Published in First Things, April 2002.
NOT SO LONG AGO, before the dot-com bubble-burst and the September 11 terrorist attack, it seemed as if history would deliver all good things. The Dow was continuing its steady rise, and the nation seemingly faced no insurmountable problems. We were living at or near the end of history, with only a little tidying up to do at the rougher edges of the world before all would be permanently well. The events of last September compelled us to reconsider such rosy assumptions.
This pre-September 11 idyll was no anomaly. The belief in a perfect future has been a consistent feature of Western thought, emerging out of Christian hope of salvation in the next world. For the last two hundred years, however, this hope has been expressed usually in political or economic, rather than in religious, terms. This change has been so complete that the common presumption among elites, from the Davos World Economic Forum to the UN, is that this future path will entail the demise of religion. It is thus particularly appropriate that the Catholic University of America Press has reissued Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion (originally published in 1929) as part of a planned series of Dawson volumes. Long before Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history or Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations, Dawson (1889-1970) proposed a very different foundation for the study of human society. With Progress and Religion as well as such other books as The Age of the Gods (1928) and The Making of Europe (1932), Dawson unapologetically placed religion at the center of culture rather than on the periphery.
Dawson is one of those historians everyone should read but few actually do. It was not always so. In his lifetime, Arnold Toynbee and T. S. Eliot, among others, recognized his mastery of comparative history and religion and admired his crisp prose style. Almost alone in the 1920s and ’30s, he contended with those who denied religion any cultural significance. A young convert to Catholicism, Dawson was active for many years in ecumenical efforts in England. This experience had a clear impact on his awareness of cultural differences that is reflected in his sympathetic understanding of other cultures.
Progress and Religion is a direct attack on the nineteenth and early twentieth-century social sciences and their understanding of progress. Now known as the “secularization thesis,” the theory of progress proposes that civilizational development is directly proportional to a decline in religious belief and influence. In three chapters, one each devoted to sociology, anthropology, and history, Dawson examines the thought of such figures as Condorcet, Comte, Frazer, and LePlay. Drawing on their work, the social sciences excluded religion, either through Cartesian rationalism, Spenglerian theories of civilizational life cycles, or supposed general laws of anthropological development. They uniformly neglected “the study of religion in its fundamental social aspects.” In the view of such thinkers, religion was “essentially a negative force like ignorance or tyranny” and so could not be a creative cultural influence.
Dawson overturned this entire way of thinking about culture. In passionate, disciplined prose, he demonstrated that materialist or environmental explanations of religious belief simply did not accord with the evidence. “Modern writers on anthropology and primitive thought have tended to assume that religion is a secondary phenomenon and that man’s earliest attitude to reality was a kind of empirical materialism.” On the contrary, as he wrote in 1925, the “great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest.” In her introduction to the new edition of the book, the distinguished anthropologist Mary Douglas notes that Dawson “artfully stages a dialogue between the eighteenth-century philosophers, Condorcet, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, and the people they thought of as primitive.” Religious faith takes on a different perspective if examined from the point of view of these people themselves, and not through the prism of anthropological theory. “The thin rationalism [of modern anthropology], which proceeded by arbitrarily separating one level of experience from the next, grossly distorted the subject matter and made a mockery of its pretensions to objectivity.” These thinkers largely ignored the brute fact that “an obscure and confused intuition of transcendent being” was present in and nfluenced both so-called primitive cultures and more advanced ones.
Progress and Religion shows, moreover, that “the religious factor has had a far more important share in the development of human cultures than that which has usually been ascribed to it.” Contrary to the assumptions of the progressive anthropologists, material and cultural progress need not go together. The early Christians in the Roman Empire, for example, created a more dynamic and vibrant culture than the dying, “higher” culture of the pagans. Likewise, Dawson notes peoples such as the Eskimo or Bushmen, whom the theorists of progress considered completely dominated by their physical surroundings. In fact, these cultures are the results “of a free and intelligent activity, and it expresses itself in an art and a folklore far richer and more original than that of many more advanced peoples.” Dawson was no cultural relativist, but his analysis reveals that the secular scale of values simply does not capture the reality of human social life. The lesson he drew was that religious faith is the spark of culture, and external material success will not survive its being extinguished. That lesson is particularly important today, when some continue to describe complex world cultures in simple, undifferentiated terms and understand them using the same imprecise Enlightenment concepts.
Recent anthropological scholarship has confirmed Dawson’s thesis about the religious basis of culture and cast serious doubt on the modern equation of progress with secularism. As such scholars as Rebecca French and David Hollinger have noted, religious ways of seeing the world remain the dominant interpretive tool for most people. Dawson anticipated this transition, insisting that progress “has begun to lose its hold on the mind of society ... because the phase of civilization of which it was characteristic is already beginning to pass away.” While a more positive assessment of religion’s role has gained some ground, most of the academy and the wider circle of intellectuals and writers continue to ignore the formative role of religion, in the West and throughout the world.
Religion is a natural human impulse, and if it cannot be expressed in culture, it will find an outlet in ideology. In Dawson’s time, the great temptations were the ideologies of fascism, communism, and Nazism. Today, our vulnerability is different. Elites in the West have become almost unable to understand religious motivations for conduct, even if the antiquated theory of progress no longer commands the scientific support it once did. This blindness has clear dangers not only with respect to our current efforts to understand Islam, but also in relation to other parts of the world, such as Tibet, and even in the United States itself, where the “culture wars” are largely motivated by a latent progressivism. The recent flare-up about evangelicals being “uneducated and easy to lead,” not to mention the efforts to explain away certain strains of Islam as motivated by economic or other nonreligious factors, are recurring echoes of the problem Dawson originally diagnosed. Despite its claim to universality, the secularization thesis, no less than the “end of history” schema, contributes little to our understanding of the place of religion in the world today.
America, which Dawson did not visit until the late 1950s when he was appointed to the first Stillman Chair in Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard, initially seemed to be his worst-case scenario. The nation regarded itself as the culmination of the project of human freedom, where old loyalties were cast aside in favor of the novus ordo seclorum, and where self-invention was part of the national character. In the 1920s and ’30s, Dawson thought that America could not resist becoming “a purely secular type of culture which subordinates the whole of life to practical and economic ends and leaves no room for independent spiritual activity.” In Progress and Religion, American civilization was the embodiment of technology gone awry: life acquired meaning only through consumption and production, by “more cinemas, motor-cars for all, wireless installations, more elaborate methods of killing people, purchase on the hire system, preserved foods, and picture papers.” (One can only wonder what Dawson would have made of the Internet.)
However, in an important lecture on “America and the Secularization of Modern Culture,” presented in the same year that John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths was published (1960), Dawson set forth a more hopeful view. America’s origins in the dissenting and pluralist tradition of Protestantism had established a realm of personal and communal freedom outside the power of the state. The nation’s individualism clearly bore the imprint of the Christian focus on the sacredness of the person, despite occasional lapses into narcissism. Just as importantly, American culture had developed without the anticlericalism or antireligious character that was common among its European counterparts. Further, America had a clear, if legally unrecognized, role for religion in public life. While Dawson foresaw that the sometimes stark separation of the world of business and politics from that of religious belief threatened to produce what has been called a naked public square, he nevertheless thought that because the nation combined a deep religiosity with enormous material wealth and productivity, there “is great opportunity in America that may never be repeated.”
Because of this heritage, Americans are able to understand religious belief. More importantly, at its best the nation can be a model of how to interpret modern political forms through the eyes of faith. The ability to hold strong religious convictions and to profess democratic principles is America’s great contribution to the world, despite elite opinion about the “separation of church and state” on the one hand or a restricted “Christian America” on the other. This comfort with the modern mix of religion and politics may be of even greater importance in the coming century.
by Christopher Dawson