In the year of 1789, following the fallout of the Seven Years War and the American Revolution, social strife plagued the French Monarchy.  As is often the case, public discontent was stoked largely by widespread hunger, exacerbated by policy schemes to satisfy a steeping national debt, and the disproportionate distribution of goods to the aristocracy.  In this furnace, what is now remembered as the French Revolution was cast.  In populist fashion, the monarchy was overthrown by an explosion of violence and the ultimate death of King Louis XVI.

It was, by all estimations, one of modernity’s most bloody examples of the politics of ressentiment in action, but this moment in history is also often credited as the genesis of the vaunted enlightenment.  Here, ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ ascended the vernacular—like Moses upon Mount Sinai—as the full incarnation of modern values.

In its wake, a mass of the country’s clergy met the cold steel of the guillotine, Cathedrals were sacked, and French Catholic altars were destroyed. They were replaced with idolatrous inversions that more closely befitted the modern mind.  “To Philosophy,” was inscribed at the threshold of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and churches all about the countryside were transformed into “Temples of Reason.”

This bloody moment in western history lingers in my mind as I read the essay, Is Religious Belief in Decline, by the journalist Matt Johnson. In it, he pushes back against the narrative by some members in the chattering class, like Andrew Sullivan, who maintain that religious attendance and not religious belief is in decline.

Instead, it is the assertion of the writer that religious belief in all manifestations is on the brink of extinction.  The data points he harnesses in his argument seem in his favor as well. Prayer has been significantly abandoned by prosperous westerners, and so has the presumption of an afterlife.  Science and technology have made the prospects of comfort and distraction such a reality that those old mythologies which animated vast societies seem anachronistic at best. More Americans than ever now identify as atheist, with that demographic expected to continue to multiply, and the prospect of some type of Medieval renaissance 2.0 is almost laughable in the laboratory of today’s society.

An Argument Against Faith Based On Faith

But the essay, in and of itself, is an example of Andrew Sullivan’s thesis. There are two assumptions being made by the writer that have the air of belief over reason. The first of which is simply approaching the topic of human religiosity in the manner that he chose. Mr. Johnson’s beliefs, in his telling, brought forth by the enlightenment have supplanted the old gods of the past. He does not believe his synthesis of reality has the air of idolatry because he believes in reason, but is this any different from his ideological predecessors erecting their many temples of reason?  The philosopher Peter Kreeft explains dogmatism in this way, “If we do not prove our thesis, we are dogmatic, not critical.”  Is this not precisely what the author does?

He takes it as an axiom that faith and reason are contradictory, but this presumption is a relatively new assertion to western history.  The idea that they are competing modes of understanding, rather than partners in a dance, was certainly not the basis of assumption for the scholastics (who shaped our philosophy). That the writer does not think this even needs explaining helps illuminate the dogmatic tendencies of his own thinking.  I would even venture to guess the writer is guilty of making his own grand leaps of faith without a second thought.

Consider, for instance, if the institution of marriage could even exist if it were not for the interplay of these two ways of understanding?  My capacity to reason allows me to accept when my wife says she loves me it must be true; but how can I know she will ten or fifty years from now?  There is no amount of reason that can answer such a question, but faith allows me to still make my vows.  The same can be said of the college student entering University. It may have been an act of deductive reasoning that led him to the college of his choice, but is it not an act of faith in the system that allows him to absorb every declaration of his course professors as some type of revealed truth?

Thomas Aquinas offered his five philosophical proofs for the existence of God using his ability to reason, but faith made him Catholic. Stephen Pinker uses his reason to show us how the enlightenment made us more prosperous and comfortable, but faith in a recently manufactured dichotomy between reason and faith makes him dogmatic.

The Progressive Arc of History

The second assumption the writer takes for granted is one of eschatology.  That is, to be precise, the branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind. The essay is saturated with belief in an arc of history that will continue to bend towards a religion-less utopia; a blatant feat of theology if there ever was.

It is true we do not execute blasphemers anymore, but is our means by which we decide who receives the death penalty any less arbitrary or more just?  Does it matter our judicial system exists today only because the Spanish Inquisition once did, or that the accused in that era often blasphemed on purpose to be tried in that court over those run by the state? Can we at least admit a meta-narrative created through the lens of scientific rationalism has unleashed atrocities on mankind that makes any religion inspired death count look like an episode of Wally Kazaam?

The problem with too many modern thinkers is—and I suspect the elevation of the natural sciences (for better or worse) plays into this habit—is the way in which they compartmentalize history.  If the vast majority of advances in science and technology, which happened after the enlightenment, are put in a box and then contrasted against previous era boxes then it will stand to reason that we will assume ours is the best.

But just because we have a better knowledge of how our universe works does not give us any better insight into why it is here.  In fact, as Michael Hanby recently argued in First Things, the scientific revolution did not answer any of these eternal Platonic questions and then move on, it just stopped considering them.  Today, man has not answered why he is here; he is just comfortable and distracted enough to stop asking.

The Binding Force of Christianity

And with the proliferation of deaths of despair, extreme social fracturing, the idolatry of the self, and other examples of entrenched elements of cultural dysfunction we can stand to take a lesson from one of those other boxes. A central feature of the early Christian movement, which caught the attention of Constantine and other Roman rulers, was the way in which they functioned without the need for government.  They formed communities, had a common system of values, ministered to the needs of their own, and led productive lives without interference. For the head of government, it seemed clear such self-reliance and accountability could be harnessed in way that made the exponential expansion of empire realizable.  Christianity offered politics a cohesive meta-narrative that government could not provide.  Through it, whether the monarch or the lowliest peasant, each citizen was endowed with a Christ-like dignity throughout the polis.

But if you want my opinion on what element makes our society look as religious as ever; it is the reality of social fracturing.  Social division is commonplace in pagan societies, and why Christianity became so appealing among pagan rulers, which could provide common source for citizens to define their meaning.  In contemporary America, religious belief has been ghettoized in precisely this manner, and while the acolytes of the enlightenment may wax poetic about the eschatological bend of their utopian framework, it is eventually the strong gods who establish domain in such a pagan free-for-all. The polarization and power politics of today is not an accident.

From there, one can expect a violent overthrow of old paradigms, replacement with new ones, and the rearranging of common symbols to suit the whims of whatever capricious new gods ascend the pantheon.  Essentially, much like what happened during the French Revolution, except the next time it’s most vocal cheerleaders will not be so confused over the idols they cast.