Secularism based on illusory idea of freedom


John Bruton’s views on the naive attempt to separate religion and politics deserve careful consideration, writes JOHN WATERS

THE PROBLEM with speaking about the putative value of religion is that such contributions are invariably read in our culture as pitches on behalf of particular denominations or specific faiths. For obvious reasons, it is as rare to encounter an irreligious person prepared to argue for the benefits of religion as it is to come upon an atheist not defined by an obsession with opposing phenomena whose existence he denies.

Obviously, anyone who perceives benefit in faith will almost always have a faith of his own, and this tends to play into the hands of those seeking to close down any broader discussion. This is because opponents of religion almost invariably direct their arguments at the specificities of particular belief-systems rather than at the spiritual life of human beings or society. Secular-atheism has an easy time knocking over the straw men offered by specific manifestations of religion, while never having to engage with any larger questions.

For these and other reasons, it is almost impossible for any discussion on the general subject of religion to endure for long without short-circuiting into a charge-and-counter-charge session about the failings of a specific faith, or even the failings of a tiny minority of adherents of a specific faith. In Ireland, these difficulties are exacerbated by the presence of a host of residual neuroses relating to a specific experience of Catholicism.

So when, in seeking on Monday last to address some of the general questions pertaining to religion and politics, John Bruton announced himself as a “practising Catholic”, the former taoiseach and, more recently, EU ambassador to Washington was already framing his contribution in a particular way. The fact that he was speaking – as newspaper reports helpfully emphasised – at “an event jointly hosted by the Jesuit quarterly review Studies and the Catholic think tank, the Iona Institute”, had already coloured anything he might say.

This was a pity, because Bruton touched on some interesting things about politics, society and faith. His broader theme was the relationship that should exist between the Christian churches of Europe and the EU. His purpose was to reassure Irish Catholics who, in the course of the recent debates about Lisbon, have tended to see the EU as “a cold place for Christians”.

The headlines focused not so much on this theme, however, as on a few glancing remarks about the relationship between religion and politics. Bruton cautioned secularists to “beware of committing the same errors of immoderation, of the sort they justly condemn in churches in the past, in pursuit of their own cause today”.

The secularist idea that religion and politics should be kept separate was “unrealistic” and “naive”, he said.

Far from enhancing democracy, such “naive” beliefs “lead toward either tyranny or the breakdown of the pluralism that is required for democracy to function”.

Mr Bruton had in mind a particular form of naivety: “naive in its understanding of human nature”. Voters, he said, “do not divide their minds up into watertight compartments, marked ‘religious’, ‘political’, ‘personal’, ‘family’ and so forth. What goes on in one part of their mind influences what goes on in the other.”

This point urgently requires to be understood above the moronic cacophony generated in this society by a secular-atheistic mindset intent upon pursuing an illusory notion of freedom via a reduced form of reason.

Religion, rather than just another “category”, is the guiding hypothesis that makes sense of the whole, the public expression of the total dimension of human nature. No other channel has the capacity to convey the broadest truths about man’s nature and his relationship to the universe. Secularists do not like this characterisation of the situation, but it has long been obvious that they have nothing to offer society as an alternative source of ethics, meaning or hope.

It is, of course, possible for an individual to survive without any overweening means of reconciliation with reality, but such values are culturally incommunicable other than as opposition to religion. The collective presents a particular problem not addressed by personal objections to particular religions.

A society without a cultural consciousness of the absolute, such as we are in the process of creating, is like a lawn laid on top of a concrete yard: it may briefly give the impression of health, but eventually, for obvious reasons, it withers away. What is called secularism, therefore, strikes not merely at specific religions, or even religions in general, but at the very capacity of humans to be human.

John Bruton is not remembered as a gospel-greedy politician. As taoiseach, although known to be a quietly convinced Catholic, he was not given to either the theocratic gestures of a de Valera or the overt demonstrations of piety of a Bertie Ahern. Nobody, looking back at the period when Bruton was leader of the rainbow government from 1994-1997, could point to any direct signs of church interference in matters of public policy.

We would do well, then, to listen carefully to what he says, and not be waylaid by those who would divert us from the essential nature of his argument into yet another fruitless and redundant discussion about the necessity for separating church and State.