Islam and the Closing of the Secular Mind

Source: The American Spectator

By Samuel Gregg

The “enlightened” Western mind can no longer think seriously or coherently about religion.

Given the decidedly strange response of the Obama Administration and much of the Western commentariat to the violence sweeping the Islamic world, one temptation is to view their reaction as simple incomprehension in the face of the severe unreason that leads some people to riot and kill in a religion’s name. But while the Administration’s response has plenty to do with trying to defend a foreign policy that has plainly gone south, it also reflects something far more problematic: the Western secular mind’s increasing inability to think seriously and coherently about religion at all.

This problem manifests itself in several ways. The first is the manner in which many secular thinkers seem to regard all religions as “basically the same.” By this, they often mean either equally irrational or as promoting essentially similar values.

A moment’s reflection would indicate to even the most militant atheist that this simply isn’t true. Islam and Christianity, for instance, have very different understandings of who Jesus Christ is. Christians believe that he is God, the second Person of the Trinity. Muslims do not. Ergo, Islam and Christianity are not effectively the same. At their respective cores are fundamentally irreconcilable theological positions. It’s also very difficult to find robust affirmations of free will outside Judaism and Christianity (at least the orthodox varieties of these two faiths).

Likewise, as any informed Muslim will tell you, Islamic theology has no real equivalent of the Christian idea of the church. The Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) literally means to be “called out.” That, alongside Christ’s words about the limits to Caesar’s power, had immense implications for how Christians think about the state and its relationship to religion. Among other things, it means Christianity has always maintained significant distinctions between the temporal and the spiritual realms that are far less perceptible — again, as any pious Muslim will inform you — in Islamic theology and history.

All this, however, is a little complicated for those secular intellectuals who simply regard religion as just another lifestyle-choice rather than being essentially about people’s natural desire to (1) know the truth about the transcendent and (2) live their lives in accordance with such truths.

That’s why the left talks so much today about “freedom of worship” (as if your faith-decisions are akin to choosing which mall you shop at) and are trying to peddle a version of religious liberty that basically confines religious freedom to what happens inside your church, synagogue, mosque or temple on your given holy-day of the week. The notion that religious liberty is all about creating space for people to live out their beliefs consistent with others’ freedom to do the same and even permits us to peacefully argue — gasp! — about the truth of different religions’ claims seems to be beyond their grasp.

Then there is the sheer ignorance of history prevailing among much of the secular intelligentsia. This was unfortunately exemplified by the lamentable historiography that was on full display in President Obama’s once much-touted, now much-forgotten 2009 Cairo speech. Among other things, the President referred to how Islam “carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.”

Really? Did the President’s advisors and speechwriters know that this thesis has been subject to withering critique for over 100 years? Were they conscious that, as the French professor of Arabic and religious philosophy Rémi Brague demonstrated in his book Europe, La voie romaine (1992/1999), the statesman-scholar-monk Cassiodorus (c.485-c.585 AD) not only collaborated with Pope Agapetus I in arranging for the translation of classical Greek texts into Latin, but also established a monastery-school on his family estate to safeguard and study the same works? Were they aware that the works of Antiquity never somehow vanished but were preserved for centuries by Greek-speaking Eastern Christians? Or that Aristotle was known and read in the medieval West long before Arabic translations appeared in Europe?

The answer to all the above questions hardly needs to be stated.

In other words, civilizational development is a much more complicated affair than many secular-minded people are willing to concede. And that partly reflects their ongoing efforts to whitewash Christianity’s immense civilizational achievements out of history.

Today’s history textbooks, for example, are full of mythologies about the so-called “Dark Ages.” These publications invariably overlook, for instance, the powerful contributions made to the development of the modern sciences by figures such as the 13th-century saint Albertus Magnus or the profound advances made in constitutional theories of limited government by medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Why? Because acknowledging such facts raises the question of whether the various Enlightenments (which saddled us with such intellectual dead-ends as David Hume’s skepticism and Rousseau’s egalitarian-obsessions) were as radical and enlightened as many liberals make them out to be.

And that brings us to yet another problem with the secular mind regarding religion: its increasing embrace of what might be called suppressive tolerance. This is the art of discouraging people from expressing their views on particular subjects on the grounds that saying what you think might involve what’s become the ultimate crime of modern times: hurting other peoples’ feelings.

Of course, most secular intellectuals are very selective about applying this. You can, after all, say the most uninformed and truly bigoted things about Christians and that’s free speech. If, however, you ask polite but direct questions about aspects of particular schools of Islamic thought (even while acknowledging parallels with specific Christian thinkers) as Benedict XVI did in his 2006 Regensburg lecture, then you’re being “hurtful.”

Lastly there’s the difficulty of wishful thinking. This might be described as many secular intellectuals’ belief that, deep down, everyone really wants to be like them: what George Weigel calls “debonair nihilists.”

Eventually, or so the theory goes, the unwashed masses will “get over” all those pesky questions about the meaning of life, death, good, and evil to which religious faiths attempt to provide comprehensive answers — many of which are far more convincing that the default philosophical materialism, relativism, and skepticism that passes for sophisticated thinking in the faculty lounge these days. Instead, they expect we’ll eventually accept that life is meaningless and the most we can do is, as Marx described his future society, “one thing today and another tomorrow; to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening and criticize after dinner, just as I please.”

Unfortunately for the urbane hedonist crowd, God’s death has been forecast on numerous occasions by figures ranging from Marx and Nietzsche, to the Economist in 1999. The latter, however, was smart enough to retract this assertion in 2007 in the face of overwhelming evidence that, globally speaking, the world was becoming more religious rather than less.

And that perhaps points to the greatest tragedy of the secular mind’s remarkable close-mindedness to any serious contemporary conversation about religion. Its core operating assumptions, historical unawareness, and reliance upon numerous legends for legitimacy translates into many Western intellectuals having little of a meaningful nature to say about how we address real problems of religiously inspired violence and of truth-suffocating intolerance masquerading as tolerance.

Put another, more troubling way, one of the West’s greatest impediments in its struggle against religious extremism may well the fact that the secular part of its soul turns out to be far less enlightened than anyone imagined possible.

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute.

Read the entire article on the American Spectator website (new window will open).


  1. Geo Michalopulos :

    I especially like to watch all the Liberals on MSNBC talk about their new-found reverence for Islam and why some speech should be banned. Where were these bastards during the Robert Mappelthorpe/Andres Serrano/Chris Offili controversies that humiliated Christianity? Where is the ACLU castigating MSNBC for talking about the necessity to restrict free speech? Or to take on the White House for sending armed thugs to roust a man out of his bed at 1:30 in the morning because he made a video?

    They told me that if I voted for a Right-wing religious fanatic like Sarah Palin that the government would imposed censorship on people for making movies –and they were right!

  2. George,
    The irony of you choice of the word “humiliate” in regards to works of art from the 80s that you don’t like or understand shows you need to read a little bit more in the tradition of which you are such a proud ‘sponsor’, as well as art criticism. No ‘bad boy’ artist can humiliate our Crucified and Risen Lord; He has condescended to our uttermost contempt and thereby saves us. Neither Serrano nor Offili even meant anything offensive (tho can’t say that for Mapplethorpe). And probably those pundits were still in college when the Moral Majority was out trying to defund public art in America.

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      Never meant anything offensive? Are you sure it’s all so benign? Here’s an essay I wrote on it at the time.

      The Artist as Vandal: Culture and the desecration of religious symbols

      • Sorry, Fr. Johan, I respectfully disagree with your article’s premise. Serrano and Offili were not panderin gto base instincts and not working to offend. I personally saw Offili’s piece in Brooklyn and it cannot be called offensive in the way you caricature it. It’s a rather unimpressive artifact deriving from the artist’s native South African sensibilities and neither terribly gross nor the lease bit pornographic. Nor was Serrano aiming to insult. He’s a Catholic Philipino and is sincere. His image is neither gross nor offensive.
        The fallacy of your argument is in conflating artwork with brutal violence of the atheistic Bolshevik type. Just saying so doesn’t make it a fact. By juxtaposing controversial artworks dealing in religious imagery with overt anti-religious violence, you hope to equate artmaking with Bolshevism as a putsch against faith.
        Sorry, Father, but I disagree with your premise– not on some vague foundation of ‘free speech’ but by the basis of intent: such artmaking is not mere derogation aimed at depriving me of access to the sacred, but instead confronts me with sacred images of Christ and His Ever-Virgin Mother complexified through the lens of a society which largely rejects their sacred intent and content. Offili tried (lamely, IMHO) to emphasize the earthliness of the Holy Virgin Mary’s motherhood and feminity, and Serrano tried (much more successfully) to reinvest the trivialized, miniature dime-store plastic crucifix with its original mystery and sorrow. I am sad that you missed the overwhelming point he made.
        The fact that politicians of dubious faith and spirituality made such hey railing against Serrano and Offili – and Mapplethorpe too – speaks more to your point about religion as a weapon for powerful men to grasp and wield to their own benefit, than to art as a political weapon against ‘conservative’ faith. Art is not a religion like atheism. Its workers manipulate images in order to enter a fresh, innocent dialog with them in the context of society – often when society wishes they would shut up. Serrano touched a nerve in a time of political backlash against liberal mores and his work alludes to persecution and paranoia. A good piece of art, like his Crucifixis irreduceable, as the complexity it brings to the viewer cannot be fully resolved through any other media than the image he presents. It remains ambiguous, and I think that is what continues to offend.

        • Fr. Hans Jacobse :

          Serrano tried (much more successfully) to reinvest the trivialized, miniature dime-store plastic crucifix with its original mystery and sorrow.

          Let me see if I understand this. The meaning of the crucifix has been trivialized because people have made dime-store plastic crucifixes and so forth. Submersing the crucifix in a jar of urine exposes the trivialization and this didactic function gives the piece its value. Is that how it works?

          But doesn’t Serrano’s submersing of the crucifix in urine trivialize (desacrilize) the crucifix in the same way you say he decries? Of course it does. If he understood the sacred power of the symbol, he never would have desecrated it by submersing it in urine.

          You argue that Serrano’s desecration is self-redemptive or self-validating, but if your point was true it would required that Serrano sees the symbol as sacred. Submersing the crucifix in urine proves that he doesn’t.

          The piece then only functions to shock, despite your attempt to derive meaning by imputing virtues that are not there. And that shock value exists only because the cultural memory of the sacred dimension of the symbol still exists. The piece then is parasitic; it depends on the power of the symbol it desecrates to give it meaning.

          The same happens with Ofili as I explained in my essay. These symbols have a definite meaning and power. If the purpose is to recontextualize them for whatever reason, then why did one artist chose urine and the other elephant feces? Do you really believe that using the two basest elements of bodily excretion was not a deliberate choice calculated to shock?

          Maybe this is just tawdry marketing — two Howard Sterns or Jerry Springers of the art world. More likely it is just what I described.

          Tell you what. If Serrano’s piece really has the meaning you think it has, pee in a jar, stick a crucifix in it, and display it on your mantle for all your guests to see. Tell them it shows how plastic crucifixes trivialize the meaning of the symbol. Then have someone report back to you what they really say when you are not around.

          The rest of your post is just tiresome — the idealization of mainstream art, the mythology of the establishment artist as social rebel, the moral superiority of the mainstream critic, all that self-serving nonsense that merely justifies a preoccupation with the novel, freakish and other contrivances used to escape meaninglessness and boredom.

          Breaking taboos has become pedestrian. It was shocking in the 1920s, now it’s big business. Look at the Madonna money machine. Do you really believe Serrano and Ofili are any different?

          • Fr. Hans description exactly grips it. ..”all that self-serving nonsense that merely justifies a preoccupation with the novel, freakish and other contrivances used to escape meaninglessness and boredom” The manner of the ‘escape’ is attention-craving, the would-be artist gives up on the effort required to generate positive attention, and chooses the quick easy cheap path to generate negative attention: leveraging the effort and history referenced in the abused symbol. These ‘artists’ are not so different from the ‘news editors’ complicit in showing clips in a tight TV close up of “a vast crowd” shown burning a flag– because a ‘wide shot’ would reveal 5 involved nuts, 10 hangers-on, and mostly otherwise disinterested passers-by.

            These same ‘newsmen’ and ‘art-critic columnists’ talk about the ‘shock art’ for the same reasons — trying to get eyes on their pages otherwise so uninteresting no business is willing to purchase advertising that runs nearby. Really this is exploiting the lack of detail in the ‘readership’ or ‘viewership’ numbers, the idea that ‘all attention is good attention’. I think that’s false, but proving that is not in the interest of firms supported by advertising.

  3. Well, I agree with George on this and some of the followers of Islam want to punished disrespect with death its like Eastern Orthodoxy going back to the iconoclastic era where you were imprison or put to death for an icon. What I don’t understand about the left is how they can be supported of Islam since Islam Sharia is very medieval and wants to punish people for adultery, homosexuality and so forth with the death penalty while they have a fit over Evangelical Protestants and Conservative Roman Catholics for wanting to ban abortion or opposed gay marriage is certainly not the extreme that some followers of Islam proposed.

  4. Well, Steven Gregg brings some interesting points here about Pope Agapetus and Cassiodorus. Cassiodorus was writing as Steven Gregg mention in the so-called early dark ages because the western Roman Empire was no more and Italy was ruled by Theodoric and the Ostrogoths. I read some of Cassiodorus letters in translation and he was one of the few left in the west that knew both Greek and Latin. Pope Agapetus is later praise by Dante by influencing Justinian on the right view on the nature of Christ in the Inferno.


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