When Secularism Is Not Enough
Are we sure Islamic jihad can be resisted by reliance on Western secular values alone?
Can Islamic jihad be resisted simply on the basis of Western secular values? Some readers of my posts on the role of Christianity in resisting Islam have objected that bringing Christianity into the debate only muddies the water. As one reader wrote, “the anti-jihad movement can better be served if blatant theocons stay away.”
A number of important individuals in what might loosely be called the resistance movement do seem to believe that secular values are sufficient to rally citizens to a defense of Western civilization. A good example of this belief is the 2006 manifesto, “Together, facing the new totalitarianism,” which was signed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie, and others. The manifesto calls for “resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity, and secular values for all.” The document also speaks of “universal values,” “universal rights,” and “Enlightenment” with a capital “E.”
But how sturdy are Enlightenment values once they are cut off from their Christian roots? Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s own experience provides some perspective. In her autobiography, Infidel, she tells how, after escaping Somalia to the Netherlands, she fell in love with the thinkers of the Enlightenment. At the same time she became an atheist—rejecting not just Islam, but all religions (although she willingly admits that Jews and Christians have a more humane concept of God). Of Holland she wrote, “Society worked without reference to God, and it seemed to function perfectly.”
But the problem with substituting Enlightenment humanism for religion jumps out, if not from every page of Infidel, at least from many pages. On the one hand, Holland is “the peak of civilization,” and “no nation in the world is more deeply attached to freedom of expression than the Dutch.” On the other hand, her colleagues keep warning her to keep her thoughts to herself, and in the end, enlightened Holland forces her out of the Netherlands precisely for freely expressing her opinions about Muslim treatment of women. Ironically, Hirsi Ali’s next port of refuge was the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank which numbers quite a few traditionalist Christians among its scholars.
Others, such as Oriana Fallaci, Geert Wilders, and Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff have discovered that “enlightened” but post-Christian Europe is not nearly as friendly to freedom of expression as one might expect to be the case in the birthplace of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an important civilizational advance, but of late it seems to have gone a bit wobbly. Why is that?
One possible answer is that the core Enlightenment values are inextricably tied to Christian values. This view has been put forward most forcefully on the Continent in recent years by Marcello Pera (former President of the Italian Senate, and an agnostic) and by Benedict XVI (not an agnostic). They have argued that the Enlightenment grew out of Christianity organically, as a tree grows from its roots. Cut off from its roots the tree dies.
In this view the rights of man are based on a belief in the importance of man. The belief that ordinary individuals have a value and dignity of their own apart from their membership in a tribe or a society has its origin in the Judeo-Christian declaration that man is made in the image of God. Thus, if you take away God, you take away the foundation of human importance. As Thomas Jefferson undoubtedly discovered while composing the Declaration of Independence, it’s a bit difficult to establish the case for human rights without reference to the Creator. Purely secular societies can only assume human dignity and human rights as a given. We tend to forget that these concepts are now a given because they were given to the world by Christians. Before Christianity, the idea that all human beings are endowed with intrinsic value was not considered “self-evident,” it was considered ludicrous. Espousing human equality was a good way to get yourself laughed out of polite pagan society. Human dignity may seem self-evident to us now, but that is because the Christian moral view became internalized over the centuries. Gladiatorial combats and slavery didn’t go out of fashion because societies evolved but because people began to see one another in the light of the Christian revelation.
Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Some seem to think that Enlightenment humanism came out of nowhere, thanks to spontaneous advances in science, reason, and ethics. In this view, Enlightenment values can get along fine on their own without reference to God. But then you’re still faced with explaining how it is that these values have fallen on hard times precisely in those places that might legitimately be called post-Christian. Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion are defended much more vigorously in still-Christian America than in post-Christian France or Holland. For that matter, there’s more freedom of speech in Bible-belt America than in your average American university. With their speech codes and “hate speech” rules and their habit of disinviting “controversial” speakers, universities are among the least free institutions in society. And it’s no coincidence that most of them can be described as post-Christian, and in some cases, anti-Christian. There is also, of course, an increasingly anti-Semitic climate on American campuses.
What happened in the universities is essentially what happened in Europe. Both suffered a loss of faith (recall that many prestigious universities began as seminaries or denominational colleges), and in the process of losing their religion both became increasingly uninterested in cultivating or protecting genuine freedoms. Moreover, like post-Christian Europe, the post-Christian university has shown little ability to resist Islamization. Thanks to Saudi money and well-organized Muslim student associations, many universities are beginning to act like apologists for the Wahabbi faith.
Judging by the sorry records of the highly secularized European state and the highly secularized American university, it might not be a good idea to place all your bets on “secular values for all” as the main point of resistance to totalitarian Islam. Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserves the gratitude of all for calling attention to the abuse of Muslim women, but she’s wrong to think that a rootless Enlightenment is going to bring them liberation. Likewise, we owe a lot to Ibn Warraq for his penetrating critique of Islam, but he’s mistaken to think that the universal values enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights would survive in the thoroughly secularized type of society he seems to favor. If these values are universal and self-evident, why is it that half the world doesn’t subscribe to them? Warraq seems not to have noticed that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was composed for the most part by individuals who had grown up in Christian cultures, and had inherited a social conscience that had been formed by the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Two of the chief framers, Rene Cassin and Dr. Charles Malik, made no secret of the influence Christian and Jewish beliefs had on their thinking. In a 1969 speech to the Decalogue Lawyer’s Society, Cassin, a Jew, outlined in detail how Jewish and Christian thought had paved the way for the Declaration. It’s also telling that while drafting the final version of the Declaration he received advice and encouragement from Cardinal Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), then the Apostolic Nuncio in Paris. Malik, who later served as President of the UN General Assembly, was a Greek Orthodox philosopher and theologian from Lebanon and the author of numerous commentaries on the Bible and on the early Church Fathers. While making his arguments to the drafting committee he was in the habit of quoting from Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian. Jacques Maritain, the eminent Catholic philosopher was also actively involved in the work of the committee, as well as the UNESCO committee which laid the groundwork for the Declaration. Eleanor Roosevelt, the Chairperson of the drafting committee later observed that the Declaration reflected “the true spirit of Christianity.” In short, although the Declaration of Human Rights makes no mention of God, the fingerprints of a certain religious tradition are all over it.
Western culture—indeed the whole world—owes a lot to the Enlightenment, but it’s important to remember that at crucial historical junctures it was Christian activists working on Christian principles who did most of the heavy lifting. Christian Evangelicals were at the forefront of the movement to abolish the slave trade; the Civil Rights movement was galvanized by the Reverend Martin Luther King and other Christian leaders; the end of Communism in Eastern Europe was brought about in large part by the work of the Catholic Solidarity Movement, of Pope John Paul II, and of numerous priests and pastors in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and other countries who kept alive the spirit of resistance.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, it might be useful to think in terms of two Enlightenments: the Enlightenment which remained nourished by the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Enlightenment which cut itself off from God. The former led to the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the abolition of slavery, and the Civil Rights movement. The latter led to the French Revolution, to the Reign of Terror, to the suppression of church by state, to Marx and Nietzsche, to Socialism, and Communism, and more recently to the Alice-in-Wonderland world of cultural relativism where human rights are looked upon as relative rather than universal.
It’s unlikely that a pure secularism—even a humanistic, enlightened secularism—can be the foundation for resisting an aggressive Islam. It’s precisely “enlightened” secularism that produced the spiritual and population vacuum in Europe which is now being filled by Islam. John Lennon invited us to imagine “no religion”… “nothing to kill or die for.” In Europe they don’t have to imagine anymore. Having lost their religion, many are discovering that post-Christian values may not, after all, be worth fighting and dying for—all the more so for those who are getting on in years, and are hoping the really bad things won’t happen in their lifetimes. The new motto for many middle –aged Europeans seems to be “Apres moi le dhimmitude.”
Which culture is more likely to protect human rights and freedoms against totalitarian movements? A thoroughly secular culture which has cut itself off from a transcendent reference point? Or a culture imbued with the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings possess an inalienable, God-given dignity? It’s one of those non-academic questions to which the wrong answer might prove fatal. And final exam time is fast approaching.
William Kilpatrick’s articles have appeared in Front Page Magazine, First Things, Catholic World Report, the National Catholic Register, Jihad Watch, World, and Investor’s Business Daily.