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If Faith is Weak, then so is Doubt

Giandomenico Mucci, SJ-La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Dec 14th 2022

If Faith is Weak, then so is Doubt
A few years ago, Conrad Hackett, head of the team that published the Pew Research Center’s report on the spread of different religions, made this statement to the Wall Street Journal: “Between 2015 and 2020, Christians are projected to experience the largest losses due to switching. Globally, about 5 million people are expected to become Christians in this five-year period, while 13 million are expected to leave Christianity, with most of these departures joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.”

In reference to Europe, he said: “In the majority of countries, including England, Germany and Italy, deaths among Christians have exceeded births by six million between 2010 and 2015. This natural decline in aging Christian Europe is unique in contrast to other parts of the world. The Christian population of Europe will likely decline by 100 million in the coming decades, declining from 533 million in 2010 to 454 million in 2050. By 2050, nearly one quarter of Europeans (23 percent) will not have any religious affiliation.”[1]


This kind of sociological data is certainly not comforting. Nevertheless, undoubtedly more troubling is the persistence in Europe of the cultural process that has assailed the religious world and imposed a sense of its irrelevance, even at the popular level.

The only conceivable religion is secularism, founded on progress and humanitarianism. “The other – a term that includes in itself the invisible and the mysterious, darkness and light, God and the deities, and obviously the Word – has disappeared.”[2]

The agnostic is the natural citizen of a secularized society. Sometimes even Christianity, which like all institutions lives in an environment from which God is absent, is the unknowing disciple of secular religion. This religion has so thoroughly permeated Western society that even Christians are tempted to think that the crisis of faith they also experience is definitive and insurmountable. When tempted in this way, even a Christian can be convinced that the topic of “God” or “religion” is so complex and countercultural as to merit only indifference. In this circumstance, one becomes irreligious out of laziness.

However, something new seems to be happening. Camille Riquier, a professor at the Catholic Institute in Paris, to whom we are thankful for the observations above, asks: “But now that our sciences and technologies have created more problems than they can resolve, and the fall of colonialism has introduced other cultures and other religions that appear to be very alive, is it the same agnosticism that prevails in our day? The agnostic seems to be less and less resigned to being so, sometimes regretting a lack of faith, even aspiring to belief, while holding that it is not possible, eventually settling for just the aspiration.”[3]

Thus today “the image that better than others anchors us to our times and which at least resonates on an interior level, if not a fear, is that of a tepid Christian or an agnostic.”[4] If faith is weak, so is doubt.

A denial?

If these observations correspond to the truth, then it means that the metaphysical question has returned: who is the human person and what is the meaning of life, of suffering, death, the ultimate meaning of what we do? It also means that the relationship between faith and reason is put forward in a different way and that faith can no longer be abandoned as a useless hypothesis, as has been claimed for nearly two centuries by positivism, Marxism and psychoanalysis, which had all described the question as non-existent, the opium of the people or the outcome of obsessive neuroses.

If that question has newly arisen, then Norberto Bobbio was right when he stated: “I do not consider myself a man of faith. I consider myself a man of reason, of a very small reason that has nothing to do with ‘worldly absolutes’ but is, rather, open to the mystery, exactly like any religious person.”[5] Also, the prediction of Augusto Del Noce appears to have been mistaken; he foresaw nihilism as the destiny of Western civilization, a destiny where nothingness would have dragged us into a boredom that is no more bearable than pain. People of the West could only become hedonists or utilitarians.[6]

Similarly, the prediction of Max Weber that was considered until recently to be a faithful reflection of contemporary Europe, which was the center of the process of secularization, seems to have been contradicted. According to Weber, people would now be Faustian: they would be wide-eyed and openly refuse the consolation of religion and face life following the dictates of science, aware that this will not lead to anything definitive: “So, in every case for the last men of this evolution of civilization the true definition can be: ‘Specialists without intelligence, joyful without heart: this nothingness is believed to be a leap to a level of humanity never before achieved.’”[7] These words are a prophecy of techno-nihilism, a nihilism that looks to experimental science as leading to the ever-moving, never definitive finish line, a secularized religion of humanity without understanding the purpose of life and satisfied only with personal pleasure.[8]

To this day Weber’s prophecy maintains its validity and realism. European thought once stridently affirmed progress as the fundamental law of history. It saw in Idealism that it was guaranteed by the absolute force of the operative Spirit in history; and in Positivism, it saw the guarantee in the law of evolution that dominates nature, underlies life and the development of all living things. Now, it is seen by many as being beached in the shallows of techno-nihilism, irreparably condemned to an inevitable destiny. Perhaps without their being aware, the thesis of a celebrated essay by Oswald Spengler is at work in many of those who think this way.[9]

Here, then, is the comforting fact of the “tepid agnostic.” It is comforting because it shows that in European history there have been, and there are, deviations, eclipses and dangers that, nevertheless, do not allow us to talk about non-negotiable necessities, which would be preludes to the immutability of Western civilization. There are no inevitable destinies. Even one who does not believe in a providence that dominates human history and directs it without our knowledge must recall the risks, dangers and obstacles already overcome and which always can re-emerge and are never the final, decisive reality. On the subject of civilization, its principal focus is the human person, who can exercise vigilance with the responsibility that comes from freedom: this individual will know how to use human achievements for the good and how to go beyond or repair the harm that can emerge from them.

It seems that the insight of Massimo Cacciari would be in this same line of thought. While considering the challenges posed by modernity and technology, he re-reads the intuitions of Romano Guardini regarding the necessity for Europe to accept its Christian tradition and the figure of Christ as a vital presupposition for its present. Not only would the classical world be inconceivable today without the mediation of Christianity, and not only does the idea of representation that dominates the political constitutions of Europe find an analogy in the complexities of Christian monotheism, but also “the Erlebnis [experience] of European science derives from the spirit of the Christian message, from the element of indispensability found therein, given its finite essence as natural and historical.”[10]

“The polytheism of values proper to secularized societies could represent the prologue of an even more dangerous paganism, one which expresses itself in the cult of only one salvific Power – and when Technology and Political Power are wedded therein, then it is ‘simply’ the advent of the Antichrist.”[11] There is a thread that connects the hope for a renewed rediscovery of the Christian roots of Europe with the phenomenon of tepid agnosticism and its nostalgia.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 5, article 7, May 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1905.7

[1] G. Meotti, “Siamo all’ultima Pasqua,” in Il Foglio, April 16, 2017, V.

[2] G. Montefoschi, “Ma riaffiora di continuo la nostalgia del sacro,” in Corriere della Sera, September 27, 2017, 39.

[3] C. Riquier, “Agnostici e cristiani: non c’è più differenza?” in Vita e Pensiero 101 (2018/4) 81.

[4] Ibid., 82.

[5] G. Santambrogio, “Buone ragioni per credere,” in Il Sole 24 Ore, May 27, 2018, 30.

[6] Cf. A. Del Noce, “Nichilismo destino dell’Occidente,” in Il Tempo, November 14, 1989, 3.

[7] M. Weber, L’etica protestante e lo spirito del capitalismo, Rome, Leonardo, 1945, 225.

[8] Cf. M. Magatti, “Se l’Europa rimane senza spirito e cuore,” in Vita e Pensiero 101 (2018/4) 97-102.

[9] Cf. N. Abbagnano, “Situazione seria ma non disperata,” in il Giornale, “Lettere e arti,” June 3, 1990, I; G. Mucci, “A 100 anni da ‘Il tramonto dell’Occidente,’” in Civ. Catt. 2018 II 77-82.

[10] M. Cacciari, “L’aut-aut sull’Europa di Romano Guardini,” in Vita e Pensiero 101 (2018/2) 90.

[11] Ibid., 93.

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