It has been forty six years since Harvey Cox was made famous by a book called The Secular City.
I’m sure people read it—they certainly bought it–but apparently very few people took it to heart. It was famous for being famous, had an untidy thesis and worst of all did not prominently take on the topic its title promised: the secularization of American life. It was dazzling, intellectually promiscuous, and energetic, much like its author, a “village Baptist” come to Harvard.
And it was an extended broadside against the death of God theologians who then dominated the covers of Time and Newsweek and whose shelf-life, after the initial shock of the new, did not amount to a decade.
No one could quite make out what they wanted God to be, so the thought that he was dead turned out to be something of a consolation. “Now,” I remember thinking one day after reading a certain book by Thomas Altizer, “if only the theologians would stop writing obituaries.”
It is a shame that The Secular City got so much press because when it was written secularization was a real phenomenon. God was not only in retreat at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and even Emory, but the great social programs of the era seemed to suggest that people were looking for this-worldly solutions to urban blight, poverty, domestic illiteracy, racism, war and a dozen other issues that competed for attention. The jury is still out on all of those issues, from blight to birthers.
In an odd way, Cox’s book could have been written by Joseph Ratzinger who is constantly invoking “authentic Christianity” in “secular Europe.”. In fact,Cox was fresh back from a German stint when he wrote it and decided that the cure for many of the ills of American society was a new spirit of “authentic Christianity,” the first symptom of infection with the virus existentialus immoderatus. Cox did not mean revival in the Billy Graham style. That was an option throughout the twentieth century and, remarkably, affected politics from Truman to Obama. Like every freshly minted theologian, Cox believed that the the cure for nihilism (which was the jumping off a cliff option of the era) was not just any faith but (again) authentic faith. The kind of faith that found affirmation in negation. That sort of garbage.
In a 1990 article in Christian Century, Cox said he had written the book to stress that neither religious revivial nor secularism are unmixed blessings, that the thesis of The Secular City was “that God is first the Lord of history and only then the Head of the Church.”
This means that God can be just as present in the secular as in the religious realms of life, and we unduly cramp the divine presence by confining it to some specially delineated spiritual or ecclesial sector. This idea has two implications. First, it suggests that people of faith need not flee from the allegedly godless contemporary world. God came into this world, and that is where we belong as well. But second, it also means that not all that is ‘spiritual’ is good for the spirit.
Written to be quoted by liberal pastors, when I read this passage today it sounds like a vintage sixties tract, which in many ways it was. It is the language of someone who has drunk too deeply from the theology of Karl Barth (a real hazard of American theology of the era) and whose main talent was not serious theology but impersonation. Even the suggestion that “people of faith need not flee from the godless contemporary world” rings empty: who was chasing them? What answers were they afraid to hear?
The Secular City makes for depressing reading for another reason: because we are now twenty years beyond the twenty five year retrospective of its appearance, and we are not saved. There is plenty of religious revival. There is an awakened interest in atheism, that seems neither informed nor profound. But neither phenomenon is the point, any more than the shock value of the Death of God “movement” was the point in the swinging sixties.
The point is, we need to be talking about secularism. Of course, that includes a discussion of issues, and the Constitution, and the right of gays to marry, and a dozen cognate matters that respond well to secular approaches. But simple talk about those issues–and I will add various Pride Movements to the list–threatens to drown out the voice of what my former colleague, Austin Dacey, has called “The Secular Conscience.” That is what matters, and that is what we should be talking about. I have no doubt that people who are afflicted by various forms of discrimination have found a better friend in secularism than in the church, mosque and synagogue. That is why it is time to give our friend the time it deserves.
We do not need to be religious to realize that Father John Neuhaus (The Naked Public Square, the book Cox might have wanted to write) was right on the money when he said that the world is dying of metaphysical boredom. Neither fervently religious people nor ardently non-religious people, it seems to me, have the tonic for this peculiarly modern disease.
In the midst of the most degrading sexual scandal of modern history, the Catholic church still cleaves to the banner of moral authority in the name of this lord of History and head of the Church, while preaching a “gospel of life.” Our political world is dominated by office seekers who, to get elected, must swear fealty to religious principles they have never examined. Our teachers still find Darwin suspicious reading (or suspicious on hearsay) and evolution “just a theory.” Science illiteracy and religious illiteracy—always the Bobbsey twins of ignorance, are arguably worse in 2011 than they were in 1965 when Cox sounded his muddled alarm.
Something else was going on in the sixties, however, of far greater consequence and, this being America, of lesser note at the time. Prometheus Books was founded by Paul Kurtz—a voice for humanism, secularism and free inquiry in an age hounded by the reactionary religious (aka “Moral) majority of the era. Kurtz went on to found the Council for Secular Humanism to advocate for non-religious morality and decision making; the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSICOP) to push for critical thinking in matters of science, and the flagship organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and later the Center for Inquiry.
The mission and objectives of these organisations was crystal clear. They were dedicated to the advancement of science and reason. To make them more clear, he founded two magazines that are still going strong and are unique in their support of evangelical common sense: Free Inquiry, and The Skeptical Inquirer. In 1984, in response to explicit threats to the First Amendment and to encourage the free and open discussion of religion in the public square, he organized the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.
Over the years, these organizations have grown against the odds and moved against the tide flung against progress by the Lord of History.
In 2010, after a humiliating setback in the Center for Inquiry, which led finally to his resignation, an undaunted Kurtz founded an organization whose name expresses better than any previous one what the unfaithed and unchurched and humanistic minority of this country need to support their habit of secular thought: The Institute for Science and Human Values.
The Institute will be an engine for a process that Kurtz and others put into place forty years ago. It is unequivocal in lobbying for a secular and humanistic worldview, grounded in science, supported by inquiry, and skeptical of the claim of any movement or group to possess the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
I am proud to associate myself with the Institute and its programs, its new publication (The Human Prospect) and its Forum. I think that every person who regards herself or himself as secular will want to support it too.
The new Secularism and the City Forum invites you to share your story, your commitments, and your thoughts. You may be an atheist, a faitheist, a skeptic, or a Freethinking None. But we hope to see you on the forum to register your thoughts.
The transition between the Death of God and the Secular Era, despite a few setbacks, begins now.