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Secular society is like a plant without roots

Because we know less and less of the past, we know less and less of ourselves, and who we are

By on Friday, 23 September 2011

Tristram Hunt, MP and historian, says identity rests partly on tradition (Photo: PA)

Tristram Hunt, MP and historian, says identity rests partly on tradition (Photo: PA)

Two rather good articles struck a chord with me in the past week. The first was from the ever excellent Scottish (and Catholic) commentator Kevin McKenna, over at the Guardian, entitled “Why I am proud to be a Christian and a socialist”.

This is what he has to say about his family’s synthesis of faith and life:

The Christian narrative gave them a sense of their place in time and history and told them that they were so much more than mere flesh and blood and that there was much more to their existence than all that which they could merely touch, see and hear. This told them that tyrants, despots and juntas would never enslave them or possess them. Socialism gave them an opportunity to carry the teachings of their saviour into the secular marketplace where charity, compassion, equality and the dignity of work similarly underpinned the trade union movement and the Labour party.

The Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and the universal declaration of human rights were all linked seamlessly and, in this way, they could construct bridges that allowed them to cross from the spiritual to the temporal and back again. Thou shalt not kill; blessed are the peacemakers; all human beings are born free in dignity and rights.

I love his use of the word “narrative”. For me, this hits the nail on the head. Christianity, and in particular Catholicism, gives us the unifying thread to our lives. It tells us why we are doing what we are doing. It provides an anchoring motivation for all our talk about justice and fairness, for example. I have written a book about narrative, parts of which can be read online for free, which is a study of the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre among others. McKenna is thinking in MacIntyrean mode, and so should we all. We need to consider the narratives that sustain our actions. I have the feeling that many of us are running on empty – in other words we act, but our actions are atomic and freestanding rather than rooted in history and community. McKenna also makes the excellent point, by the by, that the socialist movement in these islands is, or was, firmly rooted in Christianity. Now it has abandoned those roots. What happens to plants without roots?

A similar train of thought is evoked by Tristram Hunt, the historian and MP, who has written an article on “The Importance of Studying the Past”, pithily summed up (with a link to the original) by Paul Lay here.

Hunt and Lay are acutely aware of the concept of identity resting on community ties, ties that are shared not just with contemporaries, but across time; in other words tradition – another key concept in the work of MacIntyre, as it turns out. Because we know less and less of the past, we know less and less of ourselves, and who we are. Our identity as individuals and as a nation is becoming blurred, with, I think, disastrous consequences.

Once Britain was a Christian nation, and no one seriously disputed this; this meant that British people had a clear sense of themselves and their place in the world, rather like Americans still do. The Left may well not warm to someone like General Gordon, that archetypal Victorian; but we can legitimately ask, now that we have become secular, what is the foundation of our identity? Now that we have abandoned our Christian roots, what sustains us? It is not enough to say that it is secularism itself – secularism, I would humbly submit, needs to be underpinned by some other broader philosophy. Marxism, whatever its faults, and they were many, gave secularism a raison d’etre. What are the rites of secularism, what are its narratives, where are its ceremonies? Can human beings really live without these?

I am not saying we should have religion because it is socially useful; I believe in religion because it is true; but without religion, where is the tie that will bind us all as one?

  • Bob Hayes

    As Fr Alexander rightly notes in his article, secularist thinking is like a tree without roots. Such a tree is unable to produce fruits: the fruits that are essential to nourish and sustain a human present and future. In a book review some decades ago the historian E.P. Thompson commented to the effect that an argument constructed entirely of negations produces not a case, but rather creates a hole. Secularist thinking based upon a series of negations is a barren void of emptiness that is somehow claimed to be the product of ‘reason’. It should be emphatically rejected as a delusion. Our present and future can best be directed by faith in God and the teachings of Christ.

  • Parasum

    People can be induced to believe absolutely anything – truth & so-called objectivity are the least important feature of it all. If belief in Vulcans, Enid Blyton, Coronation Street or the eternity of “Big Brother”, can serve instead of more conventional beliefs in a theistic or Christian narrative, then these are their gods, and God is not. It’s not difficult to find Corrie a guide for living.   

    Christian Faith has become just another stagnant & unproductive philosophy; it’s not a life-changing encounter with a Living Christ, but a lot of blather about someone who is, for all practical purposes, as  stone-cold as Julius Caesar. It is in the third person – about “him”. And theology cannot survive if it is conducted solely in the third person. So how can anything  so lifeless bear good fruit today ? Apologetics has killed it; so has changing it from being a body of Hebraic stories, to being a body of Greek-minded propositions.

  • Maryp

    We just need to look at the way our society/economy is imploding to know that secular society is indeed like a plant without roots. 

  • Anonymous

    First, a botany lesson. Trees cannot live and grow without roots, let alone produce
    fruit. Secularist thinking, however, is very much alive and in the ascendant
    across the western world, has been for some time now, and is not going to
    wither under such attacks as yours, because its roots are firmly planted in
    rationalism. Its fruit is the kind of secular society in which I live: in which
    people are not persecuted for heresy; in which scientists are free to explore
    the universe without fear of prosecution if their findings contradict ancient
    myths; in which I can choose not to submit to absurd superstitious rituals and
    pointless prohibitions, in which my sex life is legal and nobody else’s
    business, in which schoolchildren are encouraged in the productive habit of
    questioning supposed “certainties”, and so on. This kind of fruit is
    clearly not to everyone’s taste, but I find it nourishing.

    You are right, however, to claim that secularist thinking created a hole. I created a
    similar hole in my garden this summer when I dug out a rotting old tree stump,
    but the hole was not there for long. I planted a buddleia in it, and it’s doing

  • Bob Hayes

    Badjumbly, your view that secularist thinking is rooted in rationalism, which in turn creates the secular society in which we live is most telling: you have a belief system. It is your belief system based not upon reason, nor science: its pillars are in fact voids – merely the rejection of what you do not wish to believe. 

    This is tellingly evidenced by the statement, ‘my sex life is legal and nobody else’s business’. Are you really saying that one’s sex life is ‘nobody else’s business’ only if it is ‘legal’  - i.e. it enjoys State approval? Surely that cannot be your view, as you seek to encourage, ‘questioning supposed “certainties”‘. So here we have a contradiction in your belief system. The stamp of State-approved legality is on the one hand justification for privacy in one’s sex life; but on the other hand its ‘supposed certainties’ should be questioned. On the one hand you demand the State’s legal code offers protection, on the other you demand anyone’s right to question that code. There is no rationality in such a position – just relativism. 

    You are entitled to your beliefs, but please do not try to dress them up in some alleged ‘rationalism’. Just as I have faith, you have your belief system. It happens that my faith is Christianity: your faith is in a belief system based on what you – as an individual – find agreeable. No science – just personal taste.

  • Bullen

    I happen to agree with Father Alexander. Also Bob Hayes reply to badjumbly’s comments.  To badjumbly, I would say that I will pray for you. Jesus teaches us to love everyone, regardless of their different beliefs and any wrongs they may have done. There is good and bad in all mankind. Christ’s love is  ‘unconditional.’
     In Parasum’s comments he describes Jesus Christ as cold as Julius Caesar. Again this is not so. Christ is  warm and loving and just waiting to be invited into our lives. He will not force himself… has to be an invitation and, once you have found him your life will be changed for the better.

    Let me refer you to ….. on the ‘English flag’ and listen to the testament of Marino Restripo, who I heard in person recently at the Catholic Bible School. Marino was born in the Andes, lost his Catholic faith, led ‘the good life’ but later went on to be captured by Columbian rebels in the jungle. He was flung into a dark cave with bats, insects etc., then refound his faith after a mystical experience. It also speaks of heaven and hell. It would be good to hear your comments after reading his testament.

  • Anonymous

    Just in case you are equating secularism with atheism, I would like to clarify that I define “secularism” broadly as the belief that the state should not endorse or favour any particular religion nor impose upon the populace any obligations or prohibitions purely because they feature in particular religions. This seems to me an entirely rational principle, since it helps to curb inter-religious strife and prevents religion from becoming tyrannical, at least in society as a whole. I cannot claim, of course, that upholding the secularist principle guarantees freedom from ALL forms of tyranny, or ALL forms of irrationality, but it at least means that we are free from those tyrannies and irrationalities that in the past have been imposed by religion. If you think this secularist way of thinking is not rooted in rationalism, then we must have different definitions of either “secularist thinking” or “rationalism”.  

    When I wrote that “my sex life is legal and nobody else’s business”, I was certainly not implying that it is nobody else’s business only if it’s legal, and if you inferred that I was, you did not draw that inference logically from my words. It is simply a double statement: (a) my sex life is legal, and (b) it’s nobody else’s business. No causal relation was intended between the two parts of the statement, but I coupled them because, as a homosexual, I owe both these blessings to living in a secular society and because they tend in practice to go together. I believe that I should have the right to privacy in my sex life, not because it is legal but because I am harming no-one. I believe this right to privacy should also be enjoyed by homosexuals in Iran and other countries where homosexual intercourse is illegal, as long as they are harming no-one. It is not the legality that justifies the right, but it is difficult to obtain the right in practice if you don’t have the legality.

    There is no contradiction in my belief system between approving the encouragement of sceptical questioning habits and approving the legal protection of my private sex life. Yes, I do want the state’s legal code to offer me protection, and, yes, I do want everyone to have the right to question that code. These two wants are not incompatible. I believe strongly in many things and I believe just as strongly in the right of others to question my beliefs. In fact, some of my beliefs are strong precisely BECAUSE I have submitted them to my own sceptical questioning and found that they stood up. There is no law against questioning the law in Britain because our lawmakers rightly believe that most of our laws are rational ones and will easily survive questioning. I believe that most of the population of Britain are sufficiently rational to support the laws that protect me and therefore I have nothing to fear from those who question, for example, whether homosexual intercourse should be legal. I think it’s a pointless question, but I don’t want to see people prosecuted for asking it.

    You are correct to write that my belief system is based on what I find agreeable. I generally find rationality agreeable.

  • Bob Hayes

    ‘Rationalism’ as a philosophical concept declares that reason should underpin our quest for knowledge. This in turn raises questions about what amounts to ‘reason’. The promoters of reason in the philosophical sphere declare that it is rooted in scientific evidence: although there are differing views as to whether the scientific evidence must be beyond all reasonable doubt or irrefutably beyond any doubt. (Scientific research often tolerating a small +/- margin of error in data sets.) This may seem very plausible as a way of challenging religious belief, but it does not establish any sort of foundation for reason – other than a belief in science as the sole source of knowledge.

    The history of science is awash with superseded ‘certainties’. In Britain, during the first half of the twentieth century, medical science busied itself with the widely perceived social problem of the ‘feeble-minded’ (mild learning disability) and ‘moral defectives’ (mild learning disability in unmarried mothers). In the absence of satisfactory medical interventions, science (‘rational’ – lest we forget) advocated ‘supervision and control’ – i.e. permanent detention in certified institutions for mental defectives. By the late 1920s science was exploring the idea of compulsory sterilisation. The principal opponent of this tyranny was the Catholic Church. In the USA – complete with its Bill of Rights – tens of thousands were forcibly sterilised – a political decision made so much easier by the ‘rational evidence’ of science. 

    More recently the same medical science in Britain busied itself using pharmaceutical and hormone interventions in an attempt to ‘cure’ homosexuals who had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1959. These hideous crimes against the person continued well after the Wolfenden Report was published and indeed beyond the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. I have used the term ‘crimes against the person’, but in our rational, secularising society injecting a homosexual man with female hormones was not a crime – it was a ‘treatment’, validated by science.

    By relying solely upon science as the source of reason, humanity potentially throws itself into the arms of the tyranny you and I both wish to avoid. 

  • Anonymous

    I likewise reject the idea that science is the sole source of reason, and have not argued that it is. Nor have I argued that rationality should be the sole source of social policy. In my previous posting I wrote this: “I cannot claim, of course, that upholding the secularist principle guarantees freedom from ALL forms of tyranny”. The atrocities you mention are examples of non-religious tyranny, but it does not follow that my secularist arguments support them any more than they support common murder. Rejecting religion does not mean that you have to worship science as a substitute, although I respect science for what it can do when guided by reason.

    You are correct to write that “the history of science is awash with superseded ‘certainties’”. That’s how science progresses: by supersedence. Religion, by contrast, stagnates through lack of supersedence. Supersedence requires a sceptical attitude towards the past, and religion does not promote that.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting… but Christianity is a meld of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Jewish religion.

    Christian philosophy is alive and well, sir. I’m not sure how much training you have in philosophy, but I doubt René Girard’s “I see Satan Fall Like Lightning” would be anything other than a riveting read. It had me under its spell for weeks. Prof. Girard comes from an anthropological background; if you prefer something more cerebral, the Descartes scholar and phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion may be more to your taste. If you are more given to physics and maths, check out Stephen M. Barr or Robert Spitzer. Cheers.

  • Jonathan West

    People have been talking of society going to the dogs for several thousand years. It seems that the society you are want to build is somewhat deficient in precisely the knowledge of history to which Tristram Hunt refers…

  • Anonymous

    You really like metaphors don’t you? But be honest please – you came here because you fancied a good argument? No? Well everyone likes a good one…

    I don’t think coming to a Catholic website, and then telling us in effect that the world would be a better place without the Church is very constructive. Wide-ranging questions such as what you are asking really do not progress any argument – pin down any specific complaints you have with the Church and then we can discus them much more effectively. (I suggest) :)

  • Bob Hayes

    Badjumbly’s opening post is probably indicative of what is at the root of his argument with the Church: her upholding of Christian teaching about sex and intimate relations. He notes, ‘my sex life is legal and nobody else’s business’. However, rather than engage his arguments with that specific claim, he attempts to harness ‘reason’ in support of what is in essence a relativist – and therefore amoral – viewpoint.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I do like metaphors: a taste I probably share with Bob Hayes, whose tree simile I took up, and with Father Lucie-Smith, who introduced the botanical imagery in his headline. I also like a good argument: a taste I probably share with many contributors to these columns. And I like “Monty Python” very much, so thanks for the link.

    Actually, I didn’t intend to suggest on this page that the world would be a better place without the Catholic Church. My uprooted tree-stump metaphor was meant to stand not for the Church itself, which is clearly very much with us, but for the former public power wielded by churches in general, which in Britain at least is largely eradicated. I’m not at all against the existence of churches per se and can appreciate what they achieve as charitable organisations, but when people claim that society is lost without their influence and seek to reinstate that influence, I feel duty-bound to stand up and disagree. The rise of secularism, for which I can feel only enormous gratitude towards its past champions, was not achieved by secularists remaining silent while priests took full advantage of their pulpits. Church people who criticise aspects of the society beyond their churches must be prepared to face counter-arguments. 

    I simply have no idea what you mean by this: “Wide-ranging questions such as what you are asking really do not progress any argument”. On this page I have so far not asked any questions at all.

    Bob Hayes is correct to surmise that my chief complaint against the Catholic Church is its teaching on sexual matters and in particular on homosexuality. I thought that by using my own sex life as an example of what secularism has done for me, I was being specific enough.