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Is there Hope for the Future without Religion?

Giandomenico Mucci, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sun, Apr 26th 2020

1Reviewing a recently published volume that translates as Journey to the End of the West: Secular divergence and the rise of nationalism,[1] Sabino Cassese has written:

Darkness falls. The West disappears. We have all suddenly become racist or nationalist. Fates diverge. The human person is pushed to the sidelines. A sense of irresponsibility spreads. Society turns into a thousand recesses; it no longer has room for common goals. Well-being, solidarity and the rule of law all lag behind. Democracy is weakening. New leaders advocate authoritarian politics. People dissociate themselves from the past and the memory of war fades. The emphasis on what threatens triggers the desire for strict rules and punishment of deviance and pushes people to re-insert themselves in their own cultures.[2]

He continues: Technological change, economic crisis and globalization have produced a protracted decline of states, regions, professions and individuals. Divergence is a deeper issue than inequality because it refers to the projection of the self into one’s own future. States have made the situation worse by resorting to strategies that have shifted the political costs to future generations. Inequalities are easily remedied by fiscal policies; it takes many years to overcome divergences. Europe is particularly vulnerable.

The picture is rather grim and, here and there, brings to mind certain famous analyses by Huizinga, Ortega y Gasset, or Croce. But even in our time there is no lack of positive aspects.

Despite the revival of nationalism, we have been living for seventy years in a peaceful Europe, and life expectancy is increasing. The social tensions and intrigues that made people doubt society and the state (terrorism, attempted coups) have not been repeated in recent years. Political participation, while decreasing, does not fall below that of other European countries. State weaknesses are partly compensated for by other bodies. Society, although confronted by fears and discomforts, is acquiescent. If young people do not have a bright future, their families compensate. While globalization leads backward in some matters, in others it leads forward. The weight of public debt is high, but it has almost always been so during the history of a united Italy. While there is no ‘dream of a more beautiful life,’ as in the Renaissance, the hope of improving the world is not gone. If the ruling elites are unable to point to a future and merely declare that they want to interpret the will of the ‘people,’ the latter have not come to a halt. They are still looking for ways and surrogates.

A conspicuous absence

Cassese’s words contain an exclusively social and political evaluation. There is not a single mention of the active presence of religion in a democratic society. It is sadly true that today the democratically minded recognize in theory the values of our Christian heritage and think they are faithful to the spirit of Christianity, but they actually live far from the doctrine of faith and are indifferent to what the Church teaches in the light of this doctrine. The relationship between religion and democratic societies cannot be reduced to total indifference, thereby overcoming ancient hostilities, unless we want to give too much importance to the sparse hotbeds of Catholic fundamentalism. It seems, then, that one can say that modernity has emerged from the influence of Christianity, but still retains, consciously or not, much of its spirit.[3]

Giuliano Amato does not think religious revival is a residual effect arising from the failure of the Enlightenment ideology that was based on the myth of almighty and sovereign reason. In his opinion, instead, it is modern scientific discoveries and their applications that could lead to the celebration of human omnipotence, which have posed again the problems of life and death to any conscience not prejudicially closed to religious experience.[4]

Whoever reads Cassese’s words and notices this conspicuous absence is reminded of an observation by Del Noce who, when he heard discussions on the inalienable values of European culture, replied that this formula referred only to those rules of the game that allow coexistence: rules and values that are not properly moral, but economic, supported by a selfishness that does not go beyond the economic and brings the ethical back to it with indifference.[5]

The place of God

The analysis and concern for the future among contemporary essayists is almost always focused on the economic and social aspects. The modern and contemporary philosophical context remains marked by the twilight that has fallen on human conscience, deeming it incapable of the true and the imperative of good. It is a short step from here to banish God from the universe of knowability. “Man is what he eats” (Der Mensch ist, was er isst), stated Feuerbach. Current essay writers, even authors of great cultural and professional status, are under the debt contracted in the past with Marxist-Communist humanism, which rejected the very idea of God, regardless of the validity or otherwise of the actual demonstrations concerning God discourse.

The current crisis of morality (others would say the current libertinism in every field) depends on the will to build human life and society without regard to that transcendent absolute which is usually called God. When its negation is not frontal, it is reduced to a mere function of our humanity. Today, in fact, those who deny or ignore God affirm that they do so in order to safeguard the full reality of the human person.

A theologian, who was a profound connoisseur of modern thought, wondered: “Who is the human being? Is the tendency toward the transcendent, and therefore the religious dimension, part of our being or not? Is to deny, or even just ignore this dimension, to set the authentic person free, or does it decimate and thus suffocate us? Catholic doctrine affirms that a humanism respectful of the person, and therefore capable of promoting the integral person, is inalienably a religious humanism. The human mind, as Vatican I and II teach, is open to the mystery of God as to the first principle and the ultimate reason for everything.”[6]

From a practical point of view, there is a useful remark by Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop Emeritus of Milan, when he spoke of religions as vital realities that are able to develop a public subjectivity that can be freely assumed and is dialogic: “In this post-secular age in which, with modernity, the reference to Christ as the meaning of a path has been abandoned, it must be recognized that all attempts made to replace him have failed. Suffice it to recall the collapse of the great narratives.”[7]

When a believer thinks of the future, he or she lives and expresses a hope that rests on the promises and grace of the God of Christian Revelation. And when a believer reflects on the unfolding of history and human thought, on the events of history and on the results and silences of thought, what is called to mind, and what comforts, is something Kant wrote about humanity  as “a wood so crooked (so krumm Holze)” that with it “nothing perfectly straight (ganz Gerades) can be built.”[8]


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 04 art. 8, 0420: 10.32009/22072446.0420.8

[1] Cf. C. Bastasin, Viaggio al termine dell’Occidente. La divergenza secolare e l’ascesa del nazionalismo, Rome, Luiss University Press, 2019.

[2] S. Cassese, “Un Occidente privo di luci” in Il Sole 24 Ore, December 8, 2019, 26.

[3] Cf. P. Raynaud, “Fine dell’Illuminismo o fine della religione?” in Aspenia 13 (2008) 195-200.

[4] Cf. G. Amato – G. Quagliarello, “Il ritorno di Dio” ibid., 172-185.

[5] Cf. A. Del Noce, “Le due facce del laicismo progressista” in Il Tempo, January 10, 1990, 3.

[6] G. B. Sala, “Dio e la religione umana” in Rassegna di Teologia 20 (1979) 249.

[7] Cf. Il Foglio, August 27-28, 2016, 1.

[8] I. Kant, “Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht” in Id., Gesammelte Schriften, vol. VIII, Berlin, 1910, 23. The text is dated 1784.

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