Last month, in conjunction with our "Amazing God" evangelization initiative underway in the Albany Diocese, I reflected on some of the obstacles we encounter to spirituality in the contemporary milieu: specifically, the loss of a sense of sin, consumerism and the gap between spirituality and religion.

This month and in August, I would like to suggest some other challenges to contemporary spirituality as we seek to deepen our own faith and seek to share our faith with others. In September, I will analyze how we in the Church have failed in our mission and thrown up obstacles to people's practice of the faith.


A major obstacle to spiritual growth and development is the secularization of our culture.

America remains a religious society; but, increasingly, religion is being relegated to our private lives as an aggressively secular culture systematically seeks to exclude religion from all public space. Religion is deemed acceptable for private life; but, when its adherents seek admittance to the public arena, they are told "to check their bags at the door."

Under the guise of enforcing an exaggerated notion of official "neutrality," the contemporary secular milieu actually promotes its own secular outlook to a privileged position in shaping public opinion and public policy. Under the guise of promoting tolerance, the secularist outlook fosters the intolerance it claims to abhor.

There has developed the phenomenon in our national life that would seek to rule religiously-based values "out of order" in the public arena simply because their roots are religious.

Wary of faithful
In this view, pluralism means a public square purged of intolerance - which secularists define as the belief in exclusive truth claims that define right and wrong. They believe that any religious voice in a pluralistic society will either infect the body politic with unhealthy doses of fanaticism and ill will, or will contribute to the type of extremism and polarization along religious lines which have plagued Europe and the Mideast for centuries.

Their fears are fueled by the growing political voice of evangelical Christians; by the efforts of some Catholic bishops to use the threat of excommunication to dictate to political leaders or to the Catholic people how to vote; and by the omnipresent threat of Islamic extremism.

Hence, we have the anomaly in this country that in private, religion enjoys an overwhelming majority status (more than 90 percent of people profess belief in God; 80 percent claim adherence to some religion); but in public, religion has a definite minority status or no status at all.

If religion does exist at all in our public affairs, entertainment or intellectual and artistic endeavors, it exists uneasily and on its very best and blandest behavior - preferably as a form of vague non-denominationalism.

Cultural drift
Consequently, we in the faith community are struggling with how best to engage the public debate in a way that combats an elite secularism that is antithetical to a spiritual message.

Religious people across the theological and political spectrum, from the far left to the far right, are increasingly uneasy with the cultural drift that has developed.

For religious conservatives, these forces are exemplified in abortion, value-free secular schools and moral laxity. For religious liberals, these forces are perceived in militarism, consumerism and environmental insensitivity - all of which are seen as a threat to creation and a symbol of our lack of faith.

In any case, a profound alienation created by hostile secular forces is at the heart of the religious community's desire to find its voice in the public policy affairs of our nation.

That there must be such a voice, I believe, is especially important given the nature of the issues which now confront American society. There is a spectrum of questions, ranging from in vitro fertilization through the Iraq war, about which public debate is not purely technical or practical, but filled with moral content.

Morality and policy
On an increasing number of issues, it is impossible to formulate wise policy without asking what constitutes "good policy" in a morally normative sense.

Every day, technology produces choices for us which previous generations could not have imagined. In the past two generations, for example, we have cracked the genetic code and smashed the atom. Neither these nor the revolution they symbolize can be understood apart from moral analysis.

A key policy question is, "When we can do almost anything, how shall we decide what we ought to do?" To put it more sharply, "When we can do almost anything, how do we decide what we ought never to do?"

It is precisely because this question is implicated in so many public policy issues that it is critical that religious bodies and spiritual leaders be able to enter the public policy debate.


Another problem in today's world and society is scientism, which maintains that only that which is empirically verifiable or demonstrable can be considered objectively true. Anything else is to be viewed as wishful thinking or mere ancient superstition, which cannot be trusted or given credence.

A common view of scientism is that evolution occurs simply because matter obeys some unseen law whereby a simple organism will, if it evolves at all, become a more complex one. Evolution is thus a blind process without purpose, and science will one day uncover the mechanical rules underlying every seeming mystery.

Our own lives, therefore, are equally without purpose. There is no place for the supernatural in scientism.

Chemist Peter Atkins of Lincoln College, Oxford, puts it this way: "The universe has evolved over the 14 billion years of its existence by the directionless, unguided processes that are the manifestations of the working out of physical laws. That we do not yet understand anything about the inception of the universe should not mean we need ascribe to its inception a supernatural cause, a creator."

Thus, as Dennis O'Brien, president emeritus of Rochester University, notes, the main strategy of scientism in presenting its views is to line up a set of religious claims and compare them to the claims of science and common sense morality.

When this comparison is made, religious claims appear implausible factually and reprehensible morally. Creation in seven days, the virgin birth, raising the dead: Scientism dismisses all these as absurd. And what of the morality of a God who asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son?

Straw man
The flaw of this critique is that it puts forth a straw man.

According to scientism, the whole of human reality must be viewed through the lens of science. But a holistic view of the world and a scientific view are not the same thing.

While the detached view of the scientific observer has immense value when we are trying to arrive at a description of the natural world, it is not the only perspective to be taken into account. Science is interested primarily in what is general and repeatable. But the experience of human beings is very different.

Understanding human reality is not a spectator sport. It must be lived from within rather than observed from without. A person must be understood as more than a collection of physical laws and moral duties.

Compatible views
Unlike adherents of scientism, I believe there need not be a conflict between science and religion. Both are trying to do the same thing: namely, to explain the world we see by referring to a world we do not see.

As Rabbi Neil Gilman notes: "Both find the ultimate explanation for the immediately visible by postulating a world that is invisible and that accounts for why things are the way they are. That's what myths do; they deal with the invisible to explain the visible. In this sense, 'the big bang' is much more theology than it is science. Both are poetry."

Ultimately, it seems that if we do not find the compatibility between science and religion, life itself and all creation becomes meaningless and absurd - totally pointless.


Closely aligned with scientism is the renewed militant atheism presented by bestselling authors such as Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion" and Christopher Hitchens in "God is Not Great."

They not only ridicule belief in God or the supernatural, but look upon faith as a disease, consider religious instruction as a form of child abuse and decry the harm religion has done and continues to inflict upon humanity.

The response to this aggressive atheism is similar to that of scientism, if not more so. As to the assertion of these critics that religion is capable of doing enormous harm - citing, as they do, the Crusades, the Inquisition and contemporary Islamic Jihadism, or religious intolerance toward those outside the tradition (gays, the separated and divorced or non-believers) - how do these advocates for a world free of religious beliefs and traditions explain away the six million Jews incinerated in the ovens of Auschwitz and Birkenau...the 20 million Eastern Europeans killed under Stalin's brutal totalitarian regime...the untold millions slaughtered in the killing fields of Cambodia...and the genocide of China's cultural revolution - or the systemic effort within all of these godless ideologies to accept or even promote abortion, infanticide and eugenics?

Wanted: hope
What is missing, both in scientism and atheism, is hope. Neither provides much consolation at a funeral and neither can respond to that insatiable quest for the divine, the transcendent, the infinite, which has been at the heart of the human experience throughout all of recorded history.

In the face of the Darwinian approach to life upheld by scientism, wherein natural selection necessitates the ruthless and relentless destruction of individuals who have no meaning other than fostering the survival of the fittest; or following out the cosmic consequences of the "big bang" and modern atheism, which has fueled only eugenic perfection, ethnic purity and materialistic supremacy, we believers are called to adhere to what the philosopher Gabriel Marcel has called a "metaphysic of hope."

This finds God not absent amid the vicissitudes of nature, of manmade human savagery or in God's own intent of revenge or retribution; but sees God in all the peculiar shapes which love takes, amid the chaos and pain of the human condition, whose only ultimate goal is to gather us in the embrace of divine love.

Next month, I will complete this trilogy on challenges to contemporary spirituality by addressing the mirror image of scientism and atheism - fundamentalism - as well as the challenges of technology and individualism.

This, hopefully, will set the stage for the theme of the second year of our Amazing God evangelization initiative: "the heart of Christ."

(Speaking of Amazing God, local parishes are competing in a t-shirt design contest for teens to illustrate the initiative's theme for its second year, "the heart of Christ." The winning design will be sold at diocesan events and worn by participants at the National Catholic Youth Conference. The deadline for entries was July 1. For information, contact your parish's youth minister or call Dave Stagliano, 453-6630.)