Secularism: Short-term happiness, long-term despair

The secular project is essentially materialist. This is not often articulated in principle by its proponents, as the case is made that part of the rationale behind the secular framework is to allow different spiritualities and religions to peacefully coexist; but in reality the only kind of ‘spirituality’ that can exist in this context is one that is either extremely interior and egocentric, or one that has become to some degree secularised itself (e.g.; various Westernised forms of Buddhism and liberal Protestantism respectively). A full-blooded, living religion that is faithful to its central tenets and believes in the objectivity of its claims will almost inevitably disagree with the idea (which underpins the secularist principle of mutual religious tolerance) that all religions are basically the same and their ‘truths’ should have no bearing on the way society lives and behaves, especially not when it comes to public policy.

When it comes down to it though, this is all because secularists have an a priori belief that any religious claims to objective truth are vacuous, and only ‘tolerate’ spiritualities such as I cited above because they don’t raise their voice in the public sphere. The reason religious truth claims are scorned and marginalised is because secularism is rooted in a fundamentally materialist worldview, which sees all our hopes and fears, successes and failures, to be limited to this world and this life. Progress is seen in terms of extending and sanitising our mundane existences, and any suggestion that there may be a spiritual dimension and/or a goal beyond this life is rejected out of hand. I have discussed this assumption, along with what I consider to be the other defining mandates of the secular project in an earlier post here.

The problem with this way of seeing the world is that, although it offers plentiful opportunities to sate one’s appetite for worldly pleasures (whether that be food, drink, sex, money, or any number of other things) the effects of this gratification are almost always short term. We eat our favourite food, and thoroughly enjoy it, but not long afterwards the feeling of pleasure has passed, and soon we need the experience again. The same effect can be observed in the gratification of any worldly desire, and with each act of satiation, we find a diminishing of that pleasure – this is particularly the case when one is addicted.

It is also very true that most of us are not addicted, and do not gorge ourselves on the things that the world has to offer; but if we are honest, there is always something we need to make us happy, and we need it repeatedly because its effect is only ever short term – something that, if it were taken away from us, would leave us feeling slightly purposeless and perhaps a little empty. This ‘thing’ that we need could even be our career, or a healthy pastime such as playing sports. The point is, all these things are still worldly and therefore transient – they will not provide a lasting happiness.  ‘So what?’ – some might say – ‘I’m quite happy with the way I live my life’; ‘I don’t need to have a drink every evening’, ‘my career doesn’t define me’, etc. The tragedy is that it is only when these things are taken away that it is possible to realise just how much these habits, desires, addictions, etc are actually the real foundations for our happiness, and covering up the desire for a deeper connection to the world in which we find ourselves – a world in which (in Western society at least) more and more people are finding themselves walking under a cloud of existential angst and despair.

Saint Augustine famously said: ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’ and this encapsulates a desire that I believe to be basic to the human condition. However, I also recognise that many people do not ‘feel the lack’ and are quite happy without God in their lives – they do not feel a need for imbuing their existences with any higher purpose and are quite satisfied with the pleasures the world offers on a day to day basis. This is, as I said, the intended goal of the secular project – to get people to forget any sense of the transcendent, and focus only on what is under their feet and right in front of them. However, this project relies heavily on a tactic of distraction, of presenting innumerable ways in which people can satisfy their desires and not worry too much about the ‘big questions’ – these distractions can range from serious hazards to physical and moral health (alcohol, fast food, pornography) to the more benign but no less ubiquitous (television and the internet). When people are busy feeding all of their senses all of the time, it is very hard for people to get the chance to sit and reflect on whether there is even any point to life. As Kierkegaard said:

If I were a physician, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence.

And this was written before the advent of television, let alone the internet. There is now so much noise, so much information swimming before our eyes, so many distractions, that it is no wonder many people in our culture do not think about God. However, I would contend that the inbuilt desire for transcendence and some sort of communion with the divine is still a powerful force at work in us. Only, thanks to the secularisation of the Western world, it is suppressed and thereby leads to despair. This despair can be felt as a yawning void within, a terrible sense of the purposelessness of a life lived in a world seen as random, impersonal and without God – this kind of despair can at least lead to conversion, to the realisation that a choice must be made between the divine and the void. Just as often though, this despair exists only as a nagging feeling of discontent, a feeling that something isn’t quite right, but if I listen to my favourite band for a while, or have a couple of drinks, it will go away…for now. This suppression of the thirst for God by material distractions is, in my opinion, why so many people are in therapy nowadays. However, the vast majority of therapists will suggest solutions based on some form of self-actualisation, so that the patient is still urged to see their way to happiness in terms of the self and its desires. It is an uncomfortable truth that only something that leads away from the self will suffice, and only something eternal will satisfy.

Thus secularism creates this sense of despair by presenting a world-view cut off from the transcendent and based on short-term happiness, and simultaneously provides the means to pacify and cover up the resulting sense of discontent by providing even more means of distraction and self-gratification. Even those of us who believe in a transcendent reality, who have rejected this worldview and allowed our desire for God to take its natural course, face it daily – our culture is soaked in it, and it fills the air we breathe. I would compare our situation to working in an overheated, highly polluted city, where you come home and find that your body is sweaty and dirty, and the edges of your clothes are ingrained with soot. Thus it is imperative that we make daily use of the means of grace in order to counter this atmosphere. Regular communion, prayer and study of Scripture, are like hot showers to wash away the grime that gathers about us in daily life – the assumptions of secularism are both commonplace and insidious, and regular refreshment via these methods is necessary. It is no good just having one deep bath and leaving it at that.

The only other option, if we are to look reality squarely in the face is, as David Bentley Hart has forcefully argued in his article Christ and Nothing, nihilism. There is a fascination now with New-Age spiritualities – often a mixture of diluted, distorted versions of Eastern philosophies and old pagan imagery – which I find it very difficult to imagine even their adherents take wholly seriously. The fundamental motivation behind all these trends seems to be the consolation of having some sort of ‘spirituality’ without giving up the radical autonomy and egocentricity characteristic of our age. Hart discusses all I have been saying here with his usual eloquence and insight, so I shall allow him to sum up my position (I also strongly recommend reading the article in full):

The gospel of a God found in broken flesh, humility, and measureless charity has defeated all the old lies, rendered the ancient order visibly insufficient and even slightly absurd, and instilled in us a longing for transcendent love so deep that — if once yielded to — it will never grant us rest anywhere but in Christ. And there is a real sadness in this, because the consequences of so great a joy rejected are a sorrow, bewilderment, and anxiety for which there is no precedent. If the nonsensical religious fascinations of today are not, in any classical or Christian sense, genuine pieties, they are nevertheless genuine — if deluded — expressions of grief, encomia for a forsaken and half-forgotten home, the prisoner’s lament over a lost freedom…To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture — all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.

In essence, we cannot go back; we cannot return to the pagan gods of antiquity, even if that were what anyone really desired, as Christ’s coming evacuated the ancient world of gods and goddesses, rendering them impotent and irrelevant. Therefore, in a post-Christian culture, we face Christ or Nothing, the triune God of eternal love, or the void. The Church is still here, offering the cures for all the ills of the modern age – silence, prayer, sacrament, worship and charity – but the world will not stop and listen. It is our task, I suppose, to try and sound its voice as clearly as possible, both in our speech and in our lives, in the hope that the light of Christ will cut through the darkness and fog that has woven about the minds of mankind.

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