Carleton Essay Contest

"The knowledge of foreign cultures is a vital element of any culture; I don’t believe we can ever have enough of it. A culture must be open to foreign influences if it wants to keep its own creative power alive." — Italo Calvino

How can we best prepare tomorrow’s leaders to engage with complex issues that affect multiple regions, cultures and disciplines? This is the challenge we address in “Translating Experience” — an ambitious project to teach students how to deepen their knowledge of other regions and cultures of the world, as well as transfer and translate their learning to other contexts and disciplines.

Carleton has made global engagement a priority. This is reflected in the new graduation requirement for “Global Citizenship,” as well as our Strategic Planning priority of internationalization. Given our current strengths in foreign languages and area studies, and our very high rate of student participation in off-campus studies, we can now help our students deepen their understanding of world regions and global issues. We will achieve this goal by enhancing integration between current institutional structures, particularly within the curriculum and between the curriculum and off-campus studies.

Congratulations to Ben Woodfinden for winning second place in our first annual Student Essay Contest. Below is his response to prompt #3.

Christianity is in retreat today—there is no denying it. According to the most recent study done by the Pew Research Center on religion in the United States, this decline coincides with a growth in the number of people who either reject organized religion or faith and spirituality entirely. There is nothing to suggest this trend will change. However, the numbers (71 percent) still make it seem as though the United States is a thoroughly Christian country. As any remotely observant person will notice, it is not. American culture has become thoroughly post-Christian much in the same way as the rest of Western civilization. The worldview adopted by most Americans is a secular one, even if they are not consciously aware of it. The cultural space in which Christianity is not only relevant, but welcome is rapidly shrinking. Indeed, much of the public sphere has become openly hostile to Christianity. But, as R.R Reno has said, “the Judeo-Christian culture spurned today will become more appealing as the weaknesses of the secular project become apparent.” 

Today Christianity is understood primarily in negative terms, by what it forces people to give up. Secularism is not understood in similar terms, and is understood in positive terms by what people gain from adopting it. But, eventually people will begin to grasp the consequences of the adoption of a secular worldview, and like Christianity today begin to understand it in terms of what it forces them to reject. Given the long list of things a secular worldview cannot provide, the Judeo-Christian culture spurned today will be able to return as an appealing worldview, given that it can provide what secularism cannot. 

Ask yourself, in what context is Christianity most often discussed in popular culture? I think the answer is overwhelmingly in relation to sexuality. More often than not, when Christianity is discussed either in a fictional setting or in relation to real events, it is in the context of an issue related to human sexuality. These discussions rarely end well for Christians. Christians are seen as bigots, homophobes, and intolerant moralizers. In our overwhelmingly secular culture today, sexual freedom is the most fundamental of freedoms. Anything that impedes this is regressive and harmful. Why does sex matter so much to so many people? Perhaps because it is the only thing they have left. Sexual fulfillment is so important to contemporary understandings of self-actualization and identity that anything standing in its way instantly becomes hateful and unacceptable. Think of the vitriol and hate that was on display recently in the reaction to Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Christians who dare to turn down business on the basis of their personal conscience are modern day Klan members, and churches teaching anything other than complete sexual liberation are the 21st century equivalent of the KKK. 

In a culture so obsessed with sexual liberation, Christianity is bound to be seen as repressive. For the contemporary mind, being a Christian means losing something. It means repressing all those natural desires and hating anyone who lives a life fulfilling those desires. Thus, Christianity is a thoroughly unappealing worldview to many people. It is understood in terms of what it forces you to give up, and not in what you gain. A secular worldview, on the other hand, provides modern people all the things Christianity does not. Where Christianity gives you oppression secularism gives you freedom. Where Christianity gives you hate secularism gives you tolerance and acceptance. Yet, what people who understand the world in such terms have yet to fully grasp is what they will have to give up in order to become fully secular and thoroughly de-Christianized. Let us turn to examine some of the things the secular project is going to have to abandon. 

The mind-body “problem” is one of the whack-a-mole heads that popped up with the early modern adoption of a mechanistic view of reality. It is especially a problem for naturalists today, who are as yet unable to explain the mind in purely materialistic terms. However, the secular project has at its core a naturalist outlook that makes this problem a vital one that needs to be solved for the secular worldview to be complete. What most of those inclined towards this view do not realize is how much they will have to give up in order for this to take place. 

The reason for this is simple. Materialism cannot explain the mind because it implies the non-existence of the mind. If matter is all there is, then ultimately what you think of as your mind is nothing more than a collection of neurons firing inside your skull. Your subjective experiences (qualia) are simply chemical reactions. On this view, when you feel happy, you are actually not feeling anything. Instead, your brain is simply releasing an elaborate combinations of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. This is not a causal relationship, your happiness is not caused by the release of your dopamine, your happiness is the release of chemicals inside your brain. This position is known as “eliminative materialism” and while it is a minority position today, it is the only logical conclusion of a materialist understanding of the mind and consciousness. The most notable proponents of this theory today are Patricia and Paul Churchland. 

The most profound implication of this is that consciousness itself is merely an illusion. Our qualia are subjective experiences. These experiences cannot be reduced to material causes because they are by their very nature subjective, and cannot be objective or quantifiable. For the mind to be purely materialistic, it would have to be uniform and objective in a way qualia simply cannot be. The only way to explain them materially is to deny their very existence. What this really means is that you are merely an illusion generated by the firing of neurons. Would someone really be willing to concede that the love they feel for their husband or wife is nothing more than a reaction in their brain? Your identity is built around a sense of self that materialism is forced to eliminate. Giving all this up is pretty hard. Yet, if the secular project is to be complete, anything immaterial must be banished and eliminated. Say goodbye to your non-existent self. 

Secular progressivism is a moralizing enterprise. It is built upon the moral condemnation of those who reject its universal and timeless values. However, in order for human values to be meaningful, it is required that they are ultimately objective and not purely decided by subjective preference. Objective standards of moral value are generally thought to require an objective standard upon which they can rest. If moral standards do not rest on some sort of objective foundation, they become subjective, relative, and ultimately meaningless. Secularists do not normally dismiss objective values—how else would they be able to illicit such a vitriolic reaction against laws they do not like? Instead, they try to create an objective form of secular ethics (think The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris). Usually this is done by equating morality with human well-being. By defining morality in terms that can be quantified (pleasure/pain), science is able to provide a natural account for human values. 

But, this is problematic for obvious reasons. Why does human well-being constitute an objective standard of morality that all humans should abide by? We may well be able to measure things like pain and pleasure, but what makes these things inherently (and objectively) good or bad? Science cannot provide an answer to this because it is unable to transcend the natural boundaries placed on scientific questions. Just because well being promotes human happiness does not necessarily make it good. To equate morality solely with well-being does not make it objective; it simply assumes this is the case. All this does is redefine morality so that it becomes quantifiable. 

The marginalization of Christianity in the public sphere is a moralistic project. Christianity is not being rejected and shunned merely because people believe it to be false, but because people believe it to be morally repugnant. But, if the secular worldview cannot truly provide any basis for objective moral values, how can it judge those who reject its claims? Secularism needs a serious approach to human values to condemn with vigor anyone who rejects its claims. Complete equality, and a radical form of tolerance that has morphed into forced acceptance lies at the core of the secular project. Without a claim to objective morality, these principles become mere majoritarian preferences. 

Even more fundamental to the secular worldview is the notion of human rights. Usually placing equality as the ultimate entitlement, human rights are the preferred ethical language of secular progressivists today. And while humans today are said to be entitled to rights as fundamental as life or as strange as access to Wi-Fi, the entire notion of rights is undergirded by an implicit assumption of the dignity of all human persons. But, on what basis can a secular worldview provide some notion of dignity to human beings? On a purely secular view, humans are simply the accidental by-products of natural selection, monkeys who by chance grew brains too big for their own good. Even if we are fitter, and more intelligent than all other forms of life, what basis does this provide for human dignity? We are still just one more species among many. Naturalistic and secular understandings of human beings and the natural world simply cannot produce inherent human value. 

Some secular thinkers, like Peter Singer, understand this. The result is an ethical system that rejects exclusively humanistic dignity, and devalues human life to the point where some animals are considered to have more moral worth than some humans. On the Christian view humans are created in the Imago Dei. This means that regardless of a person's physical capacity, or social standing, they have an inherent moral worth gifted to them by a Creator God. This leads inevitably to ethical and political pronunciations of endowed and inalienable human rights. On secularism this is diminished. How many human rights activists would so willingly embrace a secular worldview if they realized that by doing so they throw out the foundational basis on which their tireless work to promote human rights rests? The secular project might see Christianity as inimical to human rights, but without the Imago Dei and the Christian conception of personhood the basis on which these rights rest disappears. 

The loss of all these fundamental tenets of human existence might be tolerable if we were to simply push them to the back of our (illusory) minds. However, the secular worldview entails the loss of one more aspect of human existence that is simply too much to bear. On a purely secular worldview humans have existed for a remarkably small period of time on an unremarkable and insignificant planet in an infinite and purposeless universe. Our existence is a product of blind forces, a series of highly improbable occurrences. Humans will both individually and collectively disappear from the universe in no more than an instant. We are born and then live a life of no ultimate significance. What we do and who we are have no final consequences. 

People can go about their day-to-day lives without worrying about consciousness or the grounding of objective morality and dignity, but can we really live without hope and meaning? As Victor Frankl, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor put it in Man's Search for Meaning, “life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” As comfortable as our lives may be today, the loss of hope and meaning that has come from the loss of a transcendent worldview is too much for us to bear. 

If pressed hard enough, how many secular progressivists would be willing to concede that their sense of selfhood is merely an illusion? If this is true, then the identity politics around which much of the secular left has refashioned itself become as meaningless as the sense of self materialism suggests is illusory. Furthermore, would these individuals be willing to concede as purely subjective the moral outrage that characterizes their activism? Human rights, the favored language of secular progressivism, is undergirded by an implicit belief in the intrinsic dignity of the human person. But, what basis is there for human dignity if we are merely random meat machines living precariously between two abysses? And what of the purpose and meaning all of us need in our lives to help us get out of bed in the morning and not descend into misery? As Woody Allen so bluntly put it, “we live in a random universe and you’re living a meaningless life, and everything you create in your life or do is going to vanish, and the Earth will vanish and the sun will burn out and the universe will be gone.” 

The secular project requires giving up a lot, probably too much for it to survive. When people enamoured with the secular worldview begin to realize how much they are going to have to give up in order to maintain it then it will begin to crumble. Secularism is built on a free lunch. It steals a lot from the Christian worldview in order to become appealing. But, as the secular revolution begins to devour things as fundamental as our consciousnesses, this will begin to change. 

Those outside of Christianity (and many within it) have forgotten that the central message of the Christian faith is focused on the person of Jesus. Instead, Christians are understood as homophobes and bigots, clinging to an outdated and intolerant understanding of sexuality that has no place in a progressive society. When the Christian message is (falsely) understood as a harbinger of intolerance, instead of as a message of hope and joy, then it will continue to falter and face marginalization. But, the secular project will falter. People may once again be able to look at Christianity in a different way, liberated from the shackles that poison it today. If the culture can turn and examine Christianity in terms of what it gains, and what it offers that the secular project cannot, then a rebirth of Christian culture will be inevitable. 

If my argument is correct then it is more important than ever for Christians to “batten down the hatches” and preserve the rich intellectual and spiritual tradition that they are heirs to. Once the internal contradictions of the secular project become apparent, people will begin to search for something that can provide a foundation for the self, morality, human dignity and meaning. The Judeo-Christian worldview can provide all these things. If Christians can preserve some institutions capable of conveying the Christian message to the world once this happens, then culture may once again be reinvigorated by the tradition it today shuns and rejects.

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Ben Woodfinden is a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada working towards an MA in Political Philosophy. His research interests include the origins of modernity and the relationship between religion and politics. Ben holds a Bachelor of Arts from Carleton.



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