Belief in a Secular Age

Ken 15 Jul , 2017 0 comments World Culture, Doubt

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.

Foolishness and Doubt

Doubt lays in wait, like a well oiled trap, ready to spring and catch us. When we get caught the response can be to fall back on faith and experience, and yet, in times of doubt, this may not be enough. At these times, we realise what the apostle Paul meant when he said that the Gospel was ‘foolish to the Greeks’.

Faith can be hard to define and often just as difficult to find when you need it. Sometimes all you can do is take a leap and choose to believe. We choose to place ourselves within the Christian story and experience it from the inside, waiting for the experience to confirm our decisive act. It is the experience, however, that remains key. It must follow, or we should seriously question the choice we have made. At times of doubt it is important that we remember that experience – the dramatic events, but also the accumulation of countless small events. The trouble is, that when hit by doubt, even the most dramatic experiences become open to question. You saw someone raised from the dead? Maybe they just feinted. You saw a cripple walk? Maybe it was a trick. Experience is an anchor, but on its own it is not enough.

I have tried to think of a better response to doubt, but I cannot escape the fact that our Gospel was once described as foolishness to the Greeks. Since the Enlightenment we have lived in a world dominated by Greek thought, a world of the material and the rational. We may have become cynical of the Enlightenment’s utopian promises, yet we still remain its children. When we try to pretend the Gospel is no longer foolishness, then, just maybe, we have lost sight of what the Gospel really is.

Yet, if we reject the Gospel, do we really enter a less foolish narrative? Our more secular narrative caries its own folly. It is adamant that what is reality is defined by what can be observed, measured and deduced. But where does this confidence come from? If it cannot be observed, then all we can really deduce is that it is unobservable, not that it does not exist. This point has been argued ever since Plato but is easily seen in the film The Matrix. The matrix was an illusion, but you could not tell from the inside. You just don’t know what you don’t know. Yet, when cracks show, we should at least get a little suspicious. When we speculate of matter we cannot see, that even the densest of matter is mainly empty space, and that things on the quantum scale are seemingly random and bizarre, we should at least begin to challenge our basic assumptions. The truth is, the world is not what we thought it was, and we do not have the certainties of previous generations. The secular narrative of our own culture has its own foolishness too.

So, the Gospel may be foolishness, but so, in its own way, is our modern culture. Indeed, the assumptions of modernity are already giving way to a greater openness to the unseen. It seems as though there are doubts all around now. So, in the end, I have no answers. Which is perhaps why we are encouraged to rely on the power that is in the Gospel to break through. A power that is beyond our understanding and maybe that is just as it should be.