Christianity and the Challenge of Militant Secularism

Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria

Public lecture delivered by Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria, Representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, at the University of Melbourne, Australia, on 7 July 2004
Europaica Bulletin No 52 (November 24, 2004)

'The glory of God is the living man.' This dictum of St Ireneus encompasses the theological and anthropological vision of early Christianity, according to which there is an intrinsic and inseparable link between God and humanity. Man is considered to be the highest expression of God's creative process, while God is regarded as the absolute value, the ultimate criterion of truth for all living creatures. Man's vocation is to be the glory of God, that is, to glorify God with his life, words and deeds. Being created after the image and likeness of God, man is called 'to become god' himself by being fully obedient to God's commandments. Deification of man takes place through Jesus Christ, who is 'the living Man' and 'the glory of God' in the absolute sense of the word, who is the way, the truth and the life for all humanity.

The Biblical and Christian vision of man as God's image and likeness is radically opposed to the relativism of ancient Greek sophists, notably Protagoras, according to whom 'man is the measure of all things'. Protagoras is known for his belief that nothing is exclusively good or bad, true or false: what is true for one person can be false for another, and vice versa. There is therefore no general or objective truth, and there is no higher criterion of truth than the human person: each individual is the standard of what is true to himself. This vision sends religion to the backyards of human existence, makes it irrelevant and unnecessary. Indeed, Protagoras is reported to have said: 'Respecting the gods, I am unable to know whether they exist or do not exist.' In other words, it does not really matter, whether there are gods or not, as long as man himself is the measure of all things.

The radical discrepancy between anthropocentric and theocentric visions can be perceived throughout human history, but it seems to me that we are living in the epoch when this discrepancy is being expressed more acutely than it ever was. In contemporary Europe, for instance, the anthropocentric vision takes the form of militant secularism, which actively opposes any manifestations of religiosity. The conflict between secularism and religion was reflected in the battle against reference to God in the European Constitution, the battle which was lost by the churches and won by secularists. The same conflict can be perceived in the debates following the French government's prohibition against wearing religious symbols in public places. In both cases militant secularism surfaces as the only legitimate world view upon which the new world order should be built both in Europe and beyond.

To proclaim man as the measure of all things, to exclude God from the public domain, to expel religion from society and relegate it exclusively to the private sphere – this is the programme that the representatives of modern liberal humanism attempt to implement. This programme is inspired both by the notions inherited from the ancient Greek humanism and by the ideas of the Enlightenment with their peculiar notions of freedom and tolerance. According to this programme, tolerance of religion should be practised only insofar as it neither violates the dictates of political correctness nor contradicts so-called 'common human values.' Everything that transgresses these boundaries must be limited, forbidden or entirely eliminated.

The categorical refusal of a significant number of European politicians to mention Christianity in the European Constitution and the decisive resistance of the majority of French social activists to all visible manifestations of faith, together with other, similar phenomena throughout many areas of Europe, form but the tip of the iceberg. Behind these actions we can discern the consistent, systematic and well-targeted onslaught of militant secularism on what remains of European Christian civilization, along with the desire to obliterate it once and for all. This attack is being carried out to the drumbeat of the proponents of democracy and liberal values and with loud cries over the defence of civil rights and freedoms. But this assault on religion also entails that the cardinal right of a human person to confess openly his faith in God, is placed under question. It also threatens the freedom of human communities to base their mode of existence on their religious world views.

Militant Secularism as a Pseudo-Religion

When the Bolsheviks rose to power in Russia in 1917, one of the main points on their ideological programme was to wage war on all manifestations of religion. Aggression soon turned into full-fledged genocide during the 1920s and 30s: the destructive wave of militant atheism spared nobody – neither bishops, nor priests, nor monks, nor nuns, nor laymen. The bitter fate of persecuted clergymen was tasted by their wives and children: the latter, known as 'children of the enemies of the people', were placed in special boarding schools to be nurtured in the spirit of the godless. Believers of every shade – Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists – suffered equally from the persecutions, and all this took place while slogans of the struggle for 'freedom, equality and fraternity', the legacy of the French Revolution, were shouted from the roof tops.

Notions of freedom, however, carried very limited significance when it came to religion. The Stalinist constitution of 1929 permitted both the existence of religious cults and the propagation of atheism. In other words, it was possible to propagate, that is, to give open voice only to atheism, since to preach religion was officially forbidden. In practice, merely belonging to a church, even if one did not preach one's faith, was seen as a threat to Soviet society at large and almost inevitably led to dismissal from employment and the loss of social status. In many instances, especially in the bloody decades of the 20s and 30s, being a believer meant risking one's life and the lives of one's relatives.

According to Berdyaev, the Russian communists' hatred of religion was caused by the fact that communism viewed itself as a form of religion that had come to replace Christianity. The implacable hostility of communism toward faith in God could be explained by its claims to a monopoly on world views. Since man, according to Berdyaev, is a 'religious animal', 'when he rejects the one, true God, he creates for himself false gods and idols and worships them'. Thus, Russian communism became an anti-religion, a pseudo-religion, an ersatz of religion for millions of people forcibly set adrift from the faith of their fathers.

Communism created not just an ideology, but an entire cult that included idol worship as an integral part, only that veneration was shown not to saints, but to the leaders of the world proletariat, whose 'icons' hung in every room of each public building. Because the atheist state saw religious symbolism as a threat to Soviet society, it created its own set of signs whose intention was to erase faith-based symbols from public memory: the place of crosses and icons was given to the red star, and hammer and sickle.

This situation continued until the 1970s and 80s. I remember well how, as a schoolboy at the end of the seventies, one of my teachers angrily tore away my cross, which she happened to notice by chance under my shirt collar. With the same intransigence schoolteachers forced their student to wear red 'young pioneer' ties, without which schoolchildren were not meant to appear in public places.

Militant secularism, quickly gaining in numbers in modern Europe, is also a pseudo-religion with its own solid doctrinal tenets and moral norms, its own cult and symbols. As with 20th-century Russian communism, it also lays claims to a monopoly on world views and remains intolerant of competition. This is why leaders of contemporary secularism react uncomfortably to religious symbols and wince when God is mentioned. Voltaire used to say: 'If there is no God, one would have to think him up', stressing the significance of religious faith for the moral health of the individual and of society. Today's liberal humanists, however, insist that 'if there is a God, he must be passed over in silence', believing that there is no place for God in the public domain. For them, to mention God in documents of public significance, or to wear religious symbols in public places, violates the rights of unbelievers and agnostics. They forget, however, that the ban on mentioning God and wearing religious symbols discriminates equally against believers, who are refused the right to openly express their religious convictions.

Contemporary militant secularism, like Russian Bolshevism, views itself as a Weltanschauung destined to replace Christianity. Hence, it is neither neutral nor indifferent toward Christianity; rather, it is openly hostile to it. Not infrequently one hears ideologues of European secularism speaking respectfully of Islam, but very rarely do they say a good word about Christianity.

Indeed, one of the arguments raised against reference to Christianity in the Preamble of the European Constitution was the presumed offence to Muslims and the possible impediment to Turkey's entry into the European Union. This, however, is an intentionally false argument since, in the first instance, Turkey is a secular, not a Muslim country, and secondly, no one has rejected the mention in the Constitution of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or any other traditional religion alongside Christianity. Moreover, the history of Turkey is scarcely the best example of co-existence of religious confessions within a secular state. In this country, in the beginning of the 20th century, more than a million Armenians were slaughtered, Greek and Assyrian settlements were almost completely wiped out, and only ruins remain of its ancient Christian civilization. Even in our times, when Turkey has made known its desire to receive membership into the European Union, the circumstances of religious minorities – above all the sad remnants of once-powerful Christian Churches – leaves much to be desired. The ban on wearing ecclesiastical clothes still extends to the clergy of all religions, and Christian communities are placed under the very strict control of the authorities. If Europe chooses to take its cue from Turkey in building a secular super-state, Christians can expect hard times.

Militant Secularism and Christianity

Why is the prevailing attitude of liberal secularists so hostile toward Christianity? Why does political correctness, whose mores, invented and established by them as the infallible 'moral code of the builders of a New Europe', eschew criticism of Islam but positively encourage denigration of Christianity? Why do we regularly hear of the atrocities of the Inquisition in medieval Spain and the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, but never of the genocide of Armenians or of other Christian peoples in Turkey? Why such prejudice and one-sidedness in the telling of history? Why is Christianity the scapegoat whenever religion is to be made accountable? Why the intentional exclusion of Christianity from the European Constitution, while the 'Greco-Roman legacy' and the heritage of the Enlightenment were singled out in the project of the Constitution as the foundational elements of European civilization?

It occurs to me that the answers to these questions may be found in the peculiarities of the historical development of Western Europe in the second millennium AD. For the majority of west Europeans, especially in countries with a predominantly Catholic population, it is the Roman Catholic Church that is equated with Christianity – a Church whose history contains not a few dark chapters. In the Middle Ages Catholicism had an almost totalitarian character, laying claims to a monopoly not only in the sphere of religious doctrine, but also in other areas of social life. The Western Church ideologically controlled the arts and sciences, bishops meddled in state affairs, the Papacy led military campaigns and took an active part in politics. In order to add muscle to its convictions and policies, the Latin Church persecuted dissidents and repressed religious minorities.

The response to the absolute dictates of Catholicism came in the form of a powerful anti-Papal reaction in western Christianity that gave birth to the rise of Protestantism. As then, so now, polemics with Catholicism and the efforts designed to overcome its influence remain the chief ingredient of Protestant theology to this day. A second response to the Catholic hegemony was the swift de-Christianization (or rather the 'de-Catholicization') of secular European culture.

European philosophical thought also gradually distanced itself from the sway of Catholicism until, in the Age of the Enlightenment, it emancipated itself entirely from its influence, thus laying the foundations for a later 'post-Christian' (or more correctly, 'post-Catholic') humanism. This was accompanied by a weakening of the political might of the Catholic Church. The decisive blow to Rome's political ambitions was dealt by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The tiny Vatican State is all that is left of the once omnipotent Papal Empire which had governed most of Western Europe.

While contemporary European anti-Christianity is first and foremost rooted in anti-Catholicism, it nevertheless wages combat against all Christian confessions, against Christianity as such. It protests not so much against the existence of the Christian Church, but against the Church exerting influence on social processes, politics, the arts, sciences and culture. Militant secularism may grant to individuals within a united Europe the right to confess any religion or to belong to none at all, but it does not recognize the 'legitimacy of the religious world view as a basis for socially significant acts' (The Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church XVI.4). This, precisely, is the source of the ongoing conflict between secular society and those Christian communities that seek to 'assert Christian values in the decision-making process on the most important public issues both at the national and international levels' (Ibid.).

Religious and 'Common Human Values'

What do we mean by 'Christian values' and how do they differ from the so-called 'common human values' that form the basis of secular humanism? First of all, as I noted in the beginning of my lecture, the Christian system of values is theocentric and christocentric. Christianity confirms that its supreme and absolute value, its central criterion of truth, is the one God who has revealed himself to the world in Jesus Christ. For Christians, it is God who is regarded as the source of legal and social norms, and Christ's commandments constitute an immutable moral law.

By comparison, secular humanism is anthropocentric, since it regards human person as the 'measure of all things', as the absolute value and yardstick of truth (Ibid XVI.3). Christianity proceeds from the idea that human nature, damaged by sin, requires correction, redemption and deification. This is why the Church 'cannot favour a world order that puts in the centre of everything the human personality darkened by sin' (Ibid. XVI.4). Humanism, however, negates the very idea of sin. For it, like for ancient Greek sophistry, nothing is exclusively good or bad, virtuous or sinful: what is sin for one person can be virtue for another, and vice versa. The freedom of an individual is regarded as a universal value, and the only things that limit an individual's freedom are legal norms that protect the liberty of other individuals.

Using the expressions 'Christian' and 'common human' values, I am aware of their questionability and vulnerability. Can one reasonably refer to common human values when each civilization, culture and people has standards which do not always coincide with those of others? Can one speak of Christian values when a significant number of modern Protestant communities are undermining the very foundations of Christian dogma and moral doctrine, modifying and bringing them into line with the norms of 'political correctness'? This is why it might be more appropriate to describe the current ambivalence as an antithesis of 'traditional' to 'liberal' values. Carrying the generalization even further, we could speak of a conflict between faith and disbelief, a fundamental discrepancy between the religious world view and the norms of secular humanism.

Many concrete examples of this conflict are given in The Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, a document that systematically and at various levels affirms the priority of traditional over liberal values. The following few examples, both from history and from contemporary life, may also serve to illustrate this discrepancy.

In current secular law, murder, theft of personal and state property, and the disruption of social order are numbered among the most serious crimes – accordingly they receive the severest punishment. However, the very same law that condemns those who takes the life of a person also protects the life of the murderer, based as it is upon the notion of the absolute value of human life.

In religious tradition, however, a person's earthly life is not viewed as something that has absolute value. The most atrocious crimes are not those committed against another person, but against God and faith. It is not by chance that in ancient times, blasphemy and the defiling of holy places and objects incurred the strictest of punishments. In both the Greco-Roman and Judaic traditions, for example, those guilty of desecration were, as a rule, sentenced to death. At the same time, it was not unknown in many cultures for criminals and the condemned to seek refuge in the sanctuary. Although this sounds almost absurd today, the immunity of criminals who fled to the altars of God was guaranteed by the same law that condemned them to death. Moreover, arresting someone in the altar was regarded as a serious crime.

There can be no other explanation for this blatant contradiction other than fact that jurisprudence in earlier times was founded on notions of the priority of religious over 'common human' values. In our times, sentencing someone to death for blasphemy or sacrilege would be viewed as barbarous and cruel – a punishment irreconcilable with the severity of the crime committed. But our ancestors held different values. To defile religious symbols was viewed as an outrage against that which was the most sacred in the spiritual life of a people – its faith, without which a nation did not consider itself to be truly a nation. It is for this reason that not even the taking of human life was judged by medieval law as being of the same severity as violence to faith.

Another example can be taken from the area of town-planning. In Byzantium and the medieval West fortifications were, as a rule, built in such a way that the church would remain as the last stronghold of defence: those besieged saw therein their final hope, and it was there that the remnant of the citizens desired to meet their end. From the standpoint of modern military science it might seem like madness to have the church, the building that is the most inconvenient and least adapted to warfare, as the last line of defence. But our believing ancestors thought differently.

The most outstanding works of architecture in earlier times were dedicated to God; they were the fruits of the lively and ardent faith of their creators. While the religious world view remained dominant, builders did not erect a single palace that might surpass by their magnitude and grandeur those edifices in which God was honoured God. The most majestic cathedral of the Byzantine Empire was Hagia Sophia, and in every Russian city the most picturesque location was reserved for the most beautiful building – the church. Our forefathers used to say: 'the best for God, the rest for ourselves'. This profound remark encapsulated the essence of their world view choice.

It is becoming ever more difficult for the modern secular world, informed by its cult of consumerism and an obsession with material well-being, to make sense of the religious motivation of those who commissioned the magnificent medieval cathedrals, which remain to this day the best of European architecture. Although faith communities continue to build splendid churches in our own days, this, as a rule, occurs not in Western Europe, which has been caught in the clutches of militant secularism, but beyond its borders.

Ten years ago in Cıte d'Ivoire – a country where even the problem of hunger is still far from being resolved – a Catholic cathedral larger than St Peter's in the Vatican was built. Its construction was accompanied by heated debates, during which it was argued that it made no economic sense to construct so large a church in such an impoverished country. Similar deliberations were held during the building of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Russia's capital, in a country where many pressing economic problems still remain unsolved, where a quarter of the population even now lives below the poverty line. But for those who put their efforts and money into the building of these houses of worship, economic expediency was not an issue. Their main impetus was their faith in God and their desire to give to God the best that they had.

People for whom religious values are decisive are not only to be found in Cıte d'Ivoire and Russia. There are, of course, a good number of such people in Western Europe as well. According to sociological surveys, 60 to 95 per cent of the population in the majority of western European countries still regard themselves as Christians. However, the number of practising Christians is steadily declining. Militant secularism uses all possible means to make Christianity seem outdated, to project it as a 'relic of the past' so that a way may be paved for more 'progressive' philosophies. Active work in this direction is being carried out with young people: modern youth culture, inspired by secular ideas, is becoming increasingly hostile toward the Church and Christianity. It is therefore not without reason that sociologists predict a significant decline in the number of European Christians in one or two generations (with a simultaneous, continuous increase in the number of Muslims).

Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Militant Secularism

As stated earlier, militant secularism, in its efforts to diminish the influence of religion, has been inspired first and foremost by an anti-Catholic pathos. The Catholic Church, in turn, is the chief opponent of secularism and liberalism in Europe today. A significant number of Protestants, however, also live on the European continent, as do no less than 200 million Orthodox. It is most unfortunate that the response of many European Protestants to the problem of secularism has been a gradual break with the fundamental theological and moral norms of Christianity, the erosion of doctrinal and moral principles, and adaptation to the secular world view. What will be the Orthodox Church's reaction to this challenge? Who are our main allies in the struggle for the right to lead one's life based on the priority of traditional over 'common human' values?

I am deeply convinced that the Roman Catholic Church is our main ally in Europe. Those problems which persist today in the relations between Catholics and Orthodox in Ukraine and Russia must, of course, be resolved, but, at the same time, they should be localized and relegated to the competence of special bilateral commissions. As for European society, Orthodox and Catholics together must find ways to bear witness to the secularized world that has strayed far from the Church. Indeed, the ongoing conflict between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches must be deemed very untimely (can there be timely conflicts at all?), since it erupted at a moment when the joint witness of two traditional Churches, united by a common faith and a common concern over the attack of militant secularism, would be especially necessary.

Representatives of other traditional religions, such as Islam and Judaism, are in many respects also our allies, since their position on many matters, taken in their defence of traditional values, coincides with ours. When France introduced its ban on the wearing of religious symbols ('large-sized and highly visible religious attributes'), the hijab, yarmulke and large Christian crosses especially were targeted. This blow, ostensibly aimed at Muslims, also affected the faithful of the two other monotheistic religions. It is not by chance that Christian leaders of France formed a single front together with representatives of Judaism and Islam to protest against this decision. The development of inter-religious dialogue in light of these events can be seen as especially relevant.

Until recently the influence of Orthodox Christianity on European processes was rather limited. In countries with a predominantly Catholic or Protestant population, Orthodoxy remained little-known to the general public, not playing any visible role in society either at the national or at the European level. It is likely that this situation will change with the entry of Orthodox countries, such as Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania, into the EU. Along with Greece (a member of the European Union since 1974), as well as the Baltic States and other countries with a sizeable Orthodox minority, these member states could comprise an 'Orthodox lobby' of sufficient influence to conduct a full-fledged dialogue with European political structures. It is vital that not only politicians but also representatives of the Orthodox Churches from these countries should participate in this dialogue actively and responsibly.

Such dialogue is of crucial importance now that Orthodox Christianity, alongside with Catholicism, often comes under fire when secular norms are imposed. Early in 2003 the European Parliament voted in favour of abolishing the prohibition of women from visiting the Holy Mountain of Athos on the ground that this ban violated the 'universally accepted principle of gender equality' as well as laws concerning the freedom of all EU citizens to travel throughout its territory. This resolution reflects the striking insensitivity of European politicians to the special status of Athos, an Orthodox monastic republic where the above-mentioned prohibition has existed already for 1000 years. Euro-deputies were not concerned that the abolition of this ancient tradition would inevitably lead to the destruction of the centuries-old Athonite way of monastic life: their only priority was the compliance or non-compliance of religious communities with norms created by them, which they regard as 'universally accepted'.

The Orthodox Church insists on the neutrality of secular politicians and authorities in matters of religion and world views (The Basic Social Concept III.6), and on the inadmissibility of governments to interfere in church matters (Ibid. III.3). Calling on secular authorities to respect its internal regulations, the Church at the same time is ready to co-operate with secular authorities in matters that serve the good of the Church itself, of the individual and of society (Ibid. III.8). The Church respects the principle of the secular state but it refuses to interpret this principle as implying that 'religion should be radically forced out of all spheres of people's lives, that religious associations should be excluded from decision-making on socially significant problems' (Ibid. III.3).

Unfortunately, there are European politicians who are attempting to destroy the traditional, churchly way of life because this is precisely how they view the function of the secular state – to divorce the Church from the social arena. It is this attitude that the Orthodox Churches must combat, joining their efforts with all who are ready today to defend traditional against the liberal attitudes, the religious against the 'common human' values, uniting with those willing to defend the right of religions to express themselves in society.

In my paper I concentrated mostly on the processes which take place in contemporary Europe. However, I will not be surprised if what I said is equally relevant to Australia, America and other territories, where secular Weltanschauung attempts to present itself as the only legitimate system of values. It may well be the case that the entire Western civilization, not only in Europe but also elsewhere, is becoming radically anti-Christian and anti-religious. In this case there is a need of not only a pan-European but also of a universal common front formed by traditional religious confessions in order to repel the onslaught of militant secularism.