Belief in a Secular Age

We have been conditioned to disbelieve. Every facet of society is geared around a powerful assumption: reality is based on what we observe and what we deduce from it. It is an assumption that has proven spectacularly successful, opening our world to the wonders of science and technology. It underpins our modern world and the basis on how we teach our children. Only it is wrong. It is a reductionist myth.

This brings me to Schrodinger’s cat. It is a famous thought experiment that Schrodinger used to illustrate an important idea behind Quantum mechanics. In the experiment a cat is placed in a sealed box and in that box there is a lethal gas that can be released to kill the cat. The gas is released by the radioactive decay of a particle, and the experiment is arranged so that there is a 50% chance of the particle decaying, and thus a 50% chance of the gas being released and the cat being dead when the box is opened. I doubt if the RSPCA would have approved, but it is at least easy to grasp the basic idea. Now, here is the mind bending bit: Just before the box is opened, is the cat dead or alive? Well, most people would say that it depends on whether the particle had decayed or not. However, the answer, according to quantum mechanics, is in fact neither. Until the box is opened, and the outcome observed, the particle is neither decayed nor not decayed, but exists in an indeterminate state. Even Einstein thought this was nonsense. Unfortunately, Quantum mechanics has proved remarkably accurate in all of its other predictions, and devices, such as iPhones would not be possible if Quantum mechanics could not be trusted. So, we have a dilemma: Either the cat is in an indeterminate state (and neither dead nor alive) or my iPhone does not exist. Apparently, I can’t have both. There is something very strange in our world that defies our sense of reality.

Charles Taylor, an influential Canadian philosopher, studied what made society secular. In earlier times a world without a sense of the transcendent was unimaginable. That is not to say that everyone believed in God, just that those who did not kept quite about it, lest they appear odd, or were seen as dangerous. This position has shifted over the last few hundred years to a point where, today, the idea of a world without the transcendent is not only imaginable, but often the default position. Even for those who believe, this belief is seen as an option. It is this shift that defines secularism. Under this definition, America is just as secular as the UK, even if more people go to church. Once secularism gets into us, there is no way back.

We live in strange times, where cracks are appearing in the fundamental assumption on which our modern world is based. Its truth still feels obvious, but we are learning to question it, learning to see it as a modern myth, alongside many others. The problem is it reduced our view of the world too much. Charles Taylor opens the vista for us again, by allowing us to understand what has gone on and what has brought us to this place. Yet, there is no return to a former innocence that allows us to believe innocently. We have crossed a Rubicon and we cannot go back. All that is left is the forward journey, following the path the Spirit has prepared.

Of Good and Evil

William Golding, in his book ‘Darkness Visible’, has had a profound influence on my understanding of good and evil. To be fair, it contains much to make you blanch, but it also captures something profound. The story is based around two characters: the beautiful and intelligent Sophie and the disfigured and simple Matty. Sophie, for all her charm, views the world through herself; Matty, by contrast, uses a beaten up old Bible that he doesn’t really understand. The story then unfolds.

Nietzsche had his own view of the problem. In the nineteenth century people increasingly doubted the existence of God, but as this belief was thought to keep people compliant they continued to promote it to stabilise society. God was doubted, but in private. For Nietzsche, this was nonsense. If there is no God, then we needed to re-think our world from the ground up, a world without good or evil, where our moral standards are nothing more than a meaningless fiction created by priests. All that is left is the relentless will of nature towards power. We have not all had the ruthless honesty of Nietzsche. We looked into the abyss and we stepped back. Instead we come up with our own ideas of good, be it the ‘utility’ of economics, the ‘pursuit of happiness’, or, indeed, any of a legion of other standards. But, as Nietzsche points out, once God is dead, there is no basis for any.

Back to William Golding. Everyone loves Sophie, but she is indifferent to the people she hurts along the way. It is perhaps this contradiction between her outward charm and her inner indifference that makes her character so dark and sinister.

Now, I used to puzzle over why God would object to man knowing about good and evil. But, what William Golding has helped me realise is that God’s intention was that we should understand goodness in relation to him. Our rebellion was not so much our disobedience to an arbitrary command, but our wanting to decide for ourselves right from wrong. It turns out that the serpent did not lie. In eating from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil we did become like God, we put ourselves in his place. Yet it is God who is the source of goodness and we detach ourselves from him at our peril. We become like Sophie and all manner of evil follows and, as Nietzsche understood, once God is removed good and evil disappear entirely.

We live in a world that is no longer sure about right and wrong, good and evil. It clings to a past with its certainties, but, like a tree that has died from within that look sound, sooner or later it must fall. We may be able to prop it up a little longer, but it has died and may be better let to fall. We cannot give the world back its stability through outward forms, its centre is dead. It will decide for itself what is good and evil. For a while it may remember the values it once had, but that memory will fade and it will increasingly call evil good and good evil. Maybe then the light will be easier to see. Even so, it will be a dark day. Yet our hope is not in propping up a world that has died at its centre, but in a kingdom that confronts it, a kingdom rooted in the other tree.

Another light

Darkness brings fear, so we seek light, but not always the same light. At the beginning of our civilisation, in 399BC, Socrates was condemned to death. He carried a torch, the torch of reason, using it to examine everything, but some things are best left unexamined. You could not expect to examine your gods and get away with it, so he paid a price. But the light he lit was not put out. His disciple, Plato, picked up the torch, as did Aristotle after him. With each step the light increased, gaining in richness and complexity. It was not the only torch that had been lit. The Athenians also lit a torch, this time for democracy, a light to prevent tyranny. Within the Greek corner of the globe light burned strong.

Meanwhile, another Greek was worrying about establishing his kingdom. Then, just as he achieves his goal, he dies, leaving his son with a vast army. Not knowing what else to do with them, Alexander decides to conquer the world. Something he proves remarkably good at, bringing with him the light of the Greeks. Alexander died young, leaving a vast empire ready for the might of Rome to take over and so, the Romans ended up consolidating an Empire around their might and the wisdom of the Greeks.

Now, in a world with many gods there is always room for one more. Consequently, the Romans were more than a bit puzzled by the attitude of the Christians, so, they tried forceful persuasion, but the Christian community just grew. Then in 312 AD Constantine unexpectedly won a major battle at Milvian Bridge, which he credited to the Christian God. So, he stopped oppressing the Christians and changed sides. To be sure, his was an odd conversion, but it led to a massive patronage of the Christian Church. By the end of the fifth century, what was left of the Empire was Christianised – by force where necessary. It may not have been a Christianity that the early church would have recognised, but paganism was dismissed, and for the next thousand years the light of the Greeks was all but forgot.

This all changed in the fourteenth century when the Black Death killed nearly half the world’s population. In Europe it had the curious effect of concentrating wealth into fewer hands, fewer hands that now had money to spend on art, new buildings and literature – reviving an interest in the learning of the Greeks. Ironically, it was the Church that preserved that literature, not always carefully, in its vaults. And it was from these vaults that the world began to rescue that light from obscurity and neglect. Whereas, to be civilised, it was once enough to be able to sign your name and balance your accounts, now it was essential to know Plato and Cicero, and with it people’s attitudes changed. Man’s reason had become the measure of all things and a new humanism emerged with a Christian veneer. And thanks to the printing press, these ideas were now made permanent.

In the sixteenth century men like Newton showed what was possible with this new learning, encouraging others to apply the Greek light to all areas of life. By the seventeenth and eighteenth century it had become the bedrock of the Enlightenment. With the truths of the church increasingly seen as part of a superstitious and ignorant past. And so, the light of the Greeks came again to Europe. Yet have we ever really asked where the light comes from?

Our Times

We live in a world very different from that of our forebears. We have learned to understand, master and then exploit nature. An exploitation that has led to prosperity for some, while others starve. At times it can seem insane and if we are to begin to understand it we need to know how we got here.

Our story begins with Bacon, Newton and Locke. William Blake’s ‘trinity of evil’. For Blake, they reduced the world to the material and the rational, depriving it of imagination. Yet, they were the inspiration for the men and women that led the Enlightenment. That period in our history when the light of reason was brought into our lives and the darkness of superstition (and religion) cast out. They were forging a Utopian future, although, in the end, it turned out more horrific than they imagined, as the ‘Reign of Terror’ followed the French Revolution and shocked the world. Enthusiasm for the Enlightenment was lost.

But the Victorians did not forget the Enlightenment. Instead, they industrialised it and created one of the greatest periods of change in our history. At the beginning of the Victorian period Britain was a rural economy, but by the end, we were a world power, an industrial powerhouse and probably the richest nation on earth. Yet, there was also an unprecedented level of poverty on our streets that spoke loudly that something was wrong. Men, like Dickens, did much to awaken us to the misery we had created and the dark side of our revolution, the exploited poor. The situation became a public scandal and eventually even the most hardened softened towards helping those in need.

Then came two world wars. Mass destruction, but now on an industrial scale, shattering our prestige and ending our wealth. Yet the war left many widowed and wounded, so we did yet more to help those who could not help themselves. Yet, without our former wealth, we financed it with debt. So, we arrive at today. In nearly all respects better off, but also deeply in debt. We certainly don’t have the same misery of poverty. Yet, we are no more free. Fuelled by the need to compete to earn money and reduce our debt, like the Israelites in Egypt we are in systems that relentlessly ask us to do more with less. Today we call it ‘Lean’, but it goes by other names. Turning us into the cogs of a vast system of our own making, with barely time to stop for breath. Efficient, yes – the cold efficiency of a machine.

Now here is my question. What was I expecting of the Anti-Christ when he, she or it comes? Will it oppose Christianity more than our secular world, a world that treats all religions as irrelevant, even if well meaning and useful as a crutch for the weak? Will it perform greater miracles, with our planes that fly, phones that enable us to see and hear each other anywhere in the world – not to mention our medical ability to heal? Will the ‘light bringer’, Lucifer, bring more light than the Enlightenment? What more am I expecting? I have no answer, but the question troubles me.

These are strange times, where Utopian hopes persist, even if we are now also wary of them. I suspect our times are not as benign as I once believed. For sure, I am not expecting mass persecution when indifference has proved so effective. Yet, just perhaps, our world is not as safe as we think – and probably never was.