November 6, 2004


The Challenge of Secularism (Christopher Dawson, Civilization in Crisis)

It is no accident that the introduction of universal compulsory state education has coincided in time and place with the secularization of modern culture. Where the whole educational system has been dominated by a consciously anti-religious ideology, as in the Communist countries, the plight of Christianity is desperate, and even if there were no persecution of religion on the ecclesiastical level, there would be little hope of its survival after two or three generations of universal Communist education. Here however the totalitarian state is only completing the work that the liberal state began, for already in the nineteenth century the secularization of education and the exclusion of positive Christian teaching from the school formed an essential part of the program of almost all the progressive, liberal and socialist parties everywhere.

Unfortunately, while universal secular education is an infallible instrument for the secularization of culture, the existence of a free system of religious primary education is not sufficient to produce a Christian culture. We know only too well how little effect the Catholic school has on modern secular culture and how easily the latter can assimilate and absorb the products of our educational system. The modern Leviathan is such a formidable monster that he can swallow religious schools whole without suffering from indigestion.

But this is not the case with higher education. The only part of Leviathan that is vulnerable is his brain, which is small in comparison with his vast and armored bulk. If we could develop Christian higher education to a point at which it meets the attention of the average educated man in every field of thought and life, the situation would be radically changed.

In the literary world something of this kind has already happened. During my lifetime Catholicism has come back into English literature, so that the literary critic can no longer afford to ignore it. But the literary world is a very small one and it does not reflect public opinion to anything like the degree that it did in Victorian times. The trouble is that our modern secular culture is sub-literary as well as sub-religious. The forces that affect it are in the West the great commercialized amusement industries and in the East the forces of political propaganda. And I do not think that Christianity can ever compete with these forms of mass culture on their own ground. If it does so, it runs the danger of becoming commercialized and politicized and thus of sacrificing its own distinctive values. I believe that Christians stand to gain more in the long run by accepting their minority position and looking for quality rather than quantity.

The next great education reform must be the creation of an entirely voucherized system, so that parents can choose religious and other private schooling, not just secular public.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 6, 2004 9:21 AM

Well, if there are not any effective or efficient Catholic or Protestant institutions of higher education, it's not for lack of resources.

And while it may have shifted in the last generation or so, primary education in government schools in Britain was thoroughly Christian until recently, exactly the period when, according to this guy, secularism was ramping ahead.

Vouchers: If at first you don't succeed, fail and fail again.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 6, 2004 2:03 PM

Orrin, how do you find this stuff, do you do keyword searches on "gibberish"? What minority status? You're a freakin supermajority! What does Dawson want to see to confirm that the society is Christian? Rosaries before baseball games? Confessionals in Starbucks? Holy water dispensers at every ATM?

If Christianity can't withstand modern life, then it is pretty weak stuff. If Catholic schools can't turn out good Catholics, then the problem is with the religion.

"If we could develop Christian higher education to a point at which it meets the attention of the average educated man in every field of thought and life, the situation would be radically changed."

What is he talking about? Why does Christianity have to insert itself with every field of thought? What does it have to say about software design? Or fluid dynamics? Or advertizing? Religion is about the non-material, the spiritual. He's trying to commoditize it, to make it something it cannot be. So who is tring to dilute religion?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 6, 2004 2:34 PM


It is weak stuff. That's why it's died in the statist portions of the West and thrived only here.

Posted by: oj at November 6, 2004 2:54 PM

Well, maybe we need a new popular philosophy to base our moral foundation on, one that isn't so frail in the face of worldly affairs.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 6, 2004 8:01 PM


Are you saying that Christianity is weak stuff and dying?

Posted by: Dave W. at November 6, 2004 10:55 PM

Every one of my male classmates at Cardinal Gibbons High School had abandoned Catholicism by the time he was 30. (I'm not sure about the girls.)

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 7, 2004 1:40 AM


You miss the point--there is none.


Yes, it is weak in the face of the State. No, it's not dying, but it's dead in the statist West.

Posted by: oj at November 7, 2004 8:15 AM


Remember your Chesterton: It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it is that it has been found hard and is left untried.

Of all my friends from high school (and our church - Episcopal - youth group), probably only 5% are sticking with their faith. Is that an indictment? Perhaps, but not of faith itself.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 9, 2004 3:47 PM