Recent decades have provided little comfort to people who still believe in an objective moral order, that is all those whom the media and academia condescendingly describe as "conservative minded" or "right wing." Indeed, recent developments such as the acceptance of same-sex marriage and the growing acceptance of assisted suicide and euthanasia might well appear downright dispiriting. The temptation to believe that secular liberalism is truly the last stage of history, as its proponents claim, thus becomes almost irresistible.
But such developments may, in fact, inconspicuously be sounding the death knell of the modern liberal- secularist creed of which they are the ultimate byproduct. In other words, while liberal secularists might see these developments as the final triumph of the intellectual movement initiated by the 18th century Enlightenment, it seems equally reasonable to argue that they signal the gradual but ineluctable collapse of modern liberalism under the weight of its own internal contradictions. That, at least, is the perception that underlies the writings of Robert R. Reilly and Brad S. Gregory, two unconventional American scholars well steeped in both Western history and philosophy. Reading them is both distressing and comforting. Distressing because the picture they paint of our pervasive liberal modernity highlights its deep irrationality and intolerant nature. Comforting because they provide good reasons to believe that secular liberalism cannot endure and that a post-liberal world order is both conceivable and inevitable.
In his critical study of the homosexual rights movement, Reilly seeks to explain why people living in Western countries now find themselves in a situation where they feel compelled to consider homosexual acts and same-sex marriage as morally acceptable, for fear of being ostracized. The explanation, he says, is rooted in a conflict over two different conceptions of man and his universe: one represented by classical Greece, especially Plato and Aristotle, and the other by 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a key craftsman of modernity’s view of man and nature.
The Aristotelian understanding of man claims that he is by nature a rational and political animal for whom the basic societal unit is the family. Human beings are born into and live in families, which in turn exist as part of larger social units that are set up to facilitate their viability. The Rousseauian understanding of man claims that man is not a rational animal and that society is fundamentally alienating to him. Originally, man was isolated, autonomous and self-sufficient.
These two differing anthropologies rest in turn on two radically different views of reality. One is that things have a nature that is ordered to ends inherent to their essence—things have built-in purposes. The other is that things do not have a nature with ends: things are nothing in themselves—they are whatever our wills and desires make them. Therefore, we can make everything, including ourselves, anything that we wish, as long as we have the technological means to do so. In the words of Descartes, the founder of modern philosophy, we can be "lords and masters of nature."
The first view leads to the primacy of reason in human affairs; the second, to the primacy of the will. If human nature is devoid of any built-in purpose, there are no limits to what can be done to it because there is no reason enabling us to recognize those limits. The first view imposes restrictions on what we can do (no sex outside marriage, no contraception, no sodomy, no abortion, no polygamy, no euthanasia). The second imposes none and allows for anything. So, people whose worldview is teleological believe in the primacy of reason. And those whose worldview is non-teleological believe in the primacy of the will. In purely philosophical terms, the first may be characterized as Aristotelian and the second as Nietzschean. The former understands human nature as largely fixed and objectively worthy of respect; the latter, as a work in progress, a half-baked kind of reality that can be reshaped according to individual preferences through technology.
According to Reilly, we owe the very idea of nature (i.e., the idea that the world has an order that is intelligible) and the concept of natural law to Greek philosophy, whose greatest exponents, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, "were unambiguous in their condemnation of homosexual acts as unnatural." Aristotle even went so far as to consider "sex between males" as part of "diseased things." But, one might ask, if the proper use of things is given in their very nature, how can human beings act in a way contrary to nature? The answer is that they have the power to act in a way that does not conform to their nature. As Reilly puts it:
"...since the ends of things are intrinsic to them, man does not get to make them up, but only to discover them through the use of his reason. He can then choose to conform his behaviour to these ends in a life of virtue or to frustrate them in a life of vice. He can choose to become fully human or to dehumanize himself. If his choice is the latter...if he chooses to rebel against the order of things, he will present this choice to himself not as one in favour of disorder, but as one for order—but of another sort. He will... rationalize: vice becomes virtue."
It is precisely this power of rationalization that drives the movement for gay rights. What past generations used to call Nature, we are told, was nothing but a cultural construct developed by the powerful to subjugate the mass of people. We are now living through an age of liberation where the idea that certain sexual acts are natural and others unnatural is finally being revealed for what it is—a colossal imposture. And indeed, if things have no intrinsic purpose and man’s nature is malleable, there is no reason why he should not be able to change himself according to his desires, provided he has the means to do so.
This explains why contemporary natural-right theory is no longer understood as a theory of natural law but as a theory of will, a will accountable to nothing but itself. According to modern natural-right theory, modern man can will whatever he can bring about, irrespective of what traditional natural law might have said on the subject. Thus if some people want homosexual acts to be legally recognized as morally and socially equivalent to heterosexual acts through the legalization of same-sex marriage, nothing should stop them from doing so.
All this brings up the question: Why can’t we ignore natural law? The reason is that, without it, there is no natural standard of what it is to be human. Denying natural law is denying our own humanity, denying what is. Regarding same-sex marriage, the question can be put in more specific terms: What is the nature of sexual acts? What is sex for? The end of sex is to make two persons become "one flesh" and only a man and a woman can become "one flesh" because, otherwise, the parts don’t fit. Moreover, this "one flesh" union is both unitive and generative. Homosexual activists will counter that homosexual acts are unitive in their own way, but in doing so they change the meaning of the word unitive: they ignore the fact that the unitive dimension of heterosexual intercourse is by nature inseparable (although distinguishable) from its generative dimension, in the sense that procreation necessarily issues from one-flesh union, whereas the alleged unitive dimension of homosexual intercourse is intrinsically sterile. In short, one carries the potential for offspring; the other, not. Also, one wonders how a sexual union can be unitive where the sexual organs involved are not complementary.
Another reason why we should not ignore natural law in addressing same-sex marriage is that the latter creates a major injustice towards children. More specifically, it leads to a redefinition of the obligations biological parents have towards their offspring: "With the rise of same-sex marriage, the obligations parents owed to their biological children are reduced to mere convention. This is true for everyone. Parents come to owe obligations to their children not because they are parents, but because they choose to be parents," according to Seana Sugrue in Making Gay Okay. In other words, what is owed to children by right or nature becomes optional by convention.
To consider homosexual acts as a fundamental right is "to cast aside millennia of moral teaching" and, more specifically, "to cast aside Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Old Testament and the New, Augustine and Aquinas, to say nothing of the teachings of other civilizations." This can only happen as a result of "the progressive abandonment of the idea of virtue traditionally held to be necessary to a free people and the substitution of a specious form of liberty based upon a manufactured ‘right to privacy’ that is untethered from any notion of morality." This right to privacy includes anything of a sexual nature done in private. The common denominator of the various court decisions that have led to the manufacturing of this right to privacy is the idea that "liberty does not mean freedom to choose what is right; it means becoming the source of what is right. It means not conforming oneself to what is good, but making up one’s own good." There is little that could not be justified by this kind of moral rationalization.
The second part of Making Gay Okay deals with how the rationalization of the homosexual lifestyle has marched through and influenced American civil society and government, in particular science and psychiatry, education, the Boy Scouts, the military and U.S. foreign policy. While the stories told here refer to American experiences, they will seem familiar to readers in most Western countries. No political or social institution has been left immune to this rationalization, for fear of rendering it vulnerable.
Reilly quite appropriately emphasizes that it is not homosexuals who are mainly responsible for the legitimization of same-sex marriage or the homosexual lifestyle. Before same-sex marriage, he notes, there was contraception and no-fault divorce. Once sex is divorced from procreation, the rest becomes inevitable. "If serial [monogamy] is okay, and contraceptive sex is okay, and abortion is okay, what could be wrong with a little sodomy? First, shortcircuit the generative power of sex through contraception; then kill its accidental offspring; and finally, celebrate its use in ways unfit for generation." The culture of contraception is thus the foundation of the Sexual Revolution. By separating artificially what is linked by nature, the vast majority of adults, and not simply gays, deny the existence of a natural order. Contraception was ushered into the popular culture in the 1960s, marking the beginning of a new era where the supremacy of reason was replaced by that of the will. From contraception to the redefinition of marriage, there runs a straight, causal line. And if marriage can be redefined, what will stop us from redefining human rights and human life itself?
Reilly concludes that it is not only in the interest of the religious right but of the whole of society to recover a sense of the sacredness of sex, understood as a means of generating life. Without such a recovery, the future of freedom will become even more imperilled than it already is by widespread divorce, single parenthood, pervasive pornography and the promotion of homosexual acts and homosexual marriage. The sexual permissiveness brought about in the past half century might well lead to the dismantling of our culture and political order. Reilly’s plea, it is worth noting, ignores religious considerations and is based solely on a natural law approach to moral issues. Subscribing to it requires nothing more than Cicero’s right reason.
The analysis of the philosophical and moral underpinnings of same-sex marriage raises the question of what made them possible in the first place. Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation answers the question by arguing that the hyperpluralism or moral anarchy prevalent in the West nowadays is best understood as the long-term, unintended outcome of the deep, unresolved religious and political controversies associated with the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century. In support of this thesis, he sets out the long-term consequences of the Reformation in six areas: the relationship among science, religion and metaphysics; the basis for truth claims about "life questions" related to human values and meaning; the institutional locus of political power; moral discourse and moral practices; human desires and capitalism; and higher education and assumptions about knowledge.
As Gregory explains it, the major components of modernity—science, capitalism and consumerism, sovereign states and individual autonomy—are byproducts of the doctrinal disagreements and religious conflicts that emerged in the period from 1520 through the 1640s.
"Doctrinal controversy paralyzed explicitly Christian claims about divine revelation and God’s relationship to the natural world, leaving only empirical investigation and supra-confessional reason as the means for its investigation, whether in modern science or philosophy. The causal explanation of natural regularities in the sciences turned out not to require any recourse to God or theology. Avarice reinvented as benign self-interest provided ideological support for the self-colonization of early modern Christians by capitalism in what Jan de Vries has called the industrious revolution. Individual acquisitiveness in pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment provided an ideology about which antagonistic Christians could agree, pioneered especially in the Golden Age Dutch Republic."
By the late 16th century, sovereign rulers controlled churches in Catholic as well as Protestant countries. Because of widespread disagreements about the meaning of God’s truth, freedom of religion had to be protected at the individual level by sovereign states that, in doing so, ushered in the era of modern individualism. By segregating religion from day-to-day life, freedom of religion became a key factor in the secularization of society. Thus, "incompatible, deeply held, concretely expressed religious convictions paved a path to a secular society."
This process of secularization had major intellectual repercussions in that it gave scholars and scientists a reason to keep religious truth claims outside the realm of academia. Theology ceased to be the "queen" of sciences and soon found itself downgraded to the rank of purely speculative theories. As a result, modern science came to be widely understood as being incompatible with the idea of a natural world originating in a supernatural Being. More specifically, under the influence of certain metaphysical ideas inherited from the late Middle Ages (the author describes them as "Neo-Scotist univocity plus Occam’s razor as it was applied to an either-or understanding of natural and supernatural"), the relationship between science and religion came to be regarded "as a competitive, zero-sum game," so that success in explaining the laws of nature was seen as diminishing the validity of claims of revealed religion. Yet, as Gregory points out, "any and all possible discoveries of the natural sciences are compatible with the reality of a transcendent creator-God understood in non-univocal terms" and it is only because "most scholars and scientists [are] lacking in theological sophistication and self-awareness of their own metaphysical beliefs" that the notion of a conflict between science and religion remains so prevalent today.
While there are no scientific reasons for an a priori exclusion of religious truth claims from academic discourse, there are some important moral ones. "In practical moral terms," notes Gregory, "eliminating any consideration of a creator-God who will judge human beings means unburdening human life of restrictions on human desires."
"That [unburdening] is important. It protects our hyperpluralism from the unbearably invasive claim that some widely held beliefs and widely enacted behaviours might be objectively detrimental to human flourishing as such, indeed from the similarly outrageous implication that there is such a thing as ‘human flourishing as such’ to which anything could be ‘objectively detrimental.’ Such notions are intolerable. So ‘God’ (for those who choose to be religious believers) can only be what individuals individually want ‘God’ to be. That way, ‘God’ cannot cause trouble and we can each individually get on with our lives as we please within the state’s institutions and legal stipulations."
In other words, any religiously grounded moral truth claim must be vigorously and promptly eradicated from the public square and academia for fear of affecting the purity of secular liberalism’s doctrine of the liberated and autonomous self. Whatever the cost, one must reign supreme overs one’s own little universe, determined to exercise what the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling defined as "the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." This is the basic dogma of our modern secularist religion. It is nonnegotiable, and anyone who does not adhere to it is a modern heretic—someone people of good taste simply don’t associate with.
It is also the basic reason why our modern liberal societies are culturally and politically unsustainable.
The long-term unsustainability of Western countries can be illustrated in various ways. One of them relates to philosophy, particularly moral philosophy. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes in After Virtue, moral discourse in modern society has become largely dysfunctional because philosophers, while accepting philosophical positions such as anti-realism and relativism, which preclude the possibility of objective knowledge, have no qualms about making objective claims regarding knowledge and ethics. An example of this tendency is the work of Willard Van Orman Quine, who argues that all knowledge is theory laden but who then attempts to exonerate natural sciences from this relativistic conclusion. Other philosophers, such as Jean-François Lyotard, disagree with Quine and argue that even scientific knowledge is relativistic, and seem unperturbed by the self-refuting nature of their belief that everything is relative. Given such contradictions, can anyone be blamed for sneering at modern philosophy? This kind of irrationality has been filtering down into the popular culture, as evidenced by the way in which liberals are now refusing to publicly engage anyone opposing, say, abortion, same-sex marriage or climate warming, unilaterally declaring these issues to have been "settled" once and for all. Those who don’t acknowledge them as such are dismissed as dimwits or hate-mongers. Liberalism has turned into totalitarianism, one that is softer than its earlier fascist forms, perhaps, but for how long?
But the unsustainability of Western liberal secularist societies is best illustrated by their demographics. If having children reflects interest and confidence in the future, developed countries seem to have very little future ahead of them. The average fertility rate in OECD countries now stands at 1.6, far below the replacement rate of 2.1, and may well diminish further as a result of the decline of marriage and the upsurge in cohabitation, which reflects a weakening of the ability to make life commitments. Giving birth involves some kind of faith or hope in the future. Yet, children are now seen not as a source of hope but as a threat to career or consumerism. Reflecting on this situation in 2004, shortly before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger noted that it bore similarities with the decline of the Roman Empire. Drawing from the work of Arnold Toynbee, he noted that "in its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted." Even atheist philosopher David Hume would agree with his assessment: all things being equal, he argued, "it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there is most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be the most people."
Western countries whose populations are in decline value science and technology and ignore their religious patrimony. They are more consumerist and less pious than ever before. But it is only a matter of time before the number of workers in these countries will be insufficient to pay for the benefits of a growing cohort of retirees whose life expectancy will be higher than that of any previous generation. How can any civilization grow with such demographics? One can’t help feeling that nature is, in some way, taking her own revenge. This feeling appears all the more justified in light of the failure of multiple government attempts to raise birth rates.
The overall conclusion one can draw after reading Reilly’s and Gregory’s books is that, as powerful and triumphant as it may seem, modern secularism’s failure to provide reasons for creating life and to sustain hope in the future is sowing the seeds of its own ultimate demise. The future belongs to families with many children and is thus likely to be quite unlike the present.