Legend has it that Chinese Premier Chou En Lai, when asked if the French Revolution two hundred years earlier had been a success, told President Nixon in 1972 that it was too soon to tell.
I recalled this quote last Friday while listening to Dr. David Bebbington, the renowned University of Stirling historian. He was demonstrating how the role of religion in history is frequently miscast. Through a historical survey (grossly reduced here), he outlined how the seventeenth century is often defined by politics, the eighteenth by philosophy, the nineteenth by social reform, and the twentieth (in Britain, focusing especially on Ireland) by religious wars. Bebbington convincingly provided evidence that historians have either ignored or skewered data regarding the contribution of religious motivations and how an appreciation for the role of religion changes our take on this history.
Admittedly, the arguments were academic, as would be expected at a conference such as this (affectionately referred to by one of my colleagues as conversations among "scholars in collars"). As I listened to Bebbington, however, I mused what a similar conference held a century from now might say about our own times. Would they regard the role and influence of religion in North American society the same way we do today? What part of the story are we missing?
There are at least two compelling narratives regarding the role of religion in society today which seem alternately convincing. There are many days in which it seems religion is overwhelmed by the hostility towards it. Regardless of what people tell pollsters regarding their beliefs, the social norms of our day suggest that belief of the orthodox Christian variety is diminishing. Secularism is the most proselytizing religion in our day. Admittedly, many secular adherents blindly follow their own version of dead orthodoxy. When attending funerals, the secular creed is conspicuous by its absence. Sentimental notions of an after-life still seem to provide some comfort in death, even for those who ridicule it in life. Still, secularism's hard edges and intolerance (ironically labelled "tolerance") remain the accepted secular liturgy of public discourse.
Yet on other days, I can be convinced by the argument that secularism has in fact passed its apogee. In conversation with Cardus's Senior Fellows last week, one Fellow mentioned that the last fight of any ideology is its fiercest. Some argue North American secularism is on its last legs. The wisdom of fifth century theologian Augustine—"our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you"—has enduring resonance. The realities of weakness, brokenness, and death expose the limits and satisfaction of the secularist answer. Celebrate the naked public square all you want, but when the reality of winter sets in, you start looking for clothes.
Part of the value to Cardus of our Senior Fellows program is to provide a broader perspective on cultural trends and to help us in selecting our priorities. The conversations last week were thought-provoking as to how easily we misunderstand the role of belief, both historically as well as in our present context.
I won't pretend to be an expert regarding the aforementioned Chou En Lai but I doubt we would agree on much. That said, as to whether secularism will survive the next decade, I agree with the Premier—it's too soon to tell.
My eschatology gives me hope for how these things will ultimately turn out, but in the short and medium terms, I admit to an uncertainty, especially as it relates to the role of religion in the western world. (Frankly, I see more signs of hope in the southern and eastern hemispheres than I do in those regions historically identified with Christianity, but that would take another blog to unpack.)
It is valuable to think through these issues if we are to be people who understand our times and are useful within them. Thankfully, our calling is not prophesy but obedience. The benefits of working within a context of 2,000 years of Christian social thought is that one needs not be embarrassed when we don't have all of the right answers convenient at our fingertips. In fact, part of the Christian social witness is a candid confession of our uncertainty and struggles, realizing that history is not in our control.
The Chinese Premier may be right. In the meantime, though, we underestimate the shaping role of religion at our peril.