has a very dim future in a world of resurgent religion.


Richard John Neuhaus, "The Secularism of the West." National Post, (Canada) 11 October, 2002.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post. This is the last of a four-part series featuring speakers at the McGill University nconference on Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy.


Father Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. He is the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The End of Democracy?: The Judical Usurpation of Politics, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Square": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

Copyright © 2002 National Post

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