One of the defining features of our moral and political culture is what we could call “secular fideism.” The term may surprise those who know some theological history: “fideism” is typically associated with forms of belief that deny rational explanation, a form of faith that declares, I believe it because I feel it (and I like what I feel). In other words, “fideism” is usually associated with “religion”—and if there’s one thing that does not define the secular age, the thinking may go, it is “religiosity.” This claim is certainly true empirically speaking; survey after survey demonstrates that individuals, especially the young, are abandoning religion in ever-swelling droves. So how is it warranted to describe the secular culture as fidesitic? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Every belief system has its origin story and the secular one goes something like this:
A patriarchal and (sexually) oppressive ruling class once dominated humankind by imposing a superstitious belief system that duped individuals into thinking that “the mind of God’—rather than the human mind—is what gives meaning, structure, and purpose to life. Secularism has liberated us from this epistemic and moral darkness.
To be sure, there remain many internecine and often hot-tempered squabbles among the guardians of the secular myth; some, for example, define “the human mind” collectively, which leads to “leftist politics,” and some define the human mind “individually,” which leads to the politics of the “right.” But all agree that it is the human mind alone (individually or collectively) that determines the nature of good and evil. That’s both modernity and post-modernity in a nutshell: the total eclipse of belief in a metaphysically real, morally relevant, and rationally accessible God.
Yet unlike the myths of Antiquity, secularity’s fables serve to conceal rather than reveal, and their gigantic secret is this: there has never been a larger hive-minded hodgepodge of assertions, or greater example of blinkered groupthink, or a more fanatically self-serving and self-soothing tall tale than the story that secularism is more rational than religion, especially Catholicism. Secularism, in other words, is perhaps the biggest example of “fideism” in the history of ideas, especially when applied to morality and politics. For example, consider the glaring absence of rationality within these banner lines of the secular reformation, which, though contradictory in relation to each other, collectively define the moral and political contours of the contemporary West:
1. Science Alone (a.k.a., Scientism):
Scientism holds that only “science”—or systematic empirical investigation—can provide true knowledge. In short, if science cannot “prove” what you’re saying, your beliefs are indistinguishable from sheer emotive fancy (i.e., you’re just “making it up”). Setting aside the fact that scientism is self-contradictory (there is no scientific experiment that can lead to the conclusion “Only science provides true knowledge”), those who affirm scientism, if they are consistent, must refrain from making any moral claims—claims about what individuals, groups, countries, etc. should do—for this simple reason: “science” has no methodological (setting up an experiment) or substantive (the outcome of an experiment) capacity to say what “should” be the case. All it can do at best (and even this capacity is questionable) is describe human behaviors and offer empirical explanations for the causes of those behaviors. It cannot, however, provide any rational mechanism for determining which behaviors are “good” and which behaviors are “bad.” To make such a claim would be to violate the epistemic parameters of science by speaking about matters that cannot be known empirically. Thus, the next time you hear someone say, “I only believe in science and you’re a bad person if you vote for the [ ] party,” or “As a scientist, I believe that the government has the power to impose [ ] law,” call out the con for what it is: fideism wrapped in white-coated ersatz rationality.
2. Supremacy of the Individual Will Alone (a.k.a., classical liberalism and libertarianism)
Whether rooted in the philosophical tradition of Immanuel Kant or of John Locke, the moral and political theories of “individualism”—contemporarily expressed as “You do you, I’ll do me”—not only maintain that individuals should never infringe upon others in their own “pursuit of happiness”; they hold that every definition of “happiness” is equally arational (neither rational or irrational) and thus equally preferential in nature. To be sure, classical liberalism and libertarianism may be able to coherently justify prohibitions on actions (i.e., “negative rights”) like a right not to be killed, assaulted, prevented from speaking in public, etc. However, the same theories cannot, consistent with their own philosophical underpinnings, say anything about what an individual or society should do—e.g., what positive good should be pursued—that is not reducible to an arbitrary expression of personal preference. What that means in practice is that every classical liberal or libertarian who tells you “It is right/good to do X” is saying nothing more than “Do X because I want you to do X”—which is as fideistic as it gets.
3. Supremacy of the Collective Will Alone (a.k.a., progressivism and wokeism)
Despite the outer appearance that progressivism/wokeism and classical liberalism/libertarianism are sworn ideological enemies, the two strands of secularism share the underlying assumption that it is the human mind—not the mind of God—that defines the nature of the good. All that progressive/wokeist ideology does is communalize the “autonomous self” of classical liberalism/libertarianism by converting the “I believe” to a “We believe.” Either way, the outcome is the same: statements about what should be done as it pertains to the nature of good and evil are sheerly preferential in nature and thus no more than rationally blind assertions of will—otherwise known as fideism. Progressivism/wokeism adds moral insult to injury by additionally affirming that “there is no such thing as universal moral values” while insisting that progressivism/wokeism is morally superior to all competing worldviews. This is indistinguishable from declaring, “We believe what we believe because we believe it—and you must believe it too (or else).”
4. Supremacy of “The Market” Alone (a.k.a., globalist conservatism):
Unqualified free-market conservatism—not the view that the free market is good (which Catholicism affirms) but that the free market is the highest good (which Catholicism rejects)—may think of itself as immune to the charge of fideism because of its penchant for speaking fondly of “traditional values.” However, it remains the case that if profit lies at both the bottom and top of the hierarchy of one’s moral values, then it is rationally inconsistent to claim that other values (e.g., “the family,” “civic society,” “marriage,” “classical education,” or even “human dignity”) have anything other than instrumental value, if they have any value at all. In other words, claiming to believe in “moral values” within the horizon of free-market absolutism is nothing more than an expression of preference—otherwise known as fideism.
These four options do not exhaust all the strands of contemporary secularism. Yet they demonstrate this overriding truth: the secular denial of a rational connection between the existence of God and the existence of a universally objective human good necessarily severs “rationality” from any substantive “morality,” which means that all ethical and political values necessarily end up getting tossed into a bin of subjective desire engraved with the words, “I/we believe it because I/we want to believe it.” The better moniker for “the Secular Age” might therefore be “the Age of Assertion.”
Catholicism offers an alternative. Precisely because it maintains that the claims “God exists” and “A relationship with God constitutes the human being’s highest good both individually and collectively” are rationally knowable, universally so across all languages and cultures, Catholicism categorically rejects fideism, especially as it pertains to moral and political questions. Catholic morality is thus not subjective. It is not the systematizing of arbitrary emotive impulses. It is, rather, an ordered collection of moral fact deduced from the structure of reality. As such, its authority does not stem from the will of an individual or group but, rather, from rationality itself—that is, the Logos itself (see John 1:1).
As the secular world slips deeper into tragically predictable moral and political chaos, Catholicism can thus take heart remembering that its house is built on rock. Whether it’s defending the dignity of all human life, the sanctity of marriage and the natural family, the ontological reality and complementarity of the sexes, or the obligation to construct a just economic order, Catholicism can (and must) continue to shield the light of reason from the dark superstitions of the age’s reigning cults. Just as it has always done.
Delve deeper into these topics in Dr. Matthew Petrusek’s new 10-part lecture series, “The Idolatry of Identity: Progressive-Wokeist Ideology and the Catholic Response.”