Secularization Theses

Like many important philosophical shifts, a transformation of traditional theology into a supposedly modern guise goes back to Kant.

The Shadow of God: Kant, Hegel, and the Passage from Heaven to History by Michael Rosen (Belknap Press, 2022), 416 pages.

We find ourselves living in increasingly secular times. For some of course, this is all a matter of progress, the gradual liberation from religious superstition through rigorous application of the scientific method. For others, secularization is the process by which our fundamental sense of value is crushed beneath the relentless drive for practical efficiency and bureaucratic standardization.

But there is also a third view—due largely to Nietzsche—whereby secularization is dismissed as nothing more than the superficial translation of traditional theological concepts into modern political idiom. Nietzsche was of course being deliberately provocative; yet it is not difficult to discern the familiar outlines of the doctrine of original sin lying at the heart of today’s identity politics, nor how the practice of heresy can have one excommunicated from social media.

It is this third view of secularization that provides the focus of Michael Rosen’s In the Shadow of God, which began life as the 2010 Isaiah Berlin Lectures in the History of Ideas at Oxford. Specifically, Rosen is interested in how one particular theological concept—the belief in personal immortality—was transformed and ultimately repurposed into the idea that one can achieve a kind of self-transcendence through commitment to one’s historical community, rather than faith in the divine hereafter.

Perhaps most intriguingly, this is an idea that appears to underpin modern political thought on both sides of the spectrum, whether in terms of the Marxist insistence that sacrifices need to be made for the greater good, or the Burkean principle that society is a contract between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Rosen’s exploration of these themes is wide-ranging, and sometimes philosophically dense; but it nevertheless offers a surprisingly illuminating perspective on contemporary trends that rewards critical engagement.

Like many important philosophical shifts, this transformation of traditional theology into supposedly modern guise goes back to Kant. There is an irony here of course, as Kant is often presented as the epitome of progressive liberal thought—an Enlightenment thinker who not only rigorously delineated the limits of metaphysical speculation, but also broke free from his religious background to build an ethical framework based entirely upon the dictates of reason. According to his so-called Categorical Imperative, one should act in such a way that you can will it to be a universal law (or more colloquially, treat others as you would have them treat you).

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On the one hand, this is a purely formal constraint that can adjudicate between competing moral principles without appeal to authority or the need for divine revelation; while on the other hand, it also remains sufficiently vague so as to accommodate a diverse range of individual moral values within our cosmopolitan utopia. Granted, Kant does explicitly argue that the requirements of morality—and in particular, that justice be done, either in this world or the next—offers evidence for the existence of God; but this is usually dismissed as irrelevant to his main philosophical project.

Kant was equally explicit that his apparently progressive ethics entailed a number of conclusions seriously at odds with its contemporary appropriation: He had a conservative attitude towards sexuality, utterly rejected an individual’s right to suicide, and was highly supportive of both retributive justice and capital punishment. All of which for Rosen shows just how poorly this period of Enlightenment thought is often misrepresented; more importantly, it also challenges the modern understanding of secularization-as-liberation that is supposed derived from it.

Kant was content for the Categorical Imperative to remain highly abstract, not because he sought to accommodate diverse opinion, but because he took it for granted that all civilized people essentially held the same principles—the challenge of moral diversity is a distinctively modern preoccupation. Indeed, Rosen argues that one can only understand Kant’s moral philosophy in the context of his religious beliefs, and his conviction that divine providence is ultimately intelligible to man; the project then is not to build an ethical framework independent of theological foundations, but rather to defend those foundations, to show that they are rationally compelling, and that God wills the moral law because it is good, and not the other way around.

So there is something amiss with our contemporary image of secularism as the intellectual inheritance of a period anachronistically devoted to emancipating human reason from religious orthodoxy. The Enlightenment was about the rational explication of religion, not its rejection. Yet at the same time, it was precisely this Miltonian effort to justify the ways of God to man that put the process of secularization into motion. If the moral law is accessible to human reason, then we cannot plead ignorance for our shortcomings. It also means that God must be perfectly impartial. He does not suspend His laws in response to petitionary prayer, and nor does He show divine mercy, since that would violate the integrity of the laws, and undermine our moral autonomy. A more intelligible God is therefore a less personal God; or as Rosen puts it, as the world becomes less arbitrary it also becomes more lonely.

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The main argument of the book therefore is that we can see much of the intellectual history of the nineteenth century—and thus its influence on contemporary thought—as the attempt to find within the historical community that which had previously been the prerogative of a transcendental deity. It is tempting of course to read the obscure dialectical unfolding of Hegel’s all-pervasive Geist as something like the actions of a completely depersonalized deity; but one does not need to engage in obtuse metaphysics to find the fundamental desire for self-transcendence (and moral absolution) increasingly being served by a personal relationship to society in general.

Thus when Romantics like Herder and Fichte praise the virtues of supposedly primitive cultures in contrast to their own times, they were appealing to a common humanity to which all are held accountable. The growth of nationalism throughout the nineteenth century was as much shaped by a real sense of national destiny as it was by the geopolitical fall-out of the Napoleonic Wars. And revolutionaries of all stripes expressed their genuine conviction that it is the judgement of posterity that will ultimately justify their actions (compare Fidel Castro’s infamous “History will absolve me”).

It also provides an interesting perspective on the utilitarian reformers of the period, whose cost-benefit analysis of human well-being is often criticized for ignoring the moral value of the individual. Yet we also find John Stuart Mill writing with almost religious reverence about the human species—the historical community—as the proper locus of devotion:

But that because life is short we should care for nothing beyond it, is not a legitimate conclusion; and the supposition, that human beings in general are not capable of feeling deep and even the deepest interest in things which they will never live to see, is a view of human nature as false as it is abject. Let it be remembered that if individual life is short, the life of the human species is not short … and being combined with indefinite capability of improvement, it offers to the imagination and sympathies a large enough object to satisfy any reasonable demand for grandeur of aspiration.

Mill looks to the past for absolution, rather than the judgement of posterity, and reassurance “that our dead parents or friends would have approved our conduct”—yet still yearns for self-transcendence in an otherwise metaphysically lonely world.

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There is comfort to be found of course in the idea that while our own individual existence will eventually be extinguished, that which truly matters—the historical community, the human species, the maximization of utility—will nevertheless continue. But there is also something incoherent in the idea insofar as it attempts to take a perspective on the world which is both dependent upon the values and interests of individuals like ourselves, yet which at the same time seeks to eliminate those individuals as ultimately irrelevant.

It is a View From Nowhere that can only leave us feeling adrift, subject to forces that we cannot in principle understand, and riddled with the kind of pervasive suspicion of the world around us that Richard Hofstader famously diagnosed as the “paranoid style” in our social and political interactions. There are many other aspects to this story of course, and Rosen makes no claim to have definitively unravelled the intellectual origins of our troubled times; but he is surely right that the fundamental need to find our place in the world, the sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves—whether secular or divine—will continue to cast a long shadow over our history.

Paul Dicken is a writer and philosopher. He is the author of Getting Science Wrong. He can be found on Twitter as @paul_dicken.

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