A recent well attended talk at Northwestern between one of the school’s popular professors and an Anglican Bishop focused on culture and the role of secularism vs. Christianity in culture.

Thank you to The Northwestern Chronicle for this well written and fascinating piece.

Challenging the Gods of Culture: N.T. Wright and Professor Morson on Religion, Progress, and False Idols

More than 500 students, faculty, and visitors packed into Ryan Auditorium on Monday, November 12, to hear a discussion between N.T. Wright and Professor Gary Saul Morson. Wright is the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, an expert in biblical scholarship and early Christianity. Professor Morson is a Slavicist and perhaps the most popular professor at Northwestern, famous for his undergraduate courses on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Wright’s speech traced the development of modern secularism back to its classical roots. Epicurus and Lucretius were two formidable defenders of the idea that the gods, if they truly exist, are remote and uninterested in human affairs. This idea saw a rebirth in the Enlightenment, which emphasized the hard sciences and a pursuit of worldly values: money, power, and sex. Bishop Wright argued that this paradigm, while awarding the obvious benefit of improved health and medicine, was not entirely unlinked to the atrocities of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. He also mentioned that the false conflict of “religion vs. science” was indebted to ancient Epicureanism and its emphasis on empirical science as the only method of knowing.  Wright’s prescription for what he sees as a broken world is to embrace wisdom incarnate, Jesus Christ. He argued that Christianity makes the best sense of the facts in the world, a point he articulated at length in his book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.

Professor Morson had a brief response to a speech that he admitted was “moving.” Morson quickly established that he conceals his own beliefs and thus was not representing a particularly creed or non-creed. He questioned several of Wright’s rhetorical flourishes, some of which Wright subsequently admitted were exaggerations. Morson’s talk centered more on his dislike for a fanatical belief in anything. This not only includes religious fundamentalism but the fundamentalism of the “New Atheists.” Morson cited approvingly Chesterton’s Father Brown: “The trouble with atheists,” Father Brown said, “Is not that they believe in nothing. It is that they will believe in anything.” Morson noted that many of the sacred tenets of materialistic atheism, when closely examined, turn out to be as vacuous as creationism.

The talk was a thoughtful reflection on religion and secularization in the West. It avoided many of the crude caricatures found both in young earth creationists like Ken Ham and militant nonbelievers such as Richard Dawkins. Both speakers were cognizant of the media’s indulgence in chronological snobbery, or the notion that the validity of an idea is determined by its place on the calendar. Morson made the astute point that in the 1920s many intellectuals discarded the notion of democracy in favor of communism and fascism because the latter were seen as more “progressive” and the former a vestige of an unenlightened past.

And so it is imperative that we must question all of our notions, even those that seem most modern and rational. The idea that a “new” idea, or a “new” movement, and a “progressive” path is always the right one is simply false and any serious philosopher or historian will acknowledge this (journalists, not so much.) This illusion is so widespread in so much commentary that it goes unnoticed. I think it would benefit us all to approach political, moral, and philosophical issues with honesty, integrity, and intelligence to see which ideas are right and which are wrong, and not simply parrot trendy intellectual currents and condescendingly mock those who disagree as “backwards.”