The Catholic Thing
The End of the Secularist Age Print E-mail
By Michael Novak   
Tuesday, 12 August 2008
An Interview with Michael Novak by Robert Royal

RR: The name of your new book is No One Sees God. What do you mean by that title?
MN: When I was in high school and, after, in the novitiate, studying for the Holy Cross Fathers, I read a lot of St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, all of whom wrote movingly of the “dark night” of silence and isolation in prayer often experienced by the seasoned believer. Gone are the sweet consolations of earlier life. Instead of warm feelings, nothing. As I read more and more atheist writers, I could not help noting how “in the dark” they also felt when trying to think about God. The analogy among these experiences fascinated me. I could see how easy it would be to be an atheist, if I interpreted my own experience of bleakness in certain ways.
I realized that in their own night, atheists often caricature the consolations that they imagine hold believers erect. They don’t understand. God is not on the same wavelength as our senses, imagination, or memory. To be in His presence is often to be empty of props from such quarters. Sometimes the only guide we have is love: “How do we know that we love God? If we have love for one another.”
RR: Your early chapters continue that dialogue. But you said somewhere that your favorite chapter was the last, “The End of the Secularist Age.” Do you mean “secular” age?

MN: The previous chapter explains that “secular” is a Christian word, invented to embrace all those created institutions, things, and events that belong to the City of Man. This is the “loaf” which Christianity must “leaven.” By its nature, the secular is open to God, even longing for Him. But it is wounded, and needy.
“Secularist” means an attempt to close the secular world within itself. It is an ideology – one possible interpretation of the world. But it is an interpretation that is self-mutilating, caught in self-contradiction, and doomed to restlessness and meaninglessness and loss of purpose.

RR. Most people say the world is becoming “more secular,” to return to the usual term. Why do you disagree?

MN: Years ago, Irving Kristol wrote in Commentary that secularism as a philosophy is dead, even though its after-effects still advance through our major institutions. It is too shallow to deal with human tragedy, for it has essentially posited that we humans are meaningless creatures, without purpose, a result of chance. Most people cannot put up with the hardships of life if their struggle is meaningless and without nobility. Secularism, therefore, cannot sustain a civilization.
More recently, the German philosopher and public atheist Jurgen Habermas wrote that after September 11, 2001, he felt for the first time that secularists are a small island in a turbulent sea of religion.

RR: Peter Berger has spoken of “the falsification of the secularization thesis,” that empirical findings show that the world is not becoming more secular, and that religion keeps showing new vitality.

MN: We must add to that an analysis of the specific deficiencies of secularism. For one thing, the most secular nations, and most notably the more secular segments of secular nations, are bringing upon themselves a demographic crisis. They are having too few children to reproduce even their current population. They are in decline. In Europe, a disproportionate share of the births is to the Muslim population, church-going Christians, and the more observant of the Jews.
If life is mainly about maximizing personal enjoyment, or at least about maintaining a balance of pleasure over sacrifice, raising children is too arduous.

RR: You also mention a loss of self-confidence.
MN: It’s hard for secular people to care enough to defend their civilization – they do not like its largely Jewish-Christian past and traditions, and have been undermining them. Besides, if there is no God, there is no one standard of values – it becomes hard to say why one civilization is “better” than another. This loose multiculturalism is rampant in the West, and cuts the windpipe of the West’s distinctiveness.
The most striking characteristic of Western Europe today is its blissful contentment with sensual life, and its resultant lethargy about the sacrifices required to defend its civilization against all enemies, foreign and domestic. A secularist world cannot summon the honesty to pay homage to the religious inspirations that sent gothic cathedrals upward, and thrust that civilization outward to exploration and learning and ever-fresh inquiry.

RR: Just two more brief questions. The first part of the book is written in conversation with several “new atheists.” Were their works the reason for yours?

MN: No, the occasion, rather. For some years I have been looking for an opportunity to approach anew the problems I raised in Belief and Unbelief and The Experience of Nothingness when I was much younger. I was hoping to prepare a series of lectures on philosophy and God, in the light of the last forty years. The writings of the new atheists – and in particular, the gauntlet thrown down by Heather MacDonald – gave me a warrant for presenting my work now, in this context. More than half the book is constructive and in a horizon a bit more metaphysical than the horizon of the new atheists. Their horizon is reductionist.

RR: If you had to predict, what will the United States and Europe look like religiously a hundred years from now?

MN: Freedom is the law of human history, and nearly everything depends on what free persons understand and do. There will be a new rapprochement between science and religion, a new era of cooperation and mutual penetration. There will be a profound breaking open of the prejudices and bigotries of the Enlightenment, which despite its hauteur owes most of its basic concepts to Judaism and Christianity: fraternity, for instance, and equality, and for that matter, individual liberty.

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