The Joy of Secularism

It was only a matter of time before the New Atheists were challenged from within their own ranks. Hitchens and Dawkins and Dennett and Sam Harris, the leading figures among the self-proclaimed brights (seriously, with no sense of irony) offer sometimes serious and thoughtful challenges to the possibility of theism but fail spectacularly to present an alternative vision with any charm or warmth orlets face itany brightness at all. One of the first to recognize this was Terry Eagleton in his Reason, Faith and Revolution (read an excerpt here), who wittily excoriated the hybrid Ditchkins for a shallow and nave reading of Christianity as an alternative to a scientific explanation of the universe. Something of an atheist himself, Eagleton saw very quickly that you cant build an alternative vision of reality simply by a shabby misreading of religion.Now along come more secularists in what I think we might want to call second-wave new atheism, killing their fathers at least by implication in The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now. The cover is wittily picked out in the reddish gingham that connotes The Joy of Cooking or some equally classic 50s guide to cuisine, most certainly not about the way we live now. But between the covers there is a serious effort to provoke secularist thought to offer the kinds of satisfactions for which religion has traditionally been responsible. Darwin and Freud and, of course, Charles Taylor, are much in evidence here as George Levine (the editor) and his contributors make a very good case for secularism as meaningful and, yes, in a way, enchanted. Of course, theres a lot for religious believers to take issue with, but theres a lot to agree with too. Secular or religious we are all postmoderns despite ourselves, and science presents us with more than enough wonders for most imaginations. Who needs angels when you have quantum physics and black holes? There is enchantment, wonder and ethics aplenty in this collection of essays, at once learned and intriguing, intellectually demanding without being dry or daunting (with perhaps one exception that I couldnt finish).

If secularists can come up with essays on wonder or helplessness or trust, doesnt this suggest we might want to divide and distinguish when we hear Pope Benedict one more time lamenting the secularization of Europe? Cardinal Ratzinger found an unlikely ally in Jrgen Habermas (see The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion) and he might find more among the authors of this book. Christianitys notion of dependence on God is certainly not the same thing as radical helplessness, particularly when the secularists see the Christian version as inauthenticity, but they are sufficiently close to talk to one another. And if the secular sense of wonder does not necessarily correspond to finding God in all things, its not a million miles away either. Postmodern philosophers have lately been engaged in debating the question, Can a gift be given. Perhaps we could shift sideways and engage them over the related question, Does a gift require a giver? After all, gratitude for the gift of life and gratitude to God for the gift of life sound like related rather than antithetical positions. Perhaps this is why the Pope is busy encouraging debate between believers and atheists (though not the new atheists). He certainly seems to see that the real enemy is materialism, and his words to French youth earlier this year suggest a collaborative approach. God knows (no pun intended) that the meaning of life probably haunts the thoughtful secularist at least as much as the believer. By the same token, those who worship the markets are as likely to be found in Church as not. Ignatius of Loyola would surely tell us that if we can find God in all things, then we can surely find God in secularist joy.

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University. His book The Wounded Angel: Fiction and the Religious Imagination (Liturgical Press, 2017) won the College Theology Society award for the best theology book of 2017. In June 2018 he begins a one-year appointment as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

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