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9 Reasons to Be Thankful for Modern American Secularists

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Tom Hoopes - published on 11/24/14

We should love our opponents, and there really is a lot to love

We face a problem, we New Evangelization Catholics in the 21st century.

We can only convince people who we love, and we can only evangelize people who understand us. But do we love western, secular, materialists? Do we love “pro-aborts”? Gender activists? Aggressive atheists?  And when we talk about “intrinsic evils,” “objective disorders” and liturgy, do they understand what we say?

Anna Halpine visited Benedictine College and made this point forcefully. She said we must really love our opponents, such that they recognize us as loving. And we must speak to others — even when the only way to do so is to allow them to set the terms of the debate.

So I walked up to the Theology and Philosophy floor here to ask our professors: We all have our list of what’s wrong with modern secularists — relativism, radical individualism, hedonism — but what can we love about them? What common ground do we have with them?

The answers can help us love the secularists we meet every day — including the ones we eat Thanksgiving dinner with. (Click here for this article’s companion piece, Five Epic Failures of American Secularism.)

1. Secular Westerners believe in human dignity.
This is one Anna Halpine mentioned, too. The best modern secular thinkers appreciate the equal human dignity of every human being. It makes them reject torture and racism and ask tough questions about war. They are not willing to sacrifice someone else’s life for material gain. This conviction is the best starting point for a discussion about the right to life in the unborn.

2. Our culture is concerned for the marginalized.
Our societies today go out of our way to provide for the weak and the lowly. We give the best parking spots to the handicapped, and demand expensive accommodations to make our buildings accessible to them. We deliver food to the poor, we intervene for the bullied, we even extend controversial protections for illegal aliens. I’m not saying it is all exactly as it should be: I’m saying that concern for the marginalized looms high in our culture’s pantheon of values, and that’s a good thing.

3. We desire global unity.
Americans love pictures of people of all races holding hands — from Coke commercials to public murals and monuments. I was thoroughly inculcated in this in public school, and it is what attracted me back to the Catholic Church. Before I knew Jesus Christ, I recognized the Church as an international organization dedicated to love — and I wanted to be part of one.

4. We can be thankful for concern for women’s rights.
Women have more educational, economic and political opportunities than ever before, and that’s a good thing. The world has a real concern for women, and this will help bring people to the Church one day — because the world is terrible to women. The marketplace turns women into sex objects that exist to please our senses and the state turns them into economic units in whom reproduction is a liability. This situation cannot coexist for long with the real respect women are increasingly demanding.

5. Concern for the Environment.
It is important to see the value of creation and properly respect nature and use resources wisely. While some environmentalists take this to extremes that devalue human life, typical Americans don’t.

6. Americans value authenticity.
Today, the greatest sin is hypocrisy — being dishonest about your true motives, pretending to be what you are not. Millennials in particular are keen on being authentic: They are who they are whether you like it or not. While this is not an entirely healthy attribute (we exist to please others, not just ourselves) and it can be overstated (there are still lots of demands to fit in) there is something refreshing in the idea of a society where you can relax and just be you.
7. The best refuse to accept easy answers.
One philosopher told me he likes modern American secularists because, “They force me to have better arguments for God.” There are plenty of exceptions, but the best modern American secularist thinkers insist on truth. That’s fine. If what Catholics believe in is true, it should be able to stand the toughest scrutiny.

8. Americans value transparency.
In many of the examples above, the Church does as well or better than the world. Here is one we are playing catch-up on. Again, leaving room for exceptions, Americans are far more transparent than the European models that inform much of the Church’s dealings with the world. We Americans want as much information as public as possible: Arrest records, audits, meeting agendas, etc. The Church has to strike the right balance between zipped lips and babbling ones (the recent Synod missed the balance) but we desperately need more transparency.

9. We can be thankful for the love for beauty
Yes, it is true that many areas of modern life have laid waste to the beautiful. But it is also true that beauty is often appreciated and protected in our society. Breathtaking cinematography is now practically a prerequisite for a successful film — or, often, for a successful TV commercial. And one theologian described life in Boston: The great liturgical music of history available in crowded concert halls; the great religious art on display in museums; beautiful churches drawing onlookers who just want to see the building. This love for beauty can draw people outside of themselves to God.
So there they are, eight traits to be thankful for in modern secularist Americans. Or perhaps, since we are not outside the culture looking in, but part of it, I should say they are traits to be thankful for in us.

Tom Hoopesis writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

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