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The Challenge of Secularism

by Catherine Frakas 17 Aug 2003

The Challenge of Secularism by Father Gerard Beigel, S.T.D. Taken from The California Mission November/December 1999 issue In his apostolic letter, The Coming of the Third Millennium, Pope John Paul II asserts that we live in a time of a crisis of civilization, brought on in particular by the challenge of secularism. What is secularism? And why is it a threat to the very stability of modern civilization? The word, secularism, is derived from the Latin word for world. Secularism refers to a system of thought and belief which explicitly or implicitly excludes God from human affairs. In short, secularism proclaims that the world we live in is all there is-there is no God, or if there is, He is too far beyond our understanding to be of any relevance to human life today. The truth is that we are all too familiar with secularism-it is like the air we breathe in our modern culture. Each of us could give countless examples of encountering attitudes of indifference or hostility toward God within different institutions or in the behavior of individual persons. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a climate of indifference to God all around us in modern culture. I live in the Catholic parish whose youth were recently traumatized by the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999. The varied responses to this tragic event exposed the deep divisions in our country between those who try to direct their lives in accord with the love and truth of God and those who direct their lives in accord with the values of secularism. In the wake of the tragedy, the youth at Columbine High flocked to the local Christian churches. This amazed the media and therapeutic experts who could not understand such a vivid manifestation of the belief that God is indeed the answer for the most profound human sufferings and dilemmas. Seemingly, the youth were not satisfied with the bandaids that the secularists offered to alleviate the suffering. They wanted something more real, more substantial, something for the depths of their hearts-something from God. Modern secularism is a profound challenge to Christian faith. Over the past two centuries secularism has not only undermined people's belief in God and in Jesus Christ, it has also undermined morality and with it the stability of family life. If there is no God, we must create our own values. And since everyone's values will be different, there is no such thing as objectively right and wrong human actions. The secularist understanding of human values has become entrenched in our public school systems. As a consequence, there is little support today for parents who are attempting to teach their children respect for God and His commandments. There seems to be no limit to the capacity of secularism to erode all moral foundations of society. Almost thirty years ago abortion was legalized. Euthanasia is now legal in some states and countries, and there have been several ballot measures in different states to establish homosexual marriage. It will not be long before infanticide of unwanted or medically handicapped children becomes accepted practice. As we consider all these varied manifestations of secularism, it is obvious that this social movement is as profound a threat to Christianity as any of the ancient heresies were. In evaluating modern civilization, Pope John Paul II has praised the developments of technology that have raised the standards of human life. At the same time, however, the Pope has warned that the western world has become interiorly impoverished by its tendency to forget God or to keep him at a distance (The Third Millennium, 55). John Paul challenges us to counter the crisis of civilization brought on by modern secularism. Above all, the Christian response to secularism must be grounded in prayer and in a personal renewal of faith in God and Jesus Christ within our own hearts. But we also need to understand the origins of secularism and the logic of its system of thought. Only by understanding secularism can we help others escape from a world-view that is truly constricted and tragically alienated from God. We need to understand secularism for our own sake as well. We have all grown up in a secularist world. None of us are totally immune from its influences and attitudes. Only as we identify and repent of patterns of secularism in our own thinking can we enter into the fullness of our Christian liberty as children of the Father. The Development of Secularism: Secularism is best understood as a process slowly gathering momentum in western history over the past five hundred years. The two key developments in this process are the rise of science and the development of modern psychology. There have been many good and useful discoveries in these two areas of knowledge. At the same time modern science and modern psychology have tended to block our view of two essential dimensions of human life: the word of God in the created world around us, and the word of God in the depths of our hearts. God desires to speak to us from the heavens above and from the heart within. In many ways, modern science and modern psychology have walled us off from this two-fold witness of God. The Scriptural teaching about this two-fold witness of God is clearly presented by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans. With regard to creation, Paul writes: Whatever can be known about God is clear to them. He himself made it so. Since the creation of the world, invisible realities, God's eternal power and divinity, have become visible, recognized through the things He has made (Rom 1:20). With regard to the witness of God in the human heart, Paul writes: When Gentiles who do not have the Law do by nature what the Law requires... they show that what the Law requires is written on their hearts (Rom 2:14-15). Modern science has restricted our view of the world around us. In the ancient and medieval world the whole universe was seen as a manifestation of the glory of God. The heavens above were seen as a symbol of divine things to which human beings were called to share. The created world was seen to reflect some of the attributes of God, just as a particular work of art reflects the style or attributes of an artist (for example, Michaelangelo's Pieta). By contrast, modern science does not view the universe to see the destiny of man or the glory of God. The scientific method looks at the universe to see what can be measured and quantified and brought under the control of man. By design, one could say, God is kept out of the picture. The scientific view of the universe is not so much a false view, but rather a very incomplete view. A problem arises, however, when the scientific approach to the world becomes a philosophy or ideology that denies the higher truth of morality and religion. In a similar way, modern psychology has obscured the truth about our hearts-that part of us made for God, which only God can fill. The truth is that we were created for God and from the very depths of our being we yearn to find God and be in union with Him. By contrast, modern psychology views man as a solitary being with no intrinsic relationship to God. So, the human heart is not seen as a place where one can experience the deepest loving union with God. Rather, the heart is seen as a place of conflicting desires that necessarily leave human beings feeling frustrated and divided. It is no surprise that psychology aims us only at self-actualization-a bland and selfish substitute for the true human fulfillment that comes from experiencing God's presence and love in the depths of our heart. The Cast of Characters: Descartes, Newton, Darwin, and Freud: Rene Descartes: The philosopher Descartes (1596-1650), is usually viewed as the thinker who ushers in the modern era. Descartes attempted to base his whole understanding of the world and man on his own capacity to think. For him, the first truth that can be established is I think, therefore I am. From this truth Descartes went on to demonstrate other truths, including the existence of God. But even though Descartes upheld the existence of God, his style of thinking marked a sharp departure with previous eras. First of all, man's ability to reason is only one of the ways in which he can grasp truth; reasoning is not the only way, or even the surest way, to arrive at truth. The human mind can also be touched by God's light directly, illumined or inspired from within. In First Corinthians, St. Paul describes how the Holy Spirit reveals to us the hidden wisdom of God-things that it is impossible for man to grasp through his reason alone. Paul therefore contrasts worldly wisdom with wisdom from the Spirit (see 1 Cor 2:6-16). After Descartes, western philosophy became largely a matter of worldly wisdom-things that man could arrive at using his own reason. There is a vast difference between Descartes' confidence in his own reason and St. Augustine's confidence in the wisdom revealed to our hearts by God. Augustine even said that he was more certain of the existence of heaven and the Holy Trinity than of his own existence. He explained that he had only his own experience to assure him of his own existence, but that he had the Word of God to assure him of the existence of heaven and the Trinity. It is little surprise that as thinkers after Descartes followed his exaltation of human reason that they strayed further and further away from the truth of God. Isaac Newton: Isaac Newton lived during the same era as Descartes. Newton exerted an immense influence on the development of modern science. He astounded Europeans with his development of the science of physics, especially through his discovery of the laws of gravity. At the time, Newton's discoveries seemed to solve most of the mysteries of the physical world. The whole universe appeared so orderly, so governed by laws, that it could be compared to a giant clock. Drawing on this image, many people after Newton adopted a novel and erroneous view of God. The Almighty God was seen as the great clock-maker who fashioned the universe, but now let it run on its own power. This religious movement was called Deism, after its simple belief that there is a Deity who made everything, but who has since withdrawn from the world, much as a clock-maker is no longer needed once the clock is made and running. Obviously, this view represents a rejection of the God of the Bible-the God who not only created the world, but also continually sustains it and works within it, revealing His ways to man. The influence of Deism was widespread. Thomas Jefferson and many of the founding fathers of the United States were Deists. The methods and philosophy of modern science have been influenced, in large part, by Descartes' audacious confidence in unaided human reason and Newton's clockwork explanation of the universe. Influenced by the thought of these two men, successive thinkers and scientists unlocked more and more laws of the physical universe, explaining things that had previously been mysteries. With each new discovery, there seemed less need to uphold God's continuous presence and activity in the world. For example, the primitive view of thunder and lightening as revelations of God's justice dissolved as scientists discovered the secrets of electricity and the physical causes of thunder and lightening. Of course, there is a blind spot in this whole method of scientific reasoning. We need only ask, what is the cause of all these physical causes? Behind all secondary physical causes in the universe there must be a primary cause (God), who continuously bestows movement and causality upon the universe of things. Thus, a scientific account of the material or physical causes of thunder and lightening can never really explain away God. Charles Darwin: Modern science developed under the illusion that its explanation of physical causes abolished the need to bring God into the picture in order to explain the mysteries of the universe. It was inevitable that this scientific pride would eventually lead to the philosophy of naturalism-the denial of God and the belief that the natural world, the world of matter, is all there is. And the thinker who gave full expression to this atheistic naturalism was Charles Darwin with his theory of evolution. In its pure Darwinian version, the theory of evolution holds that all life has arisen from inanimate matter without any intervention of a Supreme Being and without any purpose. All living species have arisen by a blind process of random mutations and by natural selection. It is impossible to give a full critique of the theory of evolution in this short space.(1) It is sufficient to note that there are formidable arguments against the truth of the theory. There are three huge transformations within the range of life-forms that evolution has not been able to explain with its naturalistic premises. Firstly, there is the transition from matter to life itself. After a hundred years of experiments that attempt to reduplicate the genesis of life from primitive matter, we are no closer to observing the emergence of life from matter itself. The evolutionist tale of the emergence of life from a primordial soup is simply that-a tale for which there really is no scientific evidence. Second, there is the transformation from one species to another species. While it is undeniable that there is considerable variation within each species (what is called microevolution), the studies of mutations have only confirmed the amazing stability of each species. The destructive nature of most mutations and the stable nature of species make it difficult to envision how there could be such a great transformation as to produce an entirely new species. In fact, no transformation from one species to another has ever been observed. The well-know story of the finches on the Galapagos Islands only proves the existence of micro-evolutionary changes within one species. Moreover, if there were a clear evolutionary transformation of one species to another (macro-evolution), the transition ought to be reflected in the fossil record. For example, we should see in the fossil record the development of rudimentary wings, fins, legs, etc., as species evolve into others. But this is not the case. As one scientist notes, in the fossil record the earliest known fins are fully developed, as are the earliest legs and wings, whether of insect, bird, bat or pterodactyl.(2) Incidentally, the fossil record is an embarrassment to the theory of evolution on another score. Instead of the gradual appearance of new life-forms (as would confirm evolutionary theory), we see instead in the Cambrian rock strata what has been called by all as an explosion of life-forms-over 5,000 species! In the pre-Cambrian rocks below this strata, virtually no fossils have been found. Rather than confirming the theory of evolution, these facts point rather to the special creation of species by a Creator. Thirdly and finally, there is the transformation that separates the human race from all other animals. Man possesses an intellect and will by which he can know and pursue ultimate Truth (God). The Darwinian theory of evolution would hold that man's unique powers have arisen simply from blind and purposeless natural selection. But Christianity has always held that man's powers are a special gift directly infused in him by God. Man is created in the image and likeness of God, and he bears an immortal soul infused in him directly by God. That is why Pope John Paul II has declared that any theory of evolution that holds that man's spirit arises simply from the forces of living matter... is incompatible with the truth about man (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996). When we contemplate what distinguishes man from all other animals, it seems a blind leap of faith to explain all of man's vast cultural, intellectual and artistic achievements as really just the result of the random development of matter in the universe. But this is precisely how evolutionism would have us think about man. The weaknesses of the theory of evolution have not affected its ability to be received by the scientific community and much of the public as truth. One prominent evolutionist admits that the evolutionist explanation of life is an indigestible enormity, and then asserts that I believe-because I see no means of doing otherwise-that mammals come from lizards and lizards from fish.(3) Clearly, with the theory of evolution there is something different at work than scientifically compelling evidence. As another evolutionist admits, Darwinism ceased to be a tentative scientific theory and became a philosophy, almost a religion.(4) Because its claims can never really be tested, evolutionism is not really science at all, but rather a type of faith for those who want to deny the presence and activity of God within our universe. Indeed, as evolutionist Richard Dawkins boasts, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Sigmund Freud: From Darwin's theory that man descends from apes, it is but a small step to the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. If humans derive from animals, then there must still be a bestial element in man's inner being. This bestial element Freud called the id, which he held to be the core of our being.(5) As Freud defines it, the id is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality... we call it chaos, a cauldron, ... it has no organization, ... but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.(6) The other structures that Freud discerns in the human being-the ego and superego-turn out to be basically subservient to the desires and demands of the id. So in the Freudian view, the human being is basically driven by, and subject to, animal desires. Although many psychologists after Freud have rejected this pessimistic view, the Freudian view of pleasure as the dominant force in the human personality has seemingly been adopted by wide sections of modern western culture. Just as the development of modern scientific thought cut off human beings from the witness of God in creation, so Freud's theories (and all the schools of psychology indebted to him) have cut off man from the witness of God in his heart. God created man with a conscience in the depths of his heart, which directs him toward the good and away from evil. If man lives in conformity with the witness of his conscience and opens himself in faith to God, his heart becomes the place of communion with God, a place of rest and peace. But if man ignores the witness of his conscience, he will indeed be assailed by conflicting and disintegrating desires. Tragically, the Freudian theory of the id is actually a view of man under the power of sin. In presenting this condition of man as normal, Freud has propagated one of the great modern lies about the nature of the human person. The influence of Freud's theories has been vast. The modern, popular exaltation of selfishness and untrammeled freedom is directly influenced by Freud's theories. Similarly, the modern suspicion of all authority is a consequence of the popularization of Freud's ideas. If a cauldron of desire is truly the core of our being, it follows that any authority or restraint upon the expression of our desires will tend to be viewed as evil. But the most obvious and destructive consequence of accepting modern's psychology's view of the human heart is the exaltation of pleasure as the central activity and goal of man. It is astonishing to contemplate how much of our media and economy is devoted to stimulating and satisfying people's pursuit of pleasure. Some of the obvious casualties of our infatuation with pleasure are the stability of marriage and family life. But there are other societal problems as well: loneliness, frustration, and addictive behaviors with things as varied as sex, alcohol, drugs and food. These bad consequences of the theories of modern psychology do not mean that psychologists have not arrived at any genuine insights about human beings and their problems. But the very foundations of the discipline of modern psychology are built on sand, because the human being's intrinsic relationship to God is left out of the psychological picture of the nature of man. The human heart will never rest in the pursuit of pleasure, power or self-actualization. The human heart was created for communion with God. This is the truth about the nature of man that has been lost in the welter of psychological theories. The Twin Pillars of Secularism: Science and Psychology: Modern science and psychology are the two pillars of secularism. The dominance of these two disciplines in the realm of education has eroded not only the truth of religion in our culture, but also the truth of traditional morality. It is even asserted that there can be no such thing as an objective morality. It is claimed that ethical values cannot be measured, nor can they be derived from the nature of man. At bottom, it is claimed, all people must create their own values, based on their own desires. So today youth are educated in values clarification, and teachers have been taught not to impose their own values on their students. This is the wasteland of relativism-the view that there are no objective goods or evils. And the social costs of relativism are turning out to be very high indeed-the well-entrenched abortion industry, the spiraling violence in society and especially in schools-and, on the slippery slope ahead of us, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, and possibly even the legalization of infanticide. By and large, both disciplines of modern science and psychology have been founded upon atheistic presuppositions. But by leaving God out of the picture, both disciplines end up putting man in a confined and shrinking box. In effect, the scientific world-view entails a lobotomy of the human being. Science has effectively sliced the human intellect in two. The one part left that is real is our ability to arrive at truth about the physical world by observing and measuring. The part of our intellect that is lost is the ability to be receptive to the witness of God in the whole of creation-to acknowledge the artist behind the presence of his art. Similarly, the psychological world-view has cut the human heart in two. What has been lost is the truth that the heart is the dwelling place of God within man-that the human being is truly created in the image and likeness of God. All that is left is the common experience of the heart as a seat of conflicting desires. So science and psychology have ended up putting man into a closed hut, with no windows or doors. In the secularist education that young people receive today there are no openings in this closed hut-nothing that would open their eyes to the majesty of God in creation and the wonderful desire of God to dwell in the depths of the human heart. This secularist prison is the main reason so many young people suffer from loneliness and depression. Pope John Paul II has called the Church to prepare herself for a new evangelization. A major part of this evangelization is to meet the challenge of secularism. We must not only show that by denying God secularism has put man into the prison of the closed hut. We must also meet the challenge of secularism by boldly proclaiming the Good News to those who are imprisoned within the scientific and psychological world-views: For God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts, that we in turn might make known the glory of God shining on the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Father Gerard Beigel is Associate Pastor at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Littleton, Colorado, and writes regularly for The California Mission. 1) The following discussion of Darwin and evolution is indebted to Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief (Sherwood Sugden & Co., Peru, IL, 1984), pp. 66-91. Another good critique of evolution is Phillip E. Johnson's Darwin on Trial, 2nd ed. (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1993). 2) Douglas Dewar, The Transformist Illusion, quoted in Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence, p. 77. 3) Jean Rostand, Le Figaro Littéraire, quoted in Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence, p. 83. 4) Dampier, A History of Science, quote in Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence, p. 82. 5) Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, quoted in Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence, p. 92. My discussion of Freud's theories is indebted to Smith. 6) Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, quoted in Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence, pp. 92-93. For information on The California Mission magazine, please send email toEditor@msjc.orgor call us by phone at 408-371-2112 or write us at PO Box 24589, San Jose CA 95154. Posted with permission of The Califonia Mission

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