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Secularism, Acculturation and Creeping Totalitarianism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 05, 2008

I wanted to follow up on my comments concerning the California home-schooling case (see Ideology, Totalitarianism, and the Public Schools) because it raises another question: At what point is totalitarianism recognized by the citizenry?

Bear with me a moment. I am not arguing that the United States is a totalitarian state, or that Americans have no political freedom. The vast numbers of immigrants who continually flock to the United States as a land of opportunity give the lie to this notion. But totalitarian control is not always imposed by revolution or conquest. Cultures can tend in a totalitarian direction, if they are not careful, and modern cultures have a strong tendency to do so for three significant social reasons.

The first is complexity. As societies become increasingly complex, they have a tendency to establish regulatory power over more and more aspects of their common life. As standards of social services and social protection rise, so does regulation. The combination of dense populations with significant prosperity accelerates this trend. With our democratic presuppositions, we may instinctively assume that Americans are very free in comparison with those who live, for example, under monarchy, but the degree of habitually accepted government intrusion into the ordinary person’s life in our society is far higher than anything an ordinary subject in a medieval monarchy ever experienced.

The second is technology. Certain things are extremely difficult to monitor and track in relatively low-tech cultures. In such circumstances, totalitarian control must be exercised by employing hordes of spies and enforcers, as has been often done by regimes hostile to their own people. But in a highly technological society, huge amounts of information about our families, assets and personal activities are tagged, monitored and tracked as a normal and nearly inevitable part of “doing business”—of keeping all transactions both quick and convenient across a broad geographical region. The combination of technology with the desire to regulate causes a formidable increase of government control over daily life.

The third is secularism. While the totalitarian impulse can be found in some religions, it is generally held strongly in check by Christianity. This is because Christianity holds that every human person is made in the image and likeness of God, which means a reasonable degree of self-determination is part of his dignity; and also because Christianity holds that a perfect world is not possible here on earth. Rather, we are to live now according to the law of love so as to be worthy of perfection in the next life. Secularism has neither restraint. It lacks a coherent understanding of human dignity, and it is intrinsically (and often desperately) ordered toward utopianism. The secularist has but one shot at the world he wants. Hence secularism, which begins in proclaiming freedom from God, always ends by enslaving the mass of men under the program of its visionaries.

Modern societies are marked by all three of these characteristics. Therefore we are not surprised that they also exhibit an unmistakable trend toward ever-greater totalitarian control. But since this trend comes from within (not from revolution or conquest), as citizens become acculturated—to greater social complexity, to broader and deeper use of technology, to increasingly secular ideas—they become less and less conscious of the liberties they are losing in the process. And since it is typically a highly aware minority that gets itself into trouble through resistance, a large portion of the citizenry tends to think these few have gotten what they deserved for rocking the boat. A generation or two ago, these very same complacent observers would have been appalled at such an abuse of rights, all in the name of frightening social values they now find altogether normal.

So I repeat the question: At what point is totalitarianism recognized by the citizenry? At what point does a sufficiently large group of people understand what is going on that they can move cohesively to stop it? Some argue that, in a decadent culture, this will happen only when it is too late. I think it likely that, in the foreseeable future, the inhabitants of today’s highly complex, technological and secularist societies—including Americans—will have a chance to find out.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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