Monday, April 8, 2013

How secular is secular Europe?

How secular is secular Europe? After a week or two of asking myself that question repeatedly, and listening to other people answer related questions, I feel a lot like that line in Bob Dylan's old song. "I got a head full of ideas, they're driving me insane."  Maggie's farm seems to have my name on it, a farm of my own making maybe, and it's a shame the way I make me scrub the floor...but let's be honest, sometimes trying to separate ideas is like trying to strip away layers of wallpaper from a stairway, while sliding down the banister at arms length backwards. People learn from each other, in short, cultures learn from interactions with other cultures. I have no trouble seeing or accepting that there could have been a fusion of Christian ideas with other cultures that it interacted with along the way. Common cultural expressions or universals (or reference points to explain concepts to another culture perhaps) do not de-legitimize the basics tenets of my faith. Put simply, if Jesus still lived and suffered death by execution, and was observed days later, asking for a fine fried fish...that's all I need. With that said the following is an interesting essay, if you care to share my pain of marginalization. I say that because here's what I don't get, why does it appear to be so easy for secularists to acknowledge the contributions of pagans, of the Greeks and Romans, of other religions even (they were mostly all religious after all), and yet so hard for secularists to acknowledge the contributions of Christianity? That would be my question to Kenan Malik, after reading the following.

Yes, there were the Greeks and the Romans, they had ideas, yes they did, and some of their ideas are with us still, because they were good ideas. Yes, there were the noteworthy pagans and yes there were secularists emerging long before anyone gives them any credit for existing. And of course the east influenced the west, lest we forget that too. Have I missed anyone? This must be what it feels like to give an acceptance speech, but how secular is "secular" Europe? What do people mean when they advocate for secularism even? Quite arguably the concept of separation of church and state was itself a Christian idea, if that alone is what they're advocating for; notice it's not separation of mosque and state, or separation of Caesar and state, etc. Am I the only one who laughs when I hear secularists and theists arguing about which is better, "secular" Europe or religious USA?  A cultural expose of the US and Europe? Not the US and Pakistan? Not Europe verses Cambodia? Do they not see the larger cultural reality that both countries are historically Judeo-Christian?  I wonder sometimes if secular advocates have ever come across one of these? Note the blue and red on both sides of the North Atlantic. Yes, that is quite the contrast.

But now I should not be hasty, maybe they're talking about this.

Europe religiosity[2][3][4]



No religion





vs: Religious affiliation in the U.S. (2012)[82]
Affiliation% of U.S. population

Evangelical Protestant19
Mainline Protestant15
Black church8
Eastern Orthodox1
Other Faith6
Nothing in particular13.9
Don't know/refused answer2

75.4 percent compared to 73 percent Christian. Did I get that right? Am I missing something here? Let me check some more sources.
christian population by region 1910 and 2010


Maybe what they're getting at is this:

No religious affiliation in America has grown to 19.6%

The grand entrance of the nones, but even then, two thirds of nones say they believe in God, 20% say they pray every day, so what am I missing? Honestly, I'm still trying to figure that out, and though I've been so thoroughly confused, I was listening to Peter Berger on the weekend, well esteemed author and academic. He insists that there are indeed cultural religious differences between secular Europe and religious America. So, I'm just going to have to take his word for it, seeing how it is that my feeble mind can't seem to grasp how a society that is 76.2 percent Christian as of three years ago gets classified as secular. The one thing I have gathered though, is that Europe is the anomaly (and this is according to Berger), not the US, because most people around the world, especially historically, have been religious of one sort or another. The US doesn't present as a strange curiosity in that way, Europe does, because secularism is not at all typical. So it appears that even if you have a distinct minority of the population that is secular, it becomes noteworthy. Hmmn. Well that's something to think about.  Here's the Q and A Berger presentation for anyone who's interested.

Continuing, I'd like to ask a few questions because I always like to dig beneath the surface a bit if you'll allow me. See, I don't buy this idea that Europe is secular, because regardless of whether of not people are going to church, the benchmarks of the culture are still Judeo-Christian. As much as I acknowledged in opening that yes, there were contributions from many sources in the development of western culture, that is undoubtedly true. Christians don't have a monopoly on being human, in short. I'm sympathetic to secularists when they say that religious people take things that everyone experiences and claim them for their own little group. Of course we all share many of the same basic experiences as human beings. We fall in love, we have children, we enjoy open spaces and sunsets, we create, of course we do. I would say that's because we bear the image of a common creator. So Christians were certainly not the first to do many things, but I think we did offer something that was unique or uncommon, namely egalitarianism. The Greeks may have given us democracy, but it wasn't for everyone. In fact it was Aristotle that believed that some people were born masters and some people were born slaves. Not surprisingly half of people at that time were slaves, and one of the greatest minds in history believed that was the natural order of things.

And that's what I want to get at here, try pulling out a UN report of the most livable countries in the world and ask yourself how many of those countries have a Judeo-Christian heritage? And then ask yourself, where were those cultures before Christianity began to rebuild western civilization after the fall of Rome? We've come a long way since the dark ages baby, and it was arguably monotheism that lead to an emphasis on reason (that advanced western society) as opposed to intuition that characterized so many pagan cultures that went before. So again my question to Malik would be, if western values are so intrinsic to so many cultures, why is it that they seem to be adopting these egalitarian principles only now, while kicking and lamenting, and often only through social pressure that follows ideological exposure to the west? Why did Islam and eastern cultures fall so far behind the west, if they were our ideological predecessors? Debates about colonialism aside, why do women and minorities continue to be treated as second class citizens in so many cultures around the world? And why is it that the height of Islam, the oft cited Cordoba happened to be a western city that included minority cultures, namely Judaism and Christianity? Could it be that we weren't the only ones engaging in a cultural exchange?

The arts, sciences, technology, literature, architecture, navigation, mapmaking, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and art that flourished in Medieval Spain are often credited to Islam but this is a distortion of the role played by adherents of all three religions. The United Visigothic kingdom of Spain prior to the Muslim invasions had inherited five centuries of Roman civilization and had made use of the achievements of the Greeks and earlier Carthaginians as well as the Assyrians in agriculture, irrigation, mathematics, time keeping, the calender, mining, architecture, road building, mosaic art, pottery, jewelry, law and civic responsibility. The Muslim conquerors who arrived in 711 had inherited these same arts and sciences on their path of conquest across the Byzantine empire, the Near East and Christian-Roman North Africa. Christian and Jewish artisans and scholars made major contributions enabling the Muslim conquerors to make use of these achievements. The Schools of Translation established in Granada and Toledo by Muslim and Christian rulers respectively relied heavily on Jewish scholarship.  But I'm not seeking to get into all that here. I just wonder if the romance of Cordoba is as simple or envious as is often presented.

The thing I do wish to emphasize however, is the thing that western culture values so much on a human level, and that is the equal worth and dignity of all people. It's this emphasis on the downtrodden in Judaism and Christianity, the concern for the least of these, which is most of us in the face of oppression. The value of each human person as having intrinsic unending worth, as opposed to an emphasis on social hierarchy, that shaped the western world for the better. That's my sense of things. And so I would challenge critics such as my opening source to ask honestly, how well do unfortunates on the bottom fare in other cultures, historically or present day, who have not been influenced by Jesus to the same degree as the western world? As for all these things coming out of the Enlightenment, how can the 18th century claim concepts that were there with the church fathers and with Judaism for centuries before that? As for the differences between Europe and the US, I'm inclined to think offhand that could largely have to do with the many bloody conflicts of religious sectarianism in Europe historically, and state-imposed often corrupt religious institutions, as opposed to official policy of separation of church and state in which religion in the US has flourished. The other thing that I would wish to assert, is that I think secularists would be hard pressed to explain western foundational concepts on their own naturalistic worldview, the concern for the weak, and the moral equality of all human beings. Such is the cornerstone of the western world, and reason will not take you there.

In closing, for Europe to be truly secular, one must ask the question, when did it become truly secular?  When did they take the glory of God and His holy church from the Magna Carta? When did they quit Locke and Newton, Copernicus and Galileo of their celestial orbitations, shake their earthy foundations? When did the courts become a bell curve of disintegrating moral consensus, the ten commandments Moses' antiquated opinion? When did we begin to swear an oath to nothing greater, with human love loss found in Darwin, ill-inspired quotes on doorways of higher learning? When did the red cross raise a blackened red flag?  When did we blot cathedrals from all postcard town horizons, rummage stones from sure foundations, to stone hospitaller saints, charities without mission, no statement equal concept taken from our constitution, the stain glass stories no longer seemed to draw them. When did we start to forage for the hidden common answers, disconnect from our assumptions, questions they don't dare to ask the seller, for fear that when they really do become a truly secular city, that we won't recognize our own graven image. When they rebuild and repaint the Sistine chapel, crack the voices of Messiah, political correct the English Bard. When they empty the cathedrals, quell the voices of 1000 choirs, will we see it? When we've cut all mention of equality or expectation of ethics because it is determined that such subjective inferences cannot be empirically verified and are not observed in nature... when selflessness is seen as a form of irrationality and commodified by market assurances. Then and only then, when the kids no longer call it Christmas, they just go to sleep, and the grownups go to work, it's just another day. But for the few, so careful not to wear a cross, the danger, the stigma, the conviction of uncounted unspoken minds. When all such myths no longer exist even in our memories, we will have our secular city, but will we recognize it? Will we want to? Will we recognize ourselves when that time comes, and will we see enough, to know where to begin to light a match?

thanks for listening,

M.A. Harvey


Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk   Jurgen Harbermas

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" -- As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? -- Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?  Neitschze: The parable of the madman: 1882

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