It is becoming increasingly clear that secularism as a public creed in the western world has failed to answer the deepest needs of human beings and of society in general.
Indications of failure are evident in rising levels of mental distress, loneliness, social exclusion, racism, the assault on truth, the decline of trust in democracy, an erosion of decency – all combined with a widespread malaise and fear of the future stemming from existential threats of such as the climate crisis.
Despite the freedoms enjoyed in this age of expressive individualism, many are experiencing meaninglessness in their lives. However, the pandemic crisis revealed the human values – based upon our diminishing spiritual capital – which are essential to survive and flourish.
I suggest, as we now seek to “build back better”, that the spiritual wisdom embedded in our religious traditions, when brought into constructive encounter with secular worldviews, is a necessary, if not a sufficient ingredient in shaping better public policies for a flourishing society.
A secular progressive framework requires to be informed by spiritual wisdom. Given the strong public reaction to the gross failures of institutional religion, it is easy to dismiss the more profound wisdom that is common to Christianity, Islam and Judaism – wisdom and insights that we need now more than ever.
Xenophobia, racism and gross inequalities, combined with a disregard for dignity and human rights, thrive in the vacuum left by secularism
This would be a grave mistake and would greatly impoverish our lives and our future. Human beings are spiritual beings who seek meaning. Secularism fails to provide an explanation – a “big story” that gives meaning to existence.
Secularism has no anchor for ethics: you cannot develop a meaningful morality out of a meaningless universe. The results are evident in the amoral game of winner-takes-all which dominates international relations as authoritarian regimes now govern much of our planet and threaten democracies.
Vacuum of secularism
Xenophobia, racism and gross inequalities, combined with a disregard for dignity and human rights, thrive in the vacuum left by secularism. Globally we live increasingly in a truthless and ruthless age.
Secularism fails on the score of expectation: it offers no guidance on human values save personal aggrandisement. It fails to answer one question: what are we to live for? It also fails the test of empowerment – so many now feel their lives are dominated by unseen forces, fate, chance or global corporations.
One might also say that secularism displays a failure of excitement. No one sings songs or holds celebrations each day or week about a secular creed.
The launch by Taoiseach Micheál Martin last April of a Centre for Religion, Human Values and International Relations in Dublin City University underlines a new awareness of the key role of religions in addressing our pressing global issues.
The common spiritual wisdom shared by our religions concerns values and meaning, human dignity, relationships, solidarity, reconciliation
The centre is under the direction of former ambassador Philip McDonagh who also co-authored its “founding manifesto”, the book On the Significance of Religion for Global Diplomacy. The centre will develop proposals for new forms of engagement between public authorities and religions.
Jacque Delors, as EU Commission president, sought for religions to give "a soul to Europe". His thinking has borne fruit in the open, regular, structured and transparent dialogues with churches, religious associations, philosophical and non-confessional organisations.
These take place under article 17 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union at a high-level with the EU Parliament, Commission and Council.
In Ireland there has been a less successful attempt by successive governments to initiate a similar process which unfortunately has not been sustained on a regular, open and transparent basis as it lacks the legal basis underpinning dialogues in the EU.
Following his hopes for a "new covenant for the 21st century" between church and State, expressed at the welcome for Pope Francis in Dublin, then taoiseach Leo Varadkar organised in Dublin Castle in July 2019 a "structured dialogue".
It involved representatives of the churches, faith communities from different religions as well as bodies such as Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association, in dialogue with the government.
Varadkar stated that in “a participatory democracy there is a need for regular dialogue with churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations”– the model of the EU was clearly in mind in his ambition to promote a pluralist democratic society rather than one based, as he said, on “absolute secularism”.
The common spiritual wisdom shared by our religions concerns values and meaning, human dignity, relationships, solidarity, reconciliation, hope, peace, justice, equality, the common good.
These ingredients of human flourishing are needed more than ever at this critical and dark time and ought to be brought into regular, open, transparent and respectful dialogue with those who espouse secular viewpoints as we all seek to rectify our current distresses.
Dr Fergus O’Ferrall's review essay, The Inflection Point, on issues raised here, appears in the June issue of Dublin Review of Books (drb.ie)