Traditional and Liberal Values in the Debate between Christianity and Secularism

11.04.2005. Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Vienna and Austria, Representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions.

The main question in the contemporary dialogue between civilizations is that of values. The present and future of humanity depend on the answer to this question.

The discussion on values acquires special relevance and urgency in the context of globalization, which is affecting more and more of the world’s population. Globalization is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and multi-level process. It exerts influence on the world as a whole and on separate countries and regions, on the entire human community and on concrete human beings. It affects politics and economics, morals and law, the sciences and arts, education and culture. Globalization leaves its imprint on practically all areas of human endeavour, with the possible exception of one: religion. Today only religion is systematically resisting the desperate attack of globalization, entering into an unequal battle for the defence of those values which it considers fundamental and which are being challenged by globalization. Only religion is able to counter the ideology of globalization with its own system of spiritual and moral orientation based on the centuries-long experience of generations acquired during the pre-globalization age.

In the modern battle for values people find themselves more often than not on opposite sides of the barricades, with those inspired by religious ideals on the one side and those whose world-view is formed by secular humanism on the other. At the core of the modern globalization ideology is the humanistic idea of the absolute dignity of man and of the existence of universal, “common human” values, which should serve as the foundation of a single world civilization. By “common human” values, however, are understood not only those spiritual and moral tenets which are common to all religions or which are equally obligatory for both religious and non-religious people (“thou shall not kill”, “thou shall not steal”, “thou shall not bear false witness” etc.), but also many ideas that are questionable from the religious point of view and which are rooted in liberal-humanistic morality.

To this latter group belong, in particular, the affirmation of the right of each individual to his/her own way of life, which extends insofar as it does not cause harm to others (cf. The Humanist Manifesto of 2000, ch. V). From the viewpoint of humanistic morality the only limitation on human freedom is the freedom of other people: the moral person is one who does not harm the interests of others, while the immoral person is one who infringes upon their freedom. The idea of absolute moral norms as well as the notion of sin are completely absent from modern humanistic ethics. In the religious tradition, on the contrary, there exists the concept of an absolute, divinely-established moral law, as well as of the deviation from it, known as sin. From the viewpoint of the religious person, by no means is everything that does not directly infringe on the interests of other people morally permissible. For the believer true freedom is not the permissibility of everything, but the liberation from sin, the overcoming in oneself of everything that hinders spiritual perfection.

It is not by chance that modern liberal humanism is closely connected with globalization. In its foundation, just as in the foundation of the project of globalization, lies the idea of its universality and its being the only alternative. Of course, humanists will acknowledge in word the right of the person to belong to any religion or belong to none at all, since it would not be politically correct to totally deny religion the right to exist. However, in practice humanism is inspired first and foremost by an anti-religious pathos and thus strives to weaken religion as much as possible, drive it into a ghetto, force it out of society and minimize its influence on people, especially on the youth. The secular, worldly, anti-churchly and anti-clerical orientation of modern humanism is obvious. It is precisely because the humanist ideology is acquiring increasingly clearer characteristics of militant secularism that the conflict between it and religion becomes ever more similar to a battle for survival – a battle not unto life, but unto death.

Liberalists and humanists themselves like to depict this battle as a clash between – on the one hand – an outdated world-view based on pre-scientific ideas, on “metaphysical and theological speculations of the past” (The Humanist Manifesto of 2000, ch. II), and on the other – a progressive, scientific and modern view of life. They inculcate this idea into the minds of people through the mass media and the state systems of primary, secondary and higher education, which are in their hands in most Western countries. The youth are brought up with the idea that we are living in a “post-Christian” age, that religion is something for the hopelessly backward and elderly. Liberal humanism actively fights for the hearts and minds of the young, knowing that the outcome of the world-wide debate over values, which the humanists try to pass off as a conflict of generations, will depend on the value system of the next generation.

In reality the secular ideology has not at all come to replace the religious world-view, since the religious value system will continue to exist alongside the liberal-humanistic one. It would be incorrect to talk here about the succession of value systems in their historical development: the question is rather about their opposition to one another, which sometimes leads to political, religious and armed conflicts.

The potential explosiveness of today's inter-civilizational situation is to a significant degree caused by the fact that the Western liberal-humanistic ideology, acting on the idea of its own universality, is imposing itself on people who were raised in other spiritual and moral traditions and have different value systems. These people see in the total dictate of the Western ideology a threat to their identity. The clearly anti-religious character of modern liberal humanism brings about non-acceptance and rejection by those whose behaviour is religiously motivated and whose spiritual life is founded on religious experience. The question here is not only about individuals for whom faith is a matter of personal choice, but also about entire nations, cultures and civilizations formed under the influence of religious factors. It is at the international, inter-cultural and inter-civilizational levels that the opposition between secularism and religion can grow into an open conflict.

There exist several variations of the religious answer to the challenge of totalitarian liberalism and militant secularism. The most radical answer is given by Islamic extremists, who have declared jihad against the “post-Christian” Western civilization with all its so-called common human values. The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism cannot be understood without comprehending the reaction brought forth in the contemporary Islamic world by the attempts of the West to impose its world-view and behavioural standards on it. We are used to hearing statements on how terrorism has neither nationality nor denomination, and nobody doubts that unsolved problems of an ethnic or political nature are the main causes of terrorist acts. But it is impossible to deny the fact that the most aggressive perpetrators of modern Islamic terrorism are inspired by a religious paradigm, viewing their acts as an answer to the total hegemony of Western secular thinking. And as long as the West continues to lay claim to a world-wide monopoly on world-views, propagating its standards as being without alternative and obligatory for all nations, the sword of Damocles of terrorism will continue to hang above the entire Western civilization.

Another variation of the religious answer to the challenge of secularism is the attempt to adapt religion itself, including dogma and morals, to modern liberal standards. Some Protestant communities have already gone this path, single-mindedly instilling liberal standards into their doctrine and church practice over the course of several decades. The result of this process has been an erosion of the dogmatic and moral foundations of Christianity, with priests being allowed not to believe in Christ’s Resurrection, the justification or conducting of “same-sex marriages”, members of the clergy themselves entering into such marriages, and theologians rewriting the Bible and creating countless versions of politically correct Christianity oriented toward liberal values. The revision of centuries-old church tradition to please the feminist movement has led to the introduction of the institution of female priesthood in the above-mentioned communities, which has drawn an additional line of demarcation between them and representatives of traditional Christianity.

Finally, the third variation of the religious answer to secularism is the attempt to enter into a peaceful, non-aggressive, though obviously unequal, dialogue with it, with the aim of achieving a balance between the liberal-democratic model of Western societal structure and the religious way of life. Such a path has been chosen by Christian Churches that have remained faithful to tradition, namely the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as several non-Christian religions such as Judaism, Buddhism and moderate Islam. The recognition of the necessity of dialogue with Churches and religious communities is also spreading among liberal politicians, who are coming to the realization that conflict can arise when religious communities are deprived of their right to public self-expression. More and more politicians are seeking contact with religious leaders, understanding that the opinion of Churches and religious communities should not be ignored during the process of elaborating those values which will serve as the foundation of the “new world order”.

A characteristic example of such an understanding is the European Union – one of the main catalysts of the process of integration and globalization in the modern world. As far as its Weltanschauung is concerned, the European Union is essentially a secular super-state founded on humanistic principles inherited from the Age of Enlightenment. Until recently the attempts of Churches and religious organizations to conduct dialogue with the institutions of the European Union were almost exclusively the initiative of the Churches themselves, which did not receive any clear response from the European Institutions. There did not and still do not exist to this very day a structure that might allow Churches to carry out a systematic and constructive dialogue with the European Union. However, after the adoption of the new European Constitution, such a structure should appear, since the project of the constitution stipulates an “open, transparent and regular dialogue” of the European Union with Churches and religious organizations (Constitutional Treaty for the European Union, article I-52). The inclusion of this point into the constitution, as well as the recognition of the fact that the “universal values” on which the EU is founded are inspired by the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe” (Constitutional Treaty for the European Union, preamble), can open up new possibilities for dialogue between religion and secular liberal humanism.

Today both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have the capability to conduct such a dialogue at a high intellectual level. In the social doctrines of both Churches, the problems concerning the dialogue with secular humanism on the question of values have been profoundly examined from all angles. The Roman Catholic Church has dealt with these questions in many documents of the Magisterium, of which the most recent is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, compiled by the Pontifical Commission “Justitia et Pax” and published in 2004. In the Orthodox tradition the most significant document of this kind is the Bases of the Social Conception of the Russian Orthodox Church, published in 2000. Both documents maintain the priority of religious values over the interests of the worldly life of the person. The Compendium acknowledges the presence of “universal values”, but understands by this term those values which are “drawn from Revelation and human nature” (ch. 85), i.e. values which result from both anthropological and religious premises.

Today the world needs a serious and thoughtful dialogue, and not the continuation and deepening of the conflict between the religious and humanistic world-views. It is precisely this dialogue that is proposed by traditional Christianity. The latter does not oppose humanism as such, but is against humanism’s liberal, atheistic version. The Church does not accept that version of humanism which, according to its founders, “excludes mysticism and religion” (The Humanist Manifesto of 2000, foreword). The Church opposes religious humanism to atheistic humanism, the former being guided by spiritual values (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ch. 98). By this is means a humanism “that is up to the standards of God’s plan of love in history”, an “integral and solidary humanism capable of creating a new social, economic and political order, founded on the dignity and freedom of every human person, to be brought about in peace, justice and solidarity” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ch. 19).

The values just quoted wholly correspond to those which ideologues of modern secular humanism, liberalism and globalization define as “common human”. The Church, therefore, does not reject these values but gives them a different content. The essence of the opposition of the two humanisms – the religious and the atheistic, the churchly and the secular, the traditional and the liberal – lies in the different, sometimes diametrically opposed understanding of such values as dignity and freedom of the person. This question will be examined in more detail in the next issues of Europaica.