About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

Dark Ages and Secularist Rages: A Response to Professor A.C. Grayling | Carl E. Olson | Part 2 | Part 1

There are a couple of notable problems with this vignette of recent Western history. First, it begs the question: In a world of increasing liberty, reason, and tolerance, why would anyone see fit to return to darkness, repression, and intolerance? Sure, there will always be a few crazies and misfits on the fringes, but religion, which was supposed to die in the 20th century, has made a dramatic comeback in recent decades. Why? And how? Again, how can the supposed secular virtue of tolerance be the reason when the greatest secular virtue of reason should keep the enlightened masses away from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and various forms of Eastern mysticism.

Secondly, what to do with Naziism and (especially) Marxism/Communism, the two most murderous ideologies of the past century? After all, both hated religion, especially Judaism and Catholicism, with a passion. Communism, in its various forms, promised liberty, progress, a life guided by reason, and freedom from religion. Grayling's answer to this is not convincing, but is rather revealing:
Thirdly, the major religions and the major ideologies of fascism and communism are the same thing, namely, totalitarian ideologies - systems that seek to impose a monolithic outlook to which all must conform on pain of punishment including torture and death.

They are orthodoxies insisting that all must believe and act the same, under threat. In religion the threat is damnation; it used to be posthumous damnation PLUS the rack, the water torture, the auto de fe. Fascism, communism, religionism: the one difference is that the enlightened world rose up and defeated fascism and communism (at least the Soviet kind), the first in 12 years and the second in 70 years; but the resourceful reinventions of religion keep it alive, even through the liberating and enlightened centuries which have followed the breaking of the Catholic Church's hegemony over Europe and its extension round the world ...
There is more than a little strained logic and notable ironies in Grayling's position:

1). He conflates fascism and Communism with Christianity, even though fascism and Communism hated Christianity for the same reasons he dislikes it, especially its insistence on an afterlife and a moral judgment based on actions and decisions from this life. [10] This is akin to saying that observant Muslims and Jews are just alike because they are both monotheists. As simple as it sounds, it must be said that what ultimately distinguishes religions and ideologies from one another is not what they share, but what they do not share. Besides, it's not as though the real or potential punishments of imprisonment or persecution are absent from Grayling's secular society, since it (as does every society) requires enforcement of laws.

2). He scorns a "monolithic outlook" that demands conformity, even while insisting that all people must embrace homosexual acts as "natural"--this based on the very dubious assertion that such acts are as natural of "fact" as "being female, or black, or white, or heterosexual"--as though external physical characteristics (gender, skin color, etc.) should be confused with actions based on free will and moral judgments. (On what basis, I wonder, might Grayling condemn pedophiles or peddlers of pornography featuring children?) So now instead of the (mythical) Catholic hegemony we take another step closer to the (increasingly) secular hegemony, which operates via the application of a soft totalitarianism that is most certainly ideological and totalitarian beneath its veneer of patronizing political correctness.

3). He apparently believes that "tolerance" means agreeing with him, as in the Catholic Church must do as he wishes because, well, that is what he wants. And what he wants is for homosexuals to be able to force the Catholic Church to provide them with children, even though there is plenty of evidence that homosexuals are far more prone to violence, abuse, instability, depression, and suicide. [11] How rational and caring is it to place children in homes where they are far more likely to be exposed to such problems? Of course, asking such a question is not only embarrassingly unenlightened, it dares to question the monolithic outlook of Grayling and Co., which simply cannot be allowed. [12]

4). He doesn't appear to understand that the Catholic Church (along with other Christian bodies) makes a clear distinction between the dignity and value of every person, and the moral value of that person's actions. [13] Instead, he assumes that a moral judgment about an action is a wholesale condemnation of the person, and he concludes that this is "horrible and unjustified, unkind and ignorant." As opposed to saying that anyone and everyone who is a Christian is intolerant and irrational, regardless of whether or not they actually are those things.

We return, then, to Grayling's understanding of tolerance. He writes, in a comment on the Insight Scoop blog:
I sorrow for my fellow human beings who languished under so long an oppression, and as you see, join with fellow humanists and secularists to save us from being dragged back into its shadows. We say to you: be free to believe what you like, but do not impose it on those of us who do not agree with you. That is our message; for then we can live in peace, you with your private beliefs in the private sphere, the public domain a neutral space where we can all meet as human beings, and respect one another on merit, not because of labels.
Which is simply the schoolyard bully saying, with a thin smile, "I'll leave you alone. Don't worry. Just give me your lunch money everyday and don't tell anyone about it and we'll get along just fine." Notice that the belief that the Catholic Church should be able to control its own affairs, especially when it comes to the well being of those in her care, is to be private.

Why? Because the secularist believes that is best. Why? Because the tolerant and open-minded secularist knows that sharing the public square would give religion implicit credibility; it would be a tacit admission that Christianity might have public value. And so he demands that religion must remain a private matter only, simply because that is his public belief, hoisted, however precariously, upon a platform of new "rights" that cancel out longstanding, traditional rights. So, instead of a place where ideas can be debated, the public square becomes, by default, the property of the secularist, who calls upon the state to enforce his "reasonable" and "tolerant" views upon everyone else.

This way of thinking has been described well by a man quite familiar with the ideologies and pathologies of the past century:
Indeed, in a certain sense, scientific rationality is imposing uniformity on the world. In the wake of this form of rationality, Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner hitherto unknown to mankind, excludes God from public awareness. His existence may be denied altogether or considered unprovable and uncertain and, hence, as something belonging to the sphere of subjective choices. In either case, God is irrelevant to public life. This is a purely functional rationality that has shaken the moral consciousness in a way completely unknown to the cultures that existed previously, since it maintains that only that which can be demonstrated experimentally is "rational."
The concept of discrimination is constantly enlarged, and this means that the prohibition of discrimination can be transformed more and more into a limitation on the freedom of opinion and on religious liberty. Very soon, it will no longer be possible to affirm that homosexuality (as the Catholic Church teaches) constitutes an objective disordering in the structure of human existence ... At the same time, it is equally obvious that the concept of liberty on which this culture is based inevitably leads to contradictions, since it is either badly defined or not defined at all. And it is clear that the very fact of employing this concept entails limitations on freedom that we could not even have imagined a generation ago. A confused ideology of liberty leads to a dogmatism that is proving ever more hostile to real liberty. [14]

That is how Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger accurately and with his usual clarity summarized the situation in his book, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, written shortly before he was elected to be Pope Benedict XVI.

Later, in the same work, Ratzinger asks the rhetorical question about his critique of the Enlightenment: "Does this amount to simple rejection of the Enlightenment and modernity? Certainly not!" He then notes that Christianity is rational, philosophical, universal, trans-political, trans-cultural, pro-man, and pro-life. "In this sense," he writes, "the Enlightenment has a Christian origin, and it is not by chance that it was born specifically and exclusively within the sphere of the Christian faith, in places where Christianity, contrary to its own nature, had unfortunately become mere tradition and the religion of the state". [15] Obviously, Grayling disagrees. But note that Ratzinger has no problem acknowledging whatever is good and true in the Enlightenment and in modernity. Compare that to Grayling's refusal to admit--despite much historical evidence to the contrary--that anything good has come from Christianity.

Whether in the realms of theology and philosophy (as Ratzinger demonstrates) or the realms of science and technology (as Stark argues), Catholicism has shown a remarkable ability to assess, incorporate, assimilate, and appreciate what is good and truthful in other religions and belief systems. An obvious example from the medieval era is Thomas Aquinas, who vigorously engaged with the thought of Aristotle and other pre-Christian pagan philosophers, as well as with some aspects of Islamic theology. It is easy enough, of course, to find examples in Church history of what would now be described as repression, intolerance or cruelty. More often than not, such examples are taken out of context, misrepresented, or judged according to criteria that didn't exist in the past. When Grayling speaks of the "cruelty of [the Church's] discrimination against women," he overlooks or is ignorant of how much better off women were in early and medieval Christian cultures than they were in ancient Greece and Rome [16], not to mention many countries caught up in the fervor of the Enlightenment [17].

The secularist view is decidedly small and self-absorbed. It rejects all that is good about religion, especially Christianity, even while living off of the intellectual and cultural goods created by those who were supposedly superstitious and intellectually inferior. The Catholic view is far more open minded and clear minded, being open to what is good and true while being equally certain that there actually do exist things that are good and true. This is part of what G.K. Chesterton called the "thrilling romance of Orthodoxy":
People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. ... The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. ... It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom -- that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. [18]


[1] "The Problem of Christ: The Myth of Jesus," Henri Fehner, in God, Man and the Universe, edited by Jacques de Bivort de La Saudee (New York, 1953), p. 219. An excellent overview of the short history of the denial of the existence of Jesus is given in Jesus Outside the New Testament, by Robert E. Van Voorst (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), in a section titled "Did Jesus Really Exist?" (6-17).

[2] The Renaissance of the 12th Century, by Charles Homer Haskins (New York, Meridian, 1927), 4-5.

[3] Haskins.

[4] Quoted by Richard Kirk, "Exercise in Contempt", (American Spectator, December 8, 2006.

[5] Christopher Dawson, Medieval Essays (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954), 135-136.

[6] Dawson, 136.

[7] Régine Pernoud, Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths (Ignatius Press, 2000), 18, 141, 142.

[8] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), 38.

[9] See Stark, "Medieval Progress: Technical, Cultural, and Religious," The Victory of Reason, 33-68.

[10] Profound analysis of this can be found in the works of French political theorist Raymond Aron (1905-83), including The Opium of the Intellectuals, Marxism and the Existentialists, and The Dawn of Universal History.

[11] See, for example, "Homosexual Parenting: Is It Time For Change?", American College of Pediatricians

[12] For much more on tolerance and faulty views of it, see Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance (Ignatius Press, 2004) and Brad Stetson and Joseph G. Conti, The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity, and the Culture Wars (InterVarsity Press, 2005)

[13] "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).

[14] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (Ignatius Press, 2006), 30, 35.

[15] Ratzinger, 47, 48.

[16] See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 95-128. "Although some classical writers claimed that women were easy prey for any 'foreign superstition,' most recognized that Christianity was unusually appealing because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large." (95)

[17] See Régine Pernoud, Women In the Days of the Cathedrals (Ignatius Press, 1998). In Those Terrible Middle Ages! Pernoud argues that the Enlightenment repressed and destroyed many of the rights that women had enjoyed during the Middle Ages (97-113).

[18] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Ignatius Press, 1986), 305-306.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Author page for G.K. Chesterton
• Truth and Tolerance | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Why Do We Need Faith? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Are Christians Intolerant? | Michael O'Brien
• On Adapting to "Modern Times" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
The Crusades 101 | Jimmy Akin

Carl E. Olson
is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.

He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, and two children. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright © 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius