- Thursday, July 31, 2008
The significance of these two exceptions is that Western Europe and the world’s cultural elites play an inordinate role in influencing the larger culture. Thus the secularization of Europe and of America’s elites has created a cultural opening for the emergence of what we are calling the New Atheism. How exactly has this opening occurred?
* * *
Perhaps the most insightful philosopher to have considered this is Charles Taylor. His massive work A Secular Age is a bold but also rather humble and honest work.19 Taylor has given attention over the decades to the secularization of society and to what it means to live in a secular age, and he makes an argument that is very difficult to refute. Taylor’s argument is that Western history has experienced three different intellectual stages, three different sets of conditions of belief.
First, there once was a time in which it was impossible not to believe. If you move back before the Enlightenment, into the Medieval period and beyond, it was virtually impossible to find persons who did not believe in God, or who at least did not assume that belief in God was absolutely necessary in order to make sense of the world. Believing in God was crucial to understanding why the sun was there in the morning and the moon and the stars at night. God was an integral, inseparable part of society’s Weltanschauung, its worldview. It was impossible not to believe because there was no other explanation. There was no other theory, no other rival worldview that could explain all that human beings experienced.
The second phase Taylor describes is when it becomes possible not to believe. The Enlightenment becomes the great opening for this, for even though it remained, for most people, still impossible not to believe, the great epistemological turn to the subject meant that the possibility of nonbelief suddenly emerged. The individual himself became the center of meaning, and thus God was no longer understood to be the sovereign subject, but rather the object of study. And like any other theory, one could take him or leave him.
Taylor suggests that we have now entered a third stage of intellectual development. Having moved from a time in which it was impossible not to believe, through a time in which it became possible not to believe, we have now arrived at a situation in which, for the elites especially, it has become impossible to believe. If you compare the first stage and the third stage, an absolute reversal has taken place. In the first stage there was no rival explanation for any reality—for life, for the past, for the present, or for the future—other than Christianity. But now it is the absolute opposite. Now there are not only alternatives to the biblical worldview available, but these alternatives are declared to be superior. Indeed if nonbelief was an oddity in the first stage—so much that it was considered eccentric and even dangerous—in this third stage it is theism that is considered eccentric and dangerous. Theism is not just something we have moved beyond, not just something we ought to put behind us as belonging to an infantile or adolescent period of human development. It is actually dangerous, because people who believe in God are dangerous people who do dangerous things. They are a deadly toxin within the culture at large.
These are the conditions of belief under which we now live. This is the situation—a world in which the elites have declared that it is impossible and even dangerous to believe in God. This new event has provided the opening for the New Atheism. And what an opening it is.
1. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man: Selection in Relation to Sex (Penguin, 2004).
2. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
3. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 4–5.
4. Ibid., 5.
5. Ibid., 8.
6. Ibid., 15–16.
7. Ibid., 16.
9. A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral (New York: Norton, 1999), 8–11.
10. Archibald MacLeish, J.B.: A Play in Verse (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 11.
11. Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. Annette Jolin and Joseph O’Malley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).
12. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, ed. Stephen Kalberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
13. Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion (New York: Norton, 1989).
14. See George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) and James Tunstead Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
15. C. John Sommerville, The Secularization of Early Modern England: From Religious Culture to Religious Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
16. Jeffrey Hadden, 1986 Presidential Address to the Southern Sociological Society.
17. See Peter C. Berger, “Secularization Falsified,” First Things, February 2008, 23f.
18. Ibid., 24.
19. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).
Copyright © 2008 by Albert Mohler
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