In 1994, Michael Novak delivered an acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize entitled “Awakening From Nihilism.” Novak warned that the oppressive regimes of the 20th century relied greatly on cultural vacuums where transcendent values and religious beliefs had ceased to exist. The value-neutral nihilism peddled by many Western universities was, Novak observed, a breeding ground for totalitarianism and worship of the state.
For [relativists], it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.
But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta . It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.
The “romance of the will” is the liturgy of individual autonomy and sexual nothingness. It is the spiritual void created when a society believes it can merely create its own meaning by an act of fiat. Leaving the realm of the absolute, the transcendent, and the supernatural does not free a culture from its lessons; it merely creates a job opening for those who demand to be worshipped as gods themselves.
In Europe, ISIS gains converts and recruits. How could a militant, murderous regime gain followers out of the eminently secular, eminently fashionable ranks of the modern West? Perhaps one answer is that Europe’s secular age has failed to answer the questions it insisted it would. A fragmented, irrelevant Christianity was supposed to open the doors to a joyous, thoroughly self-fulfilled consciousness of individual freedom and intellectual vigor. But it appears in 2015 that it has only resulted in a nihilistic embrace of suicide, either for the cause of Mohammed or for the alleviation of boredom.
Here in the US, revolts across university campuses express the indigestion that inevitably follows an intellectual diet of relativism and materialism. Students are dissatisfied with a university culture that displays contempt for tradition, except that tradition that flatters and profits the schools themselves. Long having abandoned any pretense of teaching moral reasoning or character formation, American halls of higher education find themselves powerless to articulate why social media should not dictate their very existences. The classroom has been surrendered to the activist.
You see what happens? The allure of secularism is the promise of a future without the intellectual and emotional boundaries that religion enables. A mind freed from the chains of anachronism is supposed to also be free from the dictates of tyranny. But that is not so. For what we see today is that secularism is not the end of religion but merely an open invitation to the will to power. Whether it be the promise of paradise through jihad, or the promise of equality through activism and intolerance, the human soul will not rest at secularism as a destination, but will pass by it, looking for more solid ground.