God Preserve Us from Godless Philanthropy

When Christians trade the Holy Spirit for the spirit of the age, it leaves a void that secularists try to fill — too often, with miserable results.

In this photo illustration the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gives the first national digital Easter Sunday service from his kitchen at Lambeth Palace on April 12 in London, England.
In this photo illustration the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gives the first national digital Easter Sunday service from his kitchen at Lambeth Palace on April 12 in London, England. (photo: Photo Illustration by Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

How exactly will the British “keep calm and carry on” during the crisis caused by the coronavirus? This is the question addressed by British journalist and historian Simon Heffer in an article published in the U.K.’s Sunday Telegraph on March 15. He regrets that “things we have taken for granted all our lives – ease of movement and of assembly, freedom from pestilence, indeed the very salubrity of life itself — are threatened.” He continues: “Apart from the profound consequence that many will die before what was expected to be their time, we shall be forced back on resources of character we did not know we had, and made to change patterns of behaviour for the common good.”

This is no doubt true but also somewhat run of the mill and not itself worthy of comment. What is noteworthy, however, is Mr. Heffer’s criticism of the archbishop of Canterbury for his conspicuous silence on the crisis, apart from the offering of mundane sanitary advice for church services. Why, Mr. Heffer wonders, is there such a worrying dearth of inspiring religious leaders to steer the United Kingdom through troubled waters? He then ventures to answer his own rhetorical question: “Perhaps [the Archbishop’s] inability to lead his flock in this crisis is the ultimate admission of the triumph of secularism … in which case he should go. It would be an ironic turn if it were left to the overtly godless – of which I am one – to form a new philosophy to console our people in a crisis whose most terrible impact is probably yet to come.”

It is true that the uninspiring and lackadaisical leadership of the woefully lackluster Church of England is indicative of the “triumph of secularism” within the Anglican Church, which has long since abandoned the Holy Spirit for the Spirit of the Age. What Mr. Heffer calls “secularism,” as it pertains to the Anglican Church, is more properly called theological modernism, which has been condemned as a heresy by the Catholic Church. It is the belief that religion needs to move with the times, succumbing to popular fads and fashions. History illustrates that the religious denominations that fall into this error begin to wither and decay. The reason for this is all too obvious: The Holy Spirit gives life, whereas the Spirit of the Age sucks the very life out of whoever worships it. “We don’t want a Church that will move with the world,” says Chesterton, “we want a Church that will move the world.”

Much more interesting than Mr. Heffer’s stating of the obvious about the Anglican Church is his naïve suggestion that the “overtly godless” can come up with a new philosophy capable of consoling people in a crisis, thereby replacing the need for religion or God. It is surprising that Mr. Heffer, who usually expresses good and solid political judgment, should be so gullible.

Let’s look at the historical track record of attempts by the “overtly godless” to replace religion with secular solutions to social crises.

In the late 18th century, the “overtly godless” revolutionaries in France sought to replace religion with “a new philosophy to console the people in a crisis.” They sought liberty, equality and fraternity, all laudable in themselves, and ended with the Reign of Terror and the invention of the guillotine to enforce their new philosophy. And then, throughout the 19th century, the “overtly godless” condemned religion for being the opiate of the masses, seeking to replace the sacrifice of the Mass with the sacrifice of the masses themselves on the altar of the “new philosophy” of dialectical materialism, as espoused by Karl Marx. After a series of abortive revolutions across Europe, this new philosophy finally seized power in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, and then spread via revolution or military conquest across eastern and central Europe, China, Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam and beyond. The body count is in the tens of millions.

Parallel with the spread of “overtly godless” communism, the 20th century also saw the rise of the “overtly godless” Nazi Party in Germany, whose ideas were rooted in Nietzsche’s desire to go beyond good and evil in pursuit of the übermensch. Again, the body count is measured in millions. Today, in the equally woeful 21st century, we see the ideas of Nietzsche morphing into the “overtly godless” Pride movement with its desire to go beyond good and evil in its insistence on radical “self-empowerment” at all costs. This includes the “empowerment” of the mother to kill her own children in the womb, right up until the moment of the child’s birth. Soon, if the radical empowerment of the Pride movement is able to take its course, we will see the right to kill infants in the weeks after their birth, there being no logical or biological difference between a full-term child in the womb and a child after it is born. We can also expect the routine killing or culling of the disabled, the sick and the elderly, especially those with genetic defects, the new untermenschen. The body count of today’s “overtly godless” reformers is also in the tens of millions, and counting. It is nonetheless true that Pride precedes a fall, as the fall of the French Revolutionaries, and the fall of the communist and Nazi empires illustrate. The thing about “overtly godless” Pride is that, if you give its advocates enough rope, they hang each other, which is tragic in a comic sort of way; the real tragedy is that they always hang the innocent before they hang themselves and each other.  

We can have little doubt that Mr. Heffer would insist that his own “overtly godless” new philosophy would not be like all the others that history has presented. Perhaps he will forgive me, should I consider him naïve. Perhaps he will understand that I prefer the hard lessons of historical experience over “overtly godless” wishful thinking.

This essay first appeared in Catholic World Report and is republished with permission.

Aleksander Augustynowicz, “Alleluia,” 1906

Erika Ahern on Safeguarding Your Family From Relativism and Secularism (April 10)

The Easter Season is here, and Catholic families are trying to get the most out of the season, especially as we emerge slowly out of the pandemic. This week on Register Radio, we are joined by Catholic vlogger and Catholic family expert Erika Ahern on her Easter Octave Guide for Catholic Families and her advice for safeguarding families from relativism and secularism. And then, we talk to Register editor Alyssa Murphy who gives a round-up of not-to-miss stories at ncregister.com.