Wed 20th Aug 2014 | Last updated: Wed 20th Aug 2014 at 15:26pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

Bishop Egan is right: hardline secularism simply does not work – and never will

Into the space created by secularism will flood some other not necessarily benign ideology

By on Thursday, 13 March 2014

Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth
(Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth (Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

Bishop Philip Egan has tackled the question of secularism, and you can read about what he has to say here.

His comments are welcome, and to my mind to the point. His main contention is that secularism alone, bare secularism, is not enough to provide a sound and enduring basis for society.

Everyone agrees – and it really is everyone – that a society must rest on some shared moral values. Without shared moral values, any form of social interaction becomes impossible, and any sort of shared conversation becomes very difficult. In Britain today, we may have already reached the stage where our common conversation has degenerated into a dialogue of the deaf (of the sort memorably described by Alasdair Macintyre in the first chapter of After Virtue, the single most important philosophical book of our time). People may use the same words, but they may have lost sight of the once shared meaning: as a result our national conversation becomes a cacophonous shouting match.

The question is – what is the best way of ensuring the survival of moral values? Iris Murdoch, an atheist, said, in her Metaphysics as a guide to Morals that “High morality without religion is too abstract, high morality craves for religion. Religion symbolises high moral ideals which then travel with us and are more intimately and accessibly effective than the unadorned promptings of reason.” In other words, what you need is a myth.

It is interesting to note that there are some totally secular states that make no reference to religion in their constitutions, but which nevertheless rely on a myth, usually related to their founder, in order to sustain and legitimise the state. The most obvious example of this is Turkey, a secular republic (indeed the most secular of states) which has promoted Atatürk, its founding father, to almost semi-divine status. North Korea, a place that would be comic if it were not so tragic, has gone even further, in creating a pseudo-religion around the Kim family; and America, which has a secular constitution, regards it almost with the same reverence accorded Holy Writ. I think these cults of founding fathers prove Murdoch’s assertion.

It is also worth pointing out that two of the most successful polities the world has ever seen also relied on religious foundations. The Roman Empire was given its charter by Virgil in the opening lines of the Aeneid in the lines where Jove gives the Romans imperium sine fine (boundless empire) and the mission to parcere subjectis et debellare superbos (to humble the proud and spare the vanquished). This myth was subjected to a fierce critique by Augustine in the City of God, and the myth was recast in Christian terms by the Byzantines. As such it proved to be remarkably enduring.

It is odd that an explicitly Christian constitution should arouse such hostility nowadays given the stability of Christian states, and the remarkable lack of stability shown by, for example, the numerous French republics, or the fact that other avowedly secularist states are nothing of the sort.

Secularism in the bare sense simply does not work. It never has done, and it never will. Nature abhors a vacuum: into the space created by secularism will flood some other not necessarily benign ideology. Moreover, secularism in Britain today is not working (though that is the subject of another article). Three cheers for Bishop Egan for pointing this out.