Secularism: a System Built to Fail

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St. John Paul II, whose feast we just celebrated Saturday, said and did many things that will long be remembered even outside the Church. But I just came upon a remark of his in Michael Novak’s engaging 2013 autobiography Writing from Left To Right that brought me up short. After a dinner in the Vatican, Michael congratulated the pope on the fall of Communism. JPII replied (more or less, says Novak, quoting from memory), “Getting rid of that Mickey Mouse system was no miracle. It was a matter of time. It was built to fail.”

The Soviets had a large army, more nuclear weapons even than the United States, a ruthless police system and dictatorial state apparatus, compliant satellites in Eastern and Central Europe, outposts in Cuba, Africa, Asia, and Central America, and a network of Communist sympathizers and fellow travelers around the globe, including the U.S. And yet, all that was as dust, as time passed, and its incompatibility with human and divine things brought it down.

To be sure, that passing also took great courage on the part of many people, like Solzhenitsyn, Sharanksy, Havel, Walesa, and many more – including martyrs like Fr. Jerzy Popieulsko in Karol Wojtyla’s own Poland and unknown thousands in the prison camps and Gulags. Still, JPII’s remarks – in private, off the cuff, almost as if he were merely stating something obvious – shows, in a flash, the way a profound spirit looked upon a malignant force that – by all the usual worldly measures of power – might have been expected to last indefinitely: “It was a matter of time. It was built to fail.”

At present, an aggressive, ideological secularism has taken hold of America, and appears likely to become the shape of the West indefinitely – a slow-motion advance towards another inhuman socialism. (The current electoral spectacle doesn’t offer anything remotely like what it would take to thwart it.) So it’s good to recall why such systems are, probably in the short rather than the long term, “built to fail.”

There are broad human and cultural reasons why ideological humanism is inadequate to a full human life, of course. But I thought it might, first, be worth looking at some hard evidence. The ever-helpful Pew Research Center does even-handed, well-conducted studies of religion and public life. Their global survey, for example, shows that those unaffiliated with any religion (and Buddhists, for some reason) have the lowest birthrates, far below replacement rates, while Christians and Muslims have the highest. Though the unaffiliated will grow slightly in coming decades, they will shrink sharply as a percentage of global population. Christians and Muslims will each account for about one-third of global population in 2100.

God as architect of the world, from a Bible moralisée, c. 1220 [Austrian National Library, Vienna]
God as architect of the world, from a Bible moralisée, c. 1220 [Austrian National Library, Vienna]

In America, the trends are a little worse than the global picture; “nones” are expected to continue to rise to about 25 percent, but Christians will still account for 66 percent of the country in 2050 (down only a little from a little over 70 percent now).

Pew does pure numbers crunching – which is right for them. What kind of Christians and “nones” we will have in 2050, of course, is a central question. But as someone who came to Washington in the 1980s when religion was on the upswing, I’ve seen how quickly trends can change. The Spirit blows where it listeth and as the lives of “nones” get more and more undeniably blank, as is already true in parts of Europe, we may be surprised by sudden revivals.

In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the founding text of modern Catholic social thought, Leo XIII listed several reasons why socialism had to fail. At the same time, he knew it was (for the moment) on the rise, and that it was necessary to point out its profound misconceptions of human beings and human society.

We might do the same today about the inevitable failure of our militant humanism:

  • Without a belief in human dignity as rooted in the Creator, as our Declaration of Independence proclaims, there’s no rational basis for a free society except a limp “live and let live” mentality, which will fail the moment one group or person is powerful enough to say, live this way – or die.
  • This is, in fact, precisely what we’re seeing in advanced democratic societies, an authoritarian regime of rights – some absurd and new like “marriage equality” and bathroom regulations – that denies not only history, reason, religion, and biology, but mere common sense.
  • As in the former USSR, the regime will make more and more aggressive efforts to prop up a self-undermining view of person and society, but it’s a losing proposition. (As even the ancient pagans knew, “You can drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she keeps on coming back.”)
  • That the churches and culture-forming institutions such as universities and the media seem either incapable of understanding this trend or complicit in it is annoying, but ultimately of little moment. When the wheel turns, they will turn to the better angels of their nature.
  • The militant secularists regard themselves as doing nothing more – or less – than helping along the direction of history (in their more lyrical moments, “bending the moral arc of the universe”). But there is no such simple direction or moral arc. The disappointment with the results – like the failure of “scientific socialism” to arise inevitably from “history” – may well be the strongest impulse for spiritual renewal.

One could go on, but you get the drift.

I don’t know when this will happen, of course, but to know that they will fail, merely takes a confidence like JPII’s that there is a God and a human nature; that human societies, though fallen, are not impossibly and forever so; that schemes obviously built to fail will fail.

Our task is to take care to live well in the meantime and to prepare ourselves – and the spaces around us – for what inevitably must follow.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.