Tuesday, 27 March 2007

'Aggressive secularism' revisited (and a bit of personal history)

This is a topic I can see myself returning to, as I try to tease out what I think is going on here. Why is that religious commentators, including those one might have thought of as 'liberal' or at least 'thoughtful', have begun to use the kind of language about 'secularism' that was once the province of their more conservative co-religionists? And why is it that it bothers me, as someone who sees himself 'working' the margins between sacred and secular, humanism and belief?

Answering these questions is going to take a number of attempts, so please bear with me. A bit of personal context first. I grew up in a Methodist home and went through an evangelical/charismatic phase in my teens (this was back in the early '70s). At university I reacted against what I saw as the anti-cultural, anti-intellectual bias of evangelicalism and for a time identified myself as a 'liberal' christian, before developing an interest in Catholicism that led to me being received into the Church in my early '20s. However, the Catholicism that attracted me was very much of the post-Vatican 2, liberation theology, Christian-Marxist dialogue variety, and I didn't see any incompatibility with my commitment to socialism and with my broad interests in politics, literature and ideas. I drifted away from Catholicism in my late '20s and, as a result both of my university studies and my later work in adult education, became interested in the ideas of Marx, Gramsci, et al, my intellectual heroes at the time being people like E.P.Thompson, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall.

However, despite no longer being a practising Christian, I never completely renounced or rejected religion and occasionally, over the years, 'lapsed' from my day-to-day secularism and found myself reading the odd religious book, or slipping into the back of a church during Mass. Recent years have seen a more determined effort to find a 'spiritual' grounding for my life, especially in the wake of the collapse of socialism as an intellectual and practical project in the wider world. I went through a sort-of-Buddhist phase a few years ago but, though I found meditation and the other spiritual exercises mentally beneficial, ultimately I found Buddhism to be too individualistic, otherworldly and (rather like the evangelicalism of my youth) anti-cultural to sustain my commitment. So I turned back, with more vigour this time, to my Christian and Catholic heritage, searching for a way to reconcile it with what remained of my 'secular' worldview. For although some elements of my youthful political zeal had inevitably fallen away over the years, I found that some things stubbornly remained, such as a commitment to equality (including gender equality), to freedom of belief and expression, and to the importance of an open and pluralistic cultural realm. It wasn't that I now thought that liberal humanism was 'wrong', rather I sensed that it might not be enough.

So a lot of my mental energy over the past few years has been spent in trying to find a way of reconciling my deeply-held liberal humanism with some form or spiritual belief and practice. So far I've failed, swinging from one pole to another rather than finding any lasting accommodation between the two. I know that it can be done - that others have done it - but I've yet to make it work for me. What helps, or would help, is finding writers who are at home in both worlds - who can speak about matters of faith, for example, in the language - and with an understanding of the doubts and dilemmas - of contemporary secular humanism. So far, I haven't found very many. And my sense is that their number may be diminishing - that the possibilities for dialogue are beginning to be closed down.

And this (by way of a very long digression, for which I apologise) is where I come back to the debate about 'aggressive' secularism. I see the recent tendency of even liberal Christian commentators to indulge in this kind of language as a kind of raising of the drawbridge, or circling of the wagons, against the secular world. Gone, it seems to me, are those heady post-Vatican 2 days when Catholics and other Christians entered enthusiastically into 'dialogue' with the secular world, wanting to find points of contact, to learn from and integrate the best of secular ideas. Instead, we can see signs of a much more pessimistic and conservative sense of the 'secular' as the enemy, threatening to storm and overwhelm the defences of faith. The dualistic neo-Platonism, or Manicheism, implicit in such reactions, is rather worrying. To be blunt, if the energetic going-out to the secular world in a spirit of dialogue in the '60s and '70s could be seen as a sign of the strength, vigour and confidence of faith, then this new withdrawal from and hostility to secularism can be interpreted as a sign of weakness, defensiveness and withdrawal.

There is a link here to another, related topic that I want to write about in a later post, and that is the disappointing tendency among liberal Christian commentators - people whose writing I have admired in the past - to rush to the defence of illiberal tendencies in other faiths. This was seen in the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons, when key liberal Christian commentators seemed to forget their liberalism - which should have led to them supporting free speech - and instead rushed to 'understand' and explain the illiberal threats to free speech posed by those demonstrating (and worse) against the cartoons. The link with the withdrawal from the dialogue with the secular is this: that whereas, in the post Vatican 2 days of 'dialogue' liberal believers sought to identify themselves with all 'people of goodwill' - and that was the phrase that was often used in ecclesiastical statements - now, they tend rather to identify themselves with a new Big Tent constituency: 'people of faith'. If you see your interests (whether in fighting to retain faith schools, or opposing gay equality legislation, or keeping blasphemy laws or religious figures in the House of Lords) as aligned with those of other 'believers' - whatever the content of their belief, even if it contradicts your own - then your tendency to ally yourself with the wider secular world will be weakened - indeed, that secular world may come to be seen as a threat to the interests of 'faith', now defined in a very broad way. Whether Christians should be see their aim as fighting to defend the interests of 'faith' is another matter. More on all of this another time.

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