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Is a Christian (not) allowed
to be progress-optimistic?


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 17/2008, P. 179 f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    After the return of religion we speak of the return of atheism. Are Christians, Muslims ... enemies of a liberal, open, progressive society? And what are atheists?


Simultaneously to the "mega-trend religion" we at present experience a "mega-trend atheism". Not only in the English-speaking area works such as "The God delusion" or "God is not great" storm the top of the bestseller lists. As always in the post-modern world there is for each trend the opposite trend. No sooner have observers of contemporary issues sighted one it will be supplemented or replaced by another one. And you can doubt whether these never-ending trend prognoses in quick succession make any sense at all.

It can at any rate be observed that the militant atheism after it had taken a "time-out" or just a "nap" returns with violence in public debates. The journalistic response to that can be found primarily in secular media, such as talk shows, newspapers and magazines.

The "Frankfurter Allgemeine" published (29 March) an essay of the philosopher John Gray, teaching at the London School of Economics: "To what are atheists up?" By passing the recent works of various atheistic theorists in review he tries to prove that they actually - only the other way around - display the same missionary-Messianic zeal as it is also found in the faith in God. The current critics of religion apparently did not manage without some kind of religion of their own. Gray characterizes their fanaticism as "secular fundamentalism". The representatives of the new atheism themselves were attached to an irrational belief that cannot be deterred by anything - to a superstition: as if the world could only be saved by a world without God: striving towards enlightenment, rationally, scientifically, by faith in progress and nothing else. Those people were almost obsessed with a progress delusion.


New Zealots, Secular Utopians

The assumption that mankind could only arrive at salvation through the dying of religion Gray exposes as illusion - from Leninism over Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism up to an Islamism which the author regards less as a religious than a secular-totalitarian organization. One should rather speak of Islamo-Leninists. In his great account all those somehow believing in, scientists as well as writers, politicians as well as terrorists Gray without distinction classifies under the new enthusiasm. It almost seems in his vehement rejection of any progress optimism and any missionary enthusiasm the step between a George W. Bush and an Osama bin Laden is at best a tiny one.

But most harshly Gray takes the militant atheists to task. They suffered from a dangerous fallacy. They thought freedom was a secular invention. But "the idea of the free will, on which the modern view of personal autonomy is based, has its origin in the Bible (think of the Creation story). The view that the exercise of the free will is part of the human being is a religious heritage." And on closer examination, according to Gray many forms of atheism come from the awareness of the individual dignity of man discovered in Christianity. "For fanatical atheists it is no question that a better life is possible, if only everybody accepts their point of view, and that a particular way of life - their own, accordingly embellished - is the best for everyone." Admittedly, atheism did not have to be missionary in every case. You could be a disbeliever and nevertheless friendly tolerate religions. Though it was "a strange humanism that condemned a deeply human need. But just that is done by the militant atheists when they demonize faith".

Gray refrains however from characterizing more closely what for him actually constitutes the positive aspects of religion and especially of Christianity. He seems less interested in that. He reforges the atheistic criticism of Christianity and again uses it as spearhead to fight against the faith in progress. With it he by no means confines himself to atheists but includes without distinction also pious politicians as e.g. Tony Blair who recently converted to the Catholic Church: "Some neo-conservatives connect militant progressiveness with religious faith. Most of the neo-conservatives are secular utopians who justify preventive wars and excuse torture (meant are here the allied attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the editor), because they lead to a bright future in which the whole world is converted to democracy. Even in the West, which feels so superior, Messianic politics has nothing lost of its dangerous attraction."


Back to the Myths?

His conclusion: "Religion has not disappeared. To suppress it is as if you wanted to suppress sexuality - a pointless venture ... The attempt to abolish religion leads only to it that it emerges again in grotesque and distorted form. An uncritical belief in the world revolution, in universal democracy insults reason far more than the mysteries of religion."

But what kind of religion is then actually valuable and useful for Gray? Apparently only one that presents itself as non-Messianic, non-prophetical, apolitical.



It almost seems as if he wanted to lock religion up again in the cage of old, peaceful myths which hurt no one, where everybody can dream and speculate for himself without the claim to change the world. For Gray such a religion is a kind of "partner" of science, though a rather weak partner. For in a strange contradiction to his criticism of the Western-dominated secular progress optimism Gray expects from science the leading role: that it reveals truth, "which religion veils in dreams". Science and religion were codes that serve human needs - "in the case of science the desire for prediction and control. Religions serve many purposes, but basically they correspond to the striving for meaning to which myths do justice rather than scientific explanations."

So only that is a true and good religion, which must be protected from the bad atheists, that refrains as far as possible from public interference, that permanently counters progress optimism with progress pessimism? A Christianity that so makes itself at home in neo-mythological dream worlds, that wraps up itself hygienically sterilized would shovel its own grave. As believer of the 21st century one would rather prefer to do without such a retrograde, ambivalent vindication and defence of religion from atheists, as Gray tries it. For it does no justice to the Messianic core of Christianity: Here it is in the context of the Christ event absolutely about progress, conversion, development of the human consciousness - also of the spiritual, political, scientific, social and cultural. How does history become salvation history? What does salvation mean? This is the key element of the Christian understanding of God, and of its conception of itself. God has the last word about that. But the world revolutionary Christ event cannot be non-historically disposed of in the cellars of speculations over myths which are more or less without any obligation.


To Save Europe's Successes

In an article of the magazine "Merkur" (April) the sociologist Ulrike Ackermann again critically concerns herself with the critics of the modern idea of progress. In our Western culture self-doubts boomed. The "certainties about the achievements of the Enlightenment and the modern age" were increasingly questioned. Even the Pope denounced the "cold rationality" which the modern age has given us. One already began to cast suspicion on the attempt to bring democracy, prosperity and freedom to other nations as evil colonialism. This was accompanied by trends to again cast a religious spell on the world. An attempt to cut back the emancipation of man from ecclesiastical authority? The essay expressly rejects Gray's request. With him the world appeared - so an original quote from Gray - as "meandering river without purpose or direction." But thus, says Ulrike Ackermann, we had arrived again with the ancient Greeks. We again indulged in "the desire for the eternal cycle".

Europe should however honour its intellectual as well as material achievements and not surrender them, not even to a multiculturalism which belittles the own views and updates the outdated perspectives of other cultures. The author does not believe in a naive "glorification of the foreign", the supposedly original, which had not yet been sanded smooth by the modern enlightened Western reason. Such enthusiasm was just another false paternalism, born from the bad conscience in view of the history of European colonialism. In that attitude the stranger, the foreigner was always made the victim and tied down to this victim role. Instead of that the sociologist demands an offensive standing up for our culture, which - this is acknowledged by her - is definitely also owed to the Messianic ideas of Christianity. Strangely enough, with those defending just Christianity - critics of the faith in progress, of secularism and atheism -, the Western freedoms and their painstaking achievement got little positive mention. "Though the development of just the value of individual freedom could not have taken place without Christianity, Roman law, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment - with the consequence of democratic revolutions in Europe and America." In sharp contrast, inter alia to Gray she argues for defending the secular yield of the ideas of Redemption - of course also against new religious patronage.

her weight behind a European heroism that fades out the sufferings and crimes of history. "The paradox in Europe's history lies ... just in the connection of progress and cruelty. Like a phoenix from the ashes from the medieval order rose the Renaissance, from the womb of feudalism in agony democracy was born. In response to the bloody repression by the church the Enlightenment gained victory under severe and painful struggles. And the religious wars paved in the long run the way for the idea of secularism. The European colonial policy and its conquests in overseas caused anti-colonial movements. The communist, National Socialist and fascist revolutions of the 20th century were followed by anti-totalitarian movements.

Europe's history has a cruel and a progressive face; Europe gave the world despotism and at the same time freedom and human rights ... Actually you can counter the cultural pessimism only by a new self-confidence, which is aware of the abysses of our civilization and can at the same time celebrate the Western traditions of freedom."


Faith against Captivity

But Ulrike Ackermann unfortunately does not mention that the freedom of worship and the freedom to choose one's faith belong to Europe's greatest and most important insights. The belief in Christ was accepted as belief in freedom - against the captivity in the cycle of eternal myths - and productively developed. As salvation history with an eschatological goal - salvation, redemption by God from everlasting involvement in guilt - history is taken seriously. With it you should not forget the pioneering, progressive sentence about freedom in the Letter to the Galatians: "For freedom Christ has freed us." The progress optimism of a transcendent, hopeful faith is essentially inherent to Christianity.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'