Among the Unbelievers


It has long been assumed that Western society in the modern age—with the rise of science and the broad intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment—must become increasingly secular. What is modernity if not the movement from the authority of tradition to the authority of reason? In this view, made famous by the German sociologist Max Weber, the “disenchantment” of the world is the price one pays for leaving the charms and consolations of religion behind. The non-believing Weber was himself nostalgic for an age when faith imbued life with meaning and purpose. But he never ceased to identify secular thinking with a decisive advance in human self- understanding.

In “Holy Ignorance,” the French social theorist Olivier Roy sets out to modify this secularization theory and to overturn its triumphalist message. He begins by noting that religion, though still obviously an important part of modern society, has been relegated to the private sphere, becoming mostly an “interior” search for spiritual well-being. In such a world, “faith communities” of every stripe increasingly withdraw from the broader culture, defending their doctrinal purity against the onslaught of coarse secular trends, what Mr. Roy calls “neo-paganism.” This withdrawal, though understandable, is a danger in itself. “Faith without culture,” Mr. Roy says, “is an expression of fanaticism.”

By fanaticism, Mr. Roy does not mean merely extreme fundamentalist belief. He argues that all faith, in its isolated, separatist form, gives rise to a disdain for “profane culture”—everything that is not derived from religion—and to a preference for “pure religion,” a form of religious belief that is unmediated, unstructured and unconnected to the larger society. Pure religion, in Mr. Roy’s view, not only tends to fanaticism but lacks any grounding in a common world. Such religion loses touch, he says, with “religious knowledge itself.” It fails to acknowledge its dependence on a dynamic cultural tradition. He sees the spread of Pentecostalism, the world’s fastest growing religion, as evidence of the rise of “holy ignorance.” Its adherents “speak in tongues,” in a language that is understood only by those who have been touched by the Holy Spirit.

Holy Ignorance

By Olivier Roy
(Columbia, 259 pages, $27.50)

Mr. Roy’s category of “holy ignorance,” though illuminating, can be too broad and indiscriminate. He never explains why one form of holy ignorance, such as Pentecostalism, avoids political extremism while other forms do not: Many adherents of Salafist Islam, for instance, endorse violence in the name of fidelity to the Prophet. Mr. Roy’s holy-ignorance category includes even Pope Benedict’s call for the enhanced use of Latin in the Catholic liturgy, part of the church’s effort to restore a sense of the sacred to the Mass. Yet for Mr. Roy even a partial return to a Latin liturgy is the “use of a new mantra” aimed at “magical” effects; it is, for him, an instrument for isolating religion instead of bringing it into contact with contemporary culture. But surely Latin is not so esoteric that it cannot speak to at least some believers today. And a pope who repeatedly argues for the “acculturation” of faith in the civilization of the West—who argues for joining faith to reason, without which religion becomes mere superstition—makes a poor proponent of holy ignorance.

Mr. Roy is acutely aware of the forces—or “new paradigms”—in secular society that encourage the holy ignorance he deplores. They include absolute sexual freedom, unlimited individual autonomy and the imperatives of the “inner self,” however wayward these may be. Without saying so outright, though, he seems to feel that religion is obliged to make peace with such forces because it must reconnect itself with “culture”—even when culture is at odds with orthodoxy and what he rather clumsily calls “orthopraxy” (traditional morality). He doesn’t seem to recognize that churches cannot uncritically accommodate neo-paganism and new paradigms without transforming themselves beyond recognition.

Part of the problem is that, for Mr. Roy, culture is not the deep inheritance of a civilization guided by higher values. It is the “production of symbolic systems,” as he puts it—that is, a kind of neutral matrix of habits and beliefs and impulses. He cannot tell us what is most valuable about culture because culture rests, for him, on the shifting sands of symbol creation itself. Whether he intends to do so or not, he provides plenty of evidence that secular “ignorance” and dogmatism rival “holy ignorance” as a cultural force in the modern world.

Above all else, Mr. Roy is able to show us vividly how much has changed with the secularization that Weber predicted—how formerly Christian societies have lost a sense of their own religious foundation. As religion has floated free of culture, he notes, it has not only turned inward; it has also made desperate attempts to go to market, turning to everything from the Internet to popular music to sell itself to generations that have lost even an elementary religious literacy. By transforming itself into another instrument of “therapeutic” satisfaction, Mr. Roy observes, religion risks losing its soul.

“Holy Ignorance” ends with a profound set of questions: How can religion be passed along to children when it is no longer a reliable part of the culture they will inherit? What hold can religion have on the souls of human beings when it increasingly becomes a “consumer” choice—or, as Mr. Roy emphasizes, an intensely personal, inward experience—and when people dispose of the faith of their fathers as they might dispose of clothes that are no longer fashionable? The tendency of modern society to trivialize the most important decision a human being can make is arguably a far greater threat to the integrity of faith than secularization ever was.

Mr. Mahoney is professor of political science at Assumption College and the author of “The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order” (ISI).

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