|N THE LAST article on The Secular Revolution we reported Smith’s claim that secular revolutionaries dealt with religious believers in a less than honest way, claiming publicly that believers could have their spiritual world but proclaiming privately that belief in spirits was akin to belief in Santa Claus.|
Now you might think that if secular revolutionaries thought religion was superstitious bunk, they would want it politely but firmly wiped off the map of history. After all, what possible good could large scale delusion serve?
Certainly some—like Karl Marx—did indeed want religion removed as soon as possible, and Marx and later Marxists like Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung didn’t mind the messiness of real, bloody political persecution and revolution to remove religion from human history once and for all. In Marx’s words, “The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion.”
Yet, many more secular revolutionaries believed that, even though religion was false, it was still useful.
Religion was false, they asserted, because science has shown us that there is no God, no angels or devils, no heaven or hell. There is only bodily existence in this very tangible and disenchanted world.
But religion is useful because…well, because there are two kinds of people in the world: smart and stupid, wise and gullible, rational and irrational, enlightened by science and hopelessly blinded by superstition. No matter how hard you try—they argued—you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The stupid, the gullible, the irrational, the superstitious will always be with us—so why not use religion to control them?
A brilliant Secularist strategy! We’ll call this view of the usefulness of religion “Machiavellian” after one of its earliest and most famous modern proponents, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the first great modern political philosopher and certainly one of the boldest proponents of an entirely Secularist worldview.
As the notorious Machiavelli informed his readers, “I have decided to take a path as yet untrodden by anyone.” This path led away from Christianity, and to the establishment of a new, very earthly secular political order. But the problem facing Machiavelli was that early 16th century European culture was decidedly Christian. His advice to secular-rulers-to-be: use religion to control the stupid, gullible, irrational, and superstitious masses.
Machiavelli’s advice to secular princes became, as it filtered down and spread out through the centuries, advice to all secular revolutionaries. And so it is no surprise that we find it being followed by such revolutionaries in late 19th and early 20th century Europe and America.
In Smith’s words, these latter day Secularists recognized that “religion remains intrinsically important to the mass of humanity” and consequently “that traditional religion still held the loyalty of many of their contemporaries.” But they themselves “were personally antagonistic to historical religion” because they viewed its as essentially false, something that their materialist science demonstrated (so they thought) was a mere fiction.
Like Machiavelli, they viewed religion as a useful fiction, believing that “religion’s…real potential value is in instrumentally promoting social harmony”—with the emphasis on instrumentally. Religion’s not true, but it is useful for social control. A bit nicer sounding than Machiavelli, but essentially the same.
As Smith makes clear, this Secularist treatment of religion distorts it precisely because Secularists are allowing religion only insofar as it is defined according to what is useful to their project of secularization. The result is that religion, in particular Christianity, comes to be defined according to secular utility rather than its own peculiar and particular proclaimed truth. “Historical religions must, in other words, discard the particularity of their traditions and reinvent themselves in order to conform to the views of [materialist] science.”
Smith is making an enormously important point here, one worthy of an entire book in itself. As Secularism gained more and more control over the Public Square during the 20th century, it also exerted more and more power to define what is and is not legitimate for religious believers to believe. In other words, Secularism has become a kind of established church that defines and legitimizes dogma…for others. And in order to remain legitimate, Christians, Jews, and Muslims must “reinvent themselves in order to conform” to the Secular vision.
In America, Christians have largely reinvented themselves by retreating from the Public Square, from public education, from public art, from public displays of faith, from public laws and customs, from public arguments about truth, into a merely private, personal, and subjective religion—a religion that leaves Secularism in control of all things public.
The Public Square is not now neutral. As Smith argues, “What these secularizers were actually pursuing was not primarily a neutral public sphere, but a reconstructed moral order which would increase their own group status, autonomy, authority, and eventually income.” In the next email, we’ll look more closely at the “reconstructed moral order” that now rules the Public Square.
First published by tothesource.org.
Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA).
He is now a Lecturer in Theology and Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH), and a full-time, free-lance writer. Dr. Wiker is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He writes regularly for a variety of journals.
Dr. Wiker just released a new book called Architects of the Culture of Death (Ignatius). His first book, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, was released in the spring of 2002 (InterVarsity Press). He has written another book on Intelligent Design for InterVarsity Press called A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (due out in Spring 2006).
More columns by Dr. Benjamin Wiker