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Murder and Arson in a Secular World

Posted on 22 November 2018, 10:03

As I write, thirteen people, the latest victims of a mass shooting, this time in Thousand Oaks, are dead. Elsewhere in the state we see a different kind of threat. Brush fires are raging in Ventura County, and Malibu has been evacuated. Chico, a city of 90,000, is threatened with the same kind of devastation that we saw in Santa Rosa. And Paradise, a town of 27,000, has been almost completely destroyed. The cause of these fires is, with one exception, unknown and will possibly never be known. They are, as we are constantly told, “under investigation,” with arson very much suspected in most cases.

We have never seen the likes of this on so large a scale in our history—nothing even close to it. And it makes all of us wonder what’s going on, not only in California, but across the country. Why would anyone kill and destroy so wantonly?

We’ve always had murderers and the guns they use to kill. We’ve always had strong winds, forests rich in tinder, and lightning strikes. But what we haven’t had until very recently is the sheer number and size of such events. There is something new going on here, something gone tragically wrong in our society. Anyone who has read Charles Taylor’s monumental (900-page) A Secular Age can guess where I am going.

Taylor, a Catholic, is convinced that the drift from belief to unbelief, from Christianity to atheism, from religion to secularism—so characteristic of our times—has “disenchanted” the human experience. As he puts it, “Humans are no longer charter members of the cosmos, but occupy merely a narrow band of recent time.” As a result, the world has been “flattened”:  “our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance.” Transcendence has been eclipsed by materialism, and all of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, find ourselves wondering if we are missing something. Julian Barnes opens his novel Nothing to Be Frightened Of with the words, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” This nicely describes what Taylor means by “disenchantment.”

What does this have to do with the devastation described above? Secularists deny the soul, so the world ahead that would give our lives meaning right up to the end is missing. There is nothing to look forward to and, more to the point when considering the broken men who wreak havoc on our world, nothing to fear. Nor is there any solace for those who mourn. If your child dies and you visit his grave, you might wonder what for. He is not there—or anywhere—and your visit is likely to be short and distressing. Your world is disenchanted. It’s not what it once was if you ever had faith.

The killers and arsonists live in a disenchanted world. Their lives have only the meaning they give it, and if they can’t find that meaning, they feel worthless and often angry about the cards life has dealt them. So they take out their frustrations on anyone, or anything, at hand. In past ages belief in otherworldly justice would tend to inhibit them. But if God is dead, and nothing is demanded of us, and we all meet the same sad fate, why not? After all, what is anyone’s life really worth anyway?

Taylor fully understands the allure of secularism. A secularist worldview is seen by many as “the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality.” He sympathizes with those who reject a childish Sunday-school faith. But he sees great harm up and down society, from educated elites who live disenchanted lives in their pricey suburbs and pride themselves on being “scientific materialists,” to derelicts who live without hope from bottle to bottle. Nor is he unaware of the findings of science or the fallacies of fundamentalism, especially its emphasis on hell. His advice is for Christians to dialog with secular humanists and learn what they can, but not at the cost of disenchanting our world. For him it is critical for us to recognize “a transcendent beyond that continues to press upon us” and understands us.

In my own life I have found this to be true. On two occasions I would have despaired without a fortifying faith in a transcendent being that I met, paradoxically, at my heart’s deepest point. That faith took me across those rough places and helped me retain my conviction that our world is enchanted—a world not flat, not merely outwardly expansive like a rather featureless plain, but vertical with deep green valleys and towering snow-capped mountains. 

Stafford Betty is the author of Heaven and Hell Unveiled: Updates from the World of Spirit, and When Did You Ever Become Less by Dying? Afterlife: The Evidence.

Key words: arson, Paradise, secularism, Charles Taylor, Malibu

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