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Cultural clashes and impoverished secularism


Students wearing mock masks of Pope Benedict XVI protest at La Sapienza University in Rome, Jan. 15, 2008, where students and professors mobilized against Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

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ROME (Zenit) -- The intolerance of radical secularism was well illustrated in the protests that led Pope Benedict XVI to cancel his planned visit and speech at Rome’s La Sapienza University. Objections to the pope’s presence ranged from his alleged hostility to science and Galileo to more specifically anti-religious arguments challenging the presence of the head of the Catholic Church in a secular university.

The incident is only the latest in a trend toward what some term “Christianophobia.” Each year in December there is a replay of the banning of nativity scenes and Christian carols in public places and schools. In Europe, past years have seen numerous attempts to remove long-standing crucifixes from classrooms and public buildings.

In Britain an employment tribunal just upheld the 2006 decision by British Airways to prohibit Nadia Eweida from wearing a small cross on a necklace to work, the UK newspaper the Independent reported Jan. 9.

A reflection on the issues involved in the conflict between religion and secular culture by Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick came in the latest issue of the magazine “Cultures and Faith,” (Vol. XV, No. 4). The magazine is published by the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Starting off his commentary, originally a speech given by Bishop Murray at a conference last November, he noted: “Many voices tell us that religion has no place in the variety, complexity and sophistication of modern life.”

In fact, he continued, many areas in today’s world have become what he termed “religion-free zones.” Moreover, when faith does intervene in public life, it is often in the form of controversies, scandals and personalities, thus portraying religion as something conflictive.

Ignoring religion

Behind this trend Bishop Murray identified two underlying assumptions. First, that religion has no place in public discourse and that religion may be ignored. Second, that if a person’s views on social issues are inspired by a religious tradition, then they can have no place in a rational discussion.

Therefore, what is really going on, he explained, is not a conflict between religion and the secular, but is rather a conflict between those who think God is irrelevant and those who believe such a proposition contradicts both faith and a properly understood secular reality. It is those who seek to impose an ideology of secularism that are causing the strife, the Irish prelate accused.

Society does not need to embrace a particular religious faith, Bishop Murray clarified, but it does need to understand that life has a religious dimension. Society will only benefit if its citizens reflect on life’s profound questions concerning our destiny and the meaning of existence. The question -- “What is a human being?” -- cannot be adequately answered by a mere list of chemical ingredients, he asserted.

Unfortunately, the advance of science, while it has brought many benefits, has tempted us to think that only what can be scientifically proven is true, Bishop Murray added. This is a very reductive view of human life and religion has an important role to play in helping us to discover the meaning of life.

Other commentators have also pointed out the tendency to deny a role for religion in contemporary debates. Writing June 8 in the Scotsman newspaper, John Haldane, professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, referred to objections made when the Church teaches that abortion is morally wrong.

Finding the truth

There is a pervasive influence of relativism, he explained, according to which there is no such thing as an objective moral truth. This trend from objective truth to subjective conviction has impoverished public discourse according to Haldane.

“The very idea that one’s happiness might depend upon answering fundamental existential questions, and that there are comprehensive philosophical and theological systems addressed to resolving these seems to have been lost sight of, or perhaps rejected,” added Haldane.

Regarding the conflict between religion and science raised by some of those protesting the proposed visit by the pope to La Sapienza University, a recently published book sheds light on this topic. In “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?” (Lion), John Lennox, reader in mathematics at Oxford University, argues that science does not go hand in hand with atheism.

Galileo, Newton and most of the other great scientific figures of the past did not find belief in a Creator God to be inhibiting, Lennox pointed out. The idea that faith is completely irrational is also false. “Indeed, faith is a response to evidence, not a rejoicing in the absence of evidence,” he commented.

Therefore, Lennox warned against seeing the relationship between science and religion solely in terms of conflict. He also observed that it is a mistake to conceive of science of being philosophically or theologically neutral.

Science, Lennox continued, should not be regarded as being the only way to discover the truth, nor as being capable of explaining everything. For example, explaining why the universe exists, and why the laws of physics have the structure they do is beyond science.

Dictatorship of Relativism

Benedict XVI has long been aware of the religious intolerance present in contemporary culture. “Today, having a clear faith based on the creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism,” he observed when just prior to his election he gave the homily at the Mass for the election of the Roman pontiff, celebrated April 18, 2005.

Relativism, he continued, is put forward as the only attitude in tune with the requirements of modern times. The danger of this: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

The Church offers something different, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained. It offers the Son of God, and an adult faith that does not follow the latest trends, but is rooted in friendship with Christ.

“It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth,” he said.

Benedict XVI referred to the importance of distinguishing the truth in the text of what would have been his speech at La Sapienza University. The authority that governs a university, the pope insisted, should be that of the truth.

In speaking of the truth, the pontiff commented that some may object that his judgments are drawn from faith, and therefore have no rational validity. Referring to an argument put forward by the philosopher John Rawls, the pope maintained that the Church presents a body of ideas and principles developed over centuries, which is part of the patrimony of human wisdom.

The accumulated body of knowledge in the great religious traditions should not be thrown into the rubbish bin by a reason that seeks to self-construct itself without any reference to history, Benedict XVI recommended.

A large part of the pope’s text was dedicated to reflecting on the nature of a university. At the end of his discourse he warned against the danger that European culture will become excessively concerned to preserve a pure form of secularism and thus rigidly exclude Christianity.

This will not, the pontiff adverted, make reason purer, but will only lead to its destruction. The Church does not impose the faith, instead it offers the light of Christ to help reason discover the truth, he concluded. A light that some wish to extinguish.

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