Secularism began as a philosophical reaction against Christianity in the 18th century in Europe. Like the religious rebellion of the 16th century, it had its roots in outrage at the vices of religious and royal officials. And, like its earlier religious counterpart, it began to invent and to live by its own rules. As a movement, therefore, it exhibited all of the tendencies of moral and cultural drift that all major cultural movements and even civilizations have displayed throughout human history. Every such movement can be seen as replacing a prior value system based upon natural law and virtue ethics with an increasingly instrumental value system focused on optimizing desired cultural traits. In the case of the religious rebellion, the desired end culture was a monarchy independent and above the central religious authority of the Catholic Church. In the case of the secular rebellion, the desired end culture is not yet achieved, but clearly focuses on materialism, sexual freedom (informed by materialism) and a hierarchy based on popularity rather than achievement.
The influence of the religious rebellion reached a peak in the 19th century as the monarchical systems of Europe spawned world-wide empires. That growth, however, was largely aided and abetted by the growing influence of science and technology in national and world affairs. Simultaneously, philosophical exploration developed a new level of skepticism that largely invalidated the hopeful approach of Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant and increasingly replaced religious value systems and revelation with "scientific" skepticism that followed a number of disparate paths, including logical positivism (e.g., Auguste Comte, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein), will theorists (e.g., Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, G.W.F. Hegel, Sigmund Freud, Irving Adler). and the experientialists (e.g., Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Pope St. John Paul II), with the existentialists falling between the cracks of the will theorists and the experientialists.
The inevitable result was the consensus overthrow (with the exception of the more religious among the philosophers) of natural law theory as a basis for moral reasoning. (Of course, it wasn't until well into the second half of the 20th century that natural law theory was largely abandoned in the practice of jurisprudence. The Nuremberg Trials represent the last gasp of natural law jurisprudence.) The substitute was twofold: value relativism (as represented by cultural relativism) and legal positivism.
Simultaneously with this, a number of cultural explosions occurred. The main thread begins with the population hysteria of Thomas Malthus, progressing through the genetic hysteria of Francis Galton and the social/civic/economic hysteria of Karl Marx and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The blend of these movements produced the modern progressive movement. This movement was, of course, energized in the 20th century by radical (i.e., hysterical) environmentalism, radical racial and gender egalitarianism and the growing role of scientific exploitation and exploration of the sexual experience. The mix has produced such powerful centrifugal forces in the social and political sphere that progressive elites have adopted an agenda of putative satisfaction of everyone's fantasies, while trying to control how those fantasies are expressed in the voting booth and the economy through increasingly hysterical political correctness. In reality, however, no one can long deny the explosive nature of the contradictions.
Europe, the U.S. and its secularist allies do not live in a cultural or political world vacuum, however, and it's interesting to note the failure of certain attempts to secularize the rest of the world, notably the Islamic countries. Take for example,
- The abortive reign of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran
- The abortive reign of Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq
- The abortive reign of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar in Syria.
- The abortive reigns of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and, more recently, Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan
In each case, the secularism of the West failed to take hold in these increasingly Islamist cultures. And one could say that the increasing heavy handedness of these leaders only tended to radicalize the fundamentalist elements of their societies.
The comparative passivity of far eastern populations, as it happens, permitted a radical experimentation with secular ideas and ideals. The only thing comparable in the West is the fatalism (cf. Catharism to Jansenism) of Hispanic populations that live in banana republics, with the occasional interruption by socialist personality cults. The Chinese one-child policy is mirrored in the tendency of Latin American countries to sterilize undesirable populations. (Of course, we should not fail to compare all of this to the social, moral and political malaise of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia).
All of these countries, however, are boiling cauldrons of discontent, poised to erupt in mass violence. Efforts to establish the secular humanist ideal in these cultures is largely doomed to failure and only tend to exacerbate the hatred of these populations for the West in general, and the U.S. in particular.
In many instances, the U.S. and its Western allies have attempted to coerce these third world countries to adopt secularist agendas, even, in some instances, by aiding and abetting coup d'etat, or even through armed invasion. These schemes often work, at least temporarily, and so tend to find champions in every diplomatic generation. If one takes the long view of history, however, the ultimate futility of such investments becomes only too evident.
All of this raises the obvious question, what is the alternative. Obviously, extreme isolationism does not work, because the U.S. has trading partners and a natural interest in the stability of trading regions. Such trade often naturally results in major investments of international conglomerates in third world countries. The appropriate questions to ask are, when are the risks of such investments improperly mitigated by government promises, and what measures positively contribute to supporting our natural interests? (Similar questions arise in real estate investments in areas of the country that get more than their fair share of environmental disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, raging fires, drought, etc., with government guarantees skewing the risk assessments of investors.)
The third question to ask is what is the real purpose of an established military presence? Can it be demonstrated unequivocally that it is worth the investment?
When it comes to the decision to go to war, what are the real motives, the real objectives and what is the end game strategy and to what extent, if any, do these conform to just war theory?
To what extent are internal environmental policies influenced by international ambitions, and vice versa? For example, to what extent has the decision to rely on foreign energy sources been motivated by a desire to prop up secular regimes and or regimes tolerant of secularism in (for example) the Middle East region?
Honest answers to such questions could help the average voter make intelligent decisions about representation and the average entrepreneur make intelligent decisions about investment.
As it is, we live in a very chaotic environment, economically, socially, politically and morally, largely as a result of overweening secular ambitions.
In short, we are living the Chinese Curse, "May you live in interesting times." Some of us, viewing it in the light of faith and reason, may learn a great deal from it, but most will be living in an environment that increasingly approximates hell.