Review of Why Rousseau Was Wrong: Christianity and the Secular Soul by

Book cover for Why Rousseau Was Wrong: Christianity and the Secular Soul

I really need to stop going into bookstores. With a title like Why Rousseau Was Wrong, how could I not buy it? It didn’t help that the author, is the dean of the local cathedral, was sitting behind the table with the last two or three copies, and engaged me in a nice conversation before offering to sign the book for me. I didn’t quite mention that I was an atheist. Perhaps she suspected from my tone or body language—at least, probably, she suspected I was irreligious or agnostic. So, I was a little sceptical that a book about the importance of the Church to modern day Britain would be for me. But I do make a point of reading books that challenge my preconceived notions and engage me, and I suspected this book would do so.

The title of the book, as well as its subtitle, Christianity and the Secular Soul, hints at Ward’s thesis. She is arguing against the received notions of individuality handed down from Enlightenment thinkers (she targets mainly the long line of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau but spares some time for a sideline exploration of Hegel, Nietszche, and Foucault later in the book) and taken as an integral part of the secular soul. Ward argues that this emphasis on individuality, coupled with an intense devotion to utilitarian ends rather means, has made a significant contribution to a sense of cultural and spiritual impoverishment that fuels events like the 2011 London riots. Ward believes the Christian faith—and, to be specific, the type of community predicated upon a Christian Church, like the Church of England—holds the solution to this spiritual impoverishment. I hate books that point out flaws in society but don’t actually offer any solutions, so I’m quite happy to read about how Ward thinks the Church can succeed where she believes secular humanism has failed.

In Part One, Ward takes care of some definitions—what exactly she means by the secular soul, secular humanism, etc.—and takes aim at liberal egalitarianism. In her view, this approach to thinking is too simplistic in its definition of equality:

In Western culture individuals are led to believe that each “has the right” to consider herself equal to everyone else. However, she soon learns that she is not equal: there are people who are greater and lesser than her—in all sorts of ways: more beautiful, less intelligent, poorer, more friendly, healthier, less patient. Bauman argues that in a society where worth is measured primarily in materialist terms, then that sense of “equality” can quickly turn sour, fostering resentment against those who have more material goods.

Secular humanism ditches the concept of faith in a deity, leaving a void—spiritual impoverishment. We fill this void with physical goods—materialism. But because wealth is not equally distributed, not to mention all sorts of other attributes, we can’t be equal on a materialist level, causing the sort of resentment that can result in rioting. Hence, Ward argues that Britain has become “brittle” as a consequence of this impoverishment. She wants to re-focus the notion of equality by grounding it in the Church: we are all equal under God.

I think Ward makes several valid observations about the dangers of materialism and the somewhat nihilistic obsession with wealth, fame, and status that permeates a lot of Western culture. The “American dream” of riches resulting from simple hard work and perseverance largely a myth fed to the masses. Media help to keep us caught in a constant negative feedback loop of self-image: buy this to look like that; eat like this to feel like that; do this to be regarded like that. I can understand the appeal of the simple, spiritually-based egalitarianism that Ward is proposing.

While Ward makes the case, then, that the Church might be a sufficient vector for egalitarianism (and there are all sorts of deeper issues with the inherent discrimination of the institutional ideological praxis that I’m just ignoring right now), I don’t agree that it is a necessary vector. I think it’s possible to have a secular soul that is still rich in spirit, in a moral if not religious sense. I don’t agree that morality is informed only by religion, and I think it’s possible to arrive a state of society where we are secular, moral, and spiritually rich. (That state of spiritual richness, though, requires an awareness and appreciation of our religious—and predominantly Christian, in the Western world—heritage that some secular humanists don’t always acknowledge.)

In Part Two, Ward seizes upon Edmund Burke as her heroic sceptic of Rousseau and his Enlightenment buddies. She examines the Enlightenment’s gradual departure from the Christian philosophy that dominated prior to the seventeenth century, and she links the Enlightenment’s well-meaning conclusions and endorsement of democracy to the terrors of the Terror, the Jacobins, and later, communist dictatorships. She links the secular soul that emerged from the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the individualist fulfilment of “forced” liberty at the expense of social cohesion, to the dangers of a direct and unchecked democracy. As far as I can tell, her argument is that we need a certain configuration of bodies of authority within our governance structure—and in her view, the Church is an essential such body.

It’s hard to argue with some of these conclusions, in the sense that, yeah, the Enlightenment did cause lots of people in France to go off the rails for a little bit. It seems a little equivocal to focus on these failings of the movement, however, while acknowledging but dismissing the comparable failings of Christianity as an institution. Ward is happy to admit that numerous bloody actions have been commmitted in the name of the Christian faith, but she doesn’t draw the same conclusion that she does from her critique of the Enlightenment thinkers. In both cases, political activists have seized upon a conveniently popular philosophy for their own ends. The Enlightenment and the Terror are both products of a larger dissatisfaction with the corrupt state of absolute monarchy in Europe at the time.

Ward also succumbs, briefly, to a somewhat romantic view of other cultures—primarily “Eastern”, Asian ones—and their notions of family and society. She lauds the corporate nature of such families, with more than two generations living under one roof, and a healthy respect and veneration of one’s elders. Fair enough—Western society could make it easier for elderly people to maintain their dignity as they age, and this is a problem we will confront in the next few decades as the Boomers start to retire. I would agree that our emphasis on individualism bears some of the blame. That being said, Ward employs a stereotype of the wise, serene Asian culture when she implies that the vast network of diverse traditions and corporate philosophies that seem to permeate Asia is as holistic or beneficent as it would appear to the outsider. China v. Tibet anyone?

Part Three of Why Rousseau Was Wrong focuses mainly on the Anglian Church as Ward’s metre-stick for what a Church community can offer. And I get it. I really do. I understand what makes the Church awesome. I recognize that, regardless of what one actually believes, church congregations are an excellent source of community and friendship. They provide a reassuring sense of stability and understanding. And the Church offers what we all need at some point or another: forgiveness. So, if Ward’s premise that society needs to become more corporate to be less brittle is true, I agree that the Church could a sufficient source of that spirit, albeit not a necessary one.

This is the central point of my resistance to Ward’s attack on secular humanism: it’s not done yet. Christianity took thousands of years to become what it is today—it is still in flux, still evolving and adapting to the changing needs of its flocks. Why can’t we extend the same tolerance towards secular humanism? By this I mean that it’s unrealistic to expect people to develop new philosophies that somehow spring fully formed from the head of Zeus without so much as a flaw. Ward is very quick to argue that religion is an essential component of being human. I’d argue we’re still trying to figure that one out, and these centuries are just growing pains in that larger experiment. It’s backward to assume that just because certain applications or derivations of secular humanism haven’t produced the best results that the only or best course of action is to retreat back into religion. We are bound to stumble and make more mistakes in our search for alternative social paradigms.

I’m less resistant to Ward’s overarching argument regarding corporatism versus individualism. I think she makes some good points about our obsession with utilitarian thinking and ends versus means. Part Four of Why Rousseau Was Wrong is all about education and how Ward thinks it should change. I’m very ambivalent about this part of the book.

On one hand, I have now been exposed to two different types of education systems. In my home province of Ontario, we shuffle students along until high school, at which point they need pass a certain number of courses to earn a diploma and graduate. The marks they get in those courses are less important, relevant really for scholarships and post-secondary applications than they are for job opportunities. Here in England, education is much more standardized and test-driven. Students get shuffled along with their year group, regardless of their achivement each year, then sit standardized tests. Consequently, unless there is any kind of coursework involved in the subject, the teacher has no determination in the student’s grade: the teacher exists merely to prepare the student to sit the examination. And the tests are so dry, so boring, that such preparation and revision often seems like a thankless and dull task—it’s no wonder students check out and become uninterested in school!

So I’m sick and tired of telling my students they need to learn something or do something because “it will be on your test” (and there is plenty on those tests that they learn because it is on the test, and only because it is on the test). I try, when possible, to provide other, extrinsic explanations of the value of their knowledge. But in the end, it’s the same: an instrumental approach to education instead of an attempt to foster an intrinsic love for learning. Le sigh.

On the other hand, the way Ward describes her discontent with the education system makes me somewhat leery. I think she is approprating the term child-centred education to criticize particular facets of the education system that I don’t view as essential to its child-centredness. To me, child-centred education begins with the basic notion that children are different—and this does not have to be associated with ideas of individuality. To facilitate learning, teachers must be aware of these differences and employ different strategies that make sense for different groups of children. Finally, child-centred education is usually constructivist, in that it prefers to allow children to experiment and discover knowledge instead of simply wrapping it up and presenting it to them as a gift. In my view, this better fulfils Ward’s desire for an intrinsic love of learning anyway.

I’m also uncomfortable with Ward’s emphasis on education’s role in teaching character and moral values. In particular, she naturally advocates for Church-run schools or schools that provide English students with a grounding in Christian traditions. While England does have an established church, unlike many other Western democracies, I don’t think this should mean that students need a “church education”. I’m still not sure to what extent educators should be shaping youth in terms of moral values and character. By all means, teach citizenship and an appreciation for religions, including Christianity and its historical impact on English society. However, I worry about distinguishing between teaching an appreciation for Christianity and teaching that it is some kind of authority.

As for the overall philosophical argument of corporatism versus individualism and the Church’s ability to foster the former, I think Ward has highlighted several pressing problems with British society, and while I am not fully on board with her solutions, I appreciate her attempts to provide them. Why Rousseau Was Wrong is a very detailled and high-level analysis of these issues. It contains the type of balanced and considered argument I would expect from an academic, and for that reason I’d happily recommend it to people who share my lack of faith (Darth Vader finds this disturbing). However, her arguments often seem over-broad compared to conclusions that are somewhat narrow; in her attempts to pitch the Church as the best solution to this problem, she chooses to approach secular humanism from a very specific epistemological starting point. It seems to me that there are more alternatives, that Rousseau was certainly wrong about many things, but that the secular soul still has some life left in it.

P.S. This book is inexplicably on a list of “Awful Authors”, which seems upon further investigation merely to be a list of books critical of rationalism or humanism. At the time of this writing, I am the only one who has reviewed or even rated this book on Goodreads. I contacted the person who added this book to the list, imploring them to remove it from the list or at least read the book and rate it before judging it prematurely. To date, I have not received a response. I’m disappointed that someone committed to secular humanism would take such a dogmatic approach rather than keep an open mind.

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