The separation of church and state is under ruthless attack.
For the past two centuries, the United States has maintained an important distinction between these institutions. Congress has made no law respecting an establishment of religion, and religious minorities have been free to worship as they desire—more than in any part of the world. Yet, all major institutions in the United States and the Western world, including governments, businesses, schools, and even social life itself, are becoming subject to a modern strain of an old religion: the Cult of Reason.
Founded in 1793, after the French Revolution, the Cult of Reason was designed to be the official religion of the new democratic France. It emphasized the importance of reason as the way to attain progress and human flourishing. Antoine-François Momoro, one of the leading politicians of the revolution, explained: “There is one thing that one must not tire telling people. Liberty, reason, truth are only abstract beings. They are not gods, for properly speaking, they are part of ourselves.” Thus, the cult disavowed divine revelation and looked to human qualities as an alternative. The capacity for perfection was within humanity; the struggle was pursuing it while simultaneously removing our flaws.
The goal of perfecting humanity is a lofty one. Even if we possess the capacity for ultimate enlightenment, there is much to purge within each individual and within society as a whole. Broad human perfection could only be achieved collectively; every corner of French society had to be reached. In this framework, individualism and freedom were required to fall to the wayside. If the nation were to achieve total perfection, the sin of one citizen would be the downfall of all–a tumor that would prove fatal to the body.
The collective therefore concerned itself with the moral cleanliness of each man, woman, and child: Every relative, friend, and stranger needed to be watched by everyone else, and any tumors that were found needed to be cut out. The result was a cleansing of society in which the ends justified the means and countless could be slaughtered if it meant society would be made perfect in some distant future. The English poet William Wordsworth, who witnessed aspects of the revolution, lamented in his “Prelude” (W. W. Norton & Company, 1979) the “faith of . . . theirs who throned / The human understanding paramount / And made of that their god, the hopes of those / Who were content to barter short-lived pangs / For a paradise of ages.”
This Cult of Reason, this purging of heretics for the perfection of society, has viciously made its way into Western public life in the 21st century. In his April article “The new Calvinists,” retired philosophy professor Jacob Howland explains the radical nature of the present-day Church of Humanity. With a Puritan fervor, the secularists of today seek to both limit discourse and oust from public life those souls they damn as heretics. Their guillotines are bloodless but still effective at controlling public discourse.
In a 2017 article, Andrew Sullivan provided commentary on the bloodless execution of one particular heretic. Charles Murray, a conservative speaker, was invited to Middlebury College to present his recently published book. During his lecture, students turned their backs on him and, in unison, chanted that his talk was “not respectful discourse.” After shutting down his talk, a mob surrounded him and prevented him from leaving the university, even attacking his faculty interlocutor and sending her to the emergency room. The same mob found Murray when he went to a local restaurant, and he was forced to eat out of town. Because Murray rejected tenants of the Church of Humanity–namely, intersectionality–he was silenced by the power of a mob.
There were troubling implications to some of Murray’s research. Respectful critique of his positions would have been healthy and welcome. However, mob violence and cancel culture are both as productive for debate as guillotines or witch trials are. Sullivan argues that this is reflective of a religious animosity toward those who disagree with secular orthodoxy. Like early New England Puritanism, this new religion controls language and discourse as it condemns certain oppressor groups to damnation. And it is not limited to our universities; it has pervaded the press, our social lives, and even much of the government.
In seeking to perfect human nature, the Church of Humanity, the new Cult of Reason, has lost humanity itself. It has forgotten that one of the most important virtues of humanity is respect for others. After all, we do not desire a perfect society for its own sake. We wish for it because of what it means for humanity–for ourselves and our neighbor. The cult treated the “sinful” as tumors themselves, instead of treating sin as a disease within the individual. Redemption was impossible, and forgiveness was weakness; that a person might be guilty was enough to sentence a person to death. In his French Revolution novel “A Tale of Two Cities” (Ont New American Library, 1980), Charles Dickens wrote that “the touch of pity could make no mark upon them.”
The response to purges is not to bow to the mob. Rather, we have a responsibility to continue promoting open discussion and divine virtue. Two centuries ago, a dismissal of godliness in favor of societal perfection led ultimately to the detriment of both. Let’s not kill two democracies with the same stone.