MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, III

We began to look at Alasdair MacIntyre’s Riddell Memorial Lectures gathered under the title Secularization and Moral Change in the first post in this series, followed by the second post. MacIntyre is best known for his book After Virtue. Here, we summarize the final of the three lectures that make up Secularization and Moral Change. As with the first and second posts, I refer the reader to Peter Webster’s excellent summary above all others — even my own.


The question that MacIntyre asks in the final lecture is: “[W]hat effect [has] secularization […] had upon English Christianity”? [7] (Remember that MacIntyre defines secularization as “the transition from beliefs and activities and institutions [8] presupposing beliefs of a traditional Christian kind to beliefs and activities and institutions of an atheistic kind.” [7-8])

the decline in the general adherence
of those not hard-core

He begins by asking about “the history of the decline in adherence to Christian belief since the year 1900.” [58] He decides to examine adherence by looking at the percentage of the population who’ve been practitioners at different times, rather than comparing the total numbers of attendees on separate years. Looking at weekly & Easter attendance between 1900 & 1950, MacIntyre notes that while the percentage of weekly attenders declines from 11.5 to 3.5 percent of the population, the Easter attendance rate only goes from 6.5 to 4.5 percent; he concludes that “the hard core of believing orthodox Christians declined in number much less” than regular attenders. [59] Similarly, the membership of “the smaller sects” remained mostly consistent over this period. [60] The percent of the population attending regularly in the U.S. is much higher than the U.K. for this period, but it turns out that the religious literacy of churchgoers in the U.S. is much smaller than that of non-churchgoers in the U.K., suggesting that religion is still understood theologically in the U.K., but secularly in the U.S. [61]

the class-confined nature of revivals

The churches have largely been middle-class phenomena in the U.K., with very minor successes in other classes, even among revivals; this is not surprising, as the social realities that drive class division and create separate needs and aims (and so moral communities) among the classes are not religious in character, and “the church is isolated from all cross-class relationships” [61], which cross-class relationships seem, on MacIntyre’s account, to be about economic concerns, buttressed by the secondary virtues.

This social irrelevance of Christian teaching to the form and engines driving society has led to “the Christianity of the enclave.” [62] The extreme form of this is the “Christianity of the sect”, which holds a “sharp distinction” between saved & damned, and which claims to know the “criteria which can be applied here and now to discriminate the saved and the elect from others”. [62] Sects mostly prosper in the U.S., not the U.K. Sects have prospered at the lower economic strata, and, because of the Puritan work ethic they enjoin, these sects will often rise to become like other orthodox Protestant denominations, until economic divisions become clear within that denomination, and an evangelical revival occurs. In this way, religion is integrated with economic life in the U.S.

religion in the marketplace of amusements

In England, by contrast, religion is separated from secular life, and has become a leisure activity, in competition with other leisure activities,

with other sources of amusement, with other sources of reading, with the whole cosmos that has been created by the mass media, and by the individual discovering an identity as the object of attention from the mass media. Religion thus loses its roots in the communities formed by and centred around work […]. [65]

Those churches which are present in the world are present as secular advocacy groups with their own rituals as options within the canopy of options to engage with and support. [66]

in the class-based divisions of the modern age,
general society cannot be leavened by Christian teaching,
nor can Christian teaching be accommodated coherently

Christianity has historically held that it has bearing on all of life and its social forms, that it can offer meaning to all of this, but

Christianity[,] confronted with the [67] secular life of the post-Industrial Revolution society[,] has in fact found it impossible to lend meaning to that life or to enable people [both] to understand and [to] find justifications for living out its characteristic forms. It is rather that Christianity has been shaped and reshaped by the forces of modern secular life. [66-67]

Since Christianity has social implications, does the trend of the world away from Christian social forms and justifications and content, and into the post-industrial milieu where other pressures and concerns hold sway, refute it? Can social trends refute it? We seem to have two options. Either we can treat Christian teachings as “immune” from these social shifts, or else we can treat these specific Christian social teachings as refuted by these changes in society and requiring a reformulation of Christian teaching. Theologians have taken both stances. Christian churches and Christian theology thus demonstrate an “oscillation” between sectarian withdrawal (e.g., in the disciples of Barth & Kierkegaard, Catholic orthodoxy revivals) and self-alteration for secular accommodation (e.g., in Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Robinson). Accommodation seems to rob theology of theological content and of internal consistency. [68] Indeed,

[t]here is nothing which [liberal theologians] affirm[…] which anyone need deny who denied that the whole meaning and purpose of life must be found within secular society. [69]

we are shipwrecked

There are a number of concerns we have in the modern world, however, for which we have no other language to raise our concerns other than the Christian language (he is not talking about our ability to create intellectual understandings as individuals, but whether we have existential options as a culture to engage with the shared significance of certain events and milestones and other things — events such as death). The liberal religion that evacuates Christianity of its concrete content (on the claim that it obviously doesn’t fit) and substitutes something vague in its place suggests the kind of dilemma we’re in, where the traditional formulas won’t do, but there are no alternatives. This mess is the fallout of our lack of a clear moral vision and moral community. [70] Unfortunately, the liberal theological moralities that have been offered do not give us concrete prescriptions of practices that we can share and engage in, but merely intentions of love that are vacuous of practical content, and so do nothing to resolve the moral fracturing within the modern world. [71] “If I am to say what it is to act from love rather than from any other motive in my intentions, I must be able to specify some content which love has in specific situations.” [71] These prescriptions do not transform the fractures of our modern world, but merely gloss them. Further, it is not just love, but seemingly every virtue that becomes a choose-your-own-adventure in the wake of urbanization and industrialization.

The impact of industrialism and of a liberal and individualist ethos destroys this conception of human relationships in terms of roles and functions. As it dies, although ‘duty’ retains its narrower meaning for some limited purposes, its normal use becomes a generalized one. A man’s duty is simply whatever he ought to do. And instead of duty always being the duty of such-and-such with a content given by the role or function in question, the generalized notion of duty becomes empty of specific content. […] There is an erosion of the particular content of each moral word […]. […] The requirement of generality and the requirement of content are […] incompatible. In the face of actual problems we have no directive from the word ‘love’ any more than we have from the word ‘duty’. [72]

There are “two sorts of arbitrariness” that can follow upon this, (1) “the arbitrariness of […] orthodoxy” that simply states its traditional teachings, states that they must be applied to society, unmindful of “the institutional changes in society” that render this activity suspicious or even impossible for all the reasons stated earlier. Then there is the arbitrariness of the liberal theology that says it will refrain from the old orthodoxy’s concrete prescriptions in order to focus on the content-vacuous exhortations to have a good intention. [73]

the misdiagnosis of modern man

“Behind this evacuation of content” is a misdiagnosis of secular man and his social context. They think of him as

a technological Prometheus, someone who has come of age at last, and is now able to control his own destiny. He inhabits a world of intellectual vigour and scientific clarity. But of course this is not the position of modern man, not even of the modern scientist, who normally lives out his life in a bureaucratically organized social situation, where he can control very little of what happens to him, and in which the powers which men have created technologically and socially evade conscious and organized human control. [74]

MacIntyre does not deny the power to predict many things due to our new abilities, but asserts both that few can participate in this power, and that this power only has limited scope for individual lives.

He ends on a strange note, relative to the Promethean element in Engels’ hope, by saying that it is important to avoid

a) fatalism and obscurity (the idea that we cannot know the forces that throw us into the future and cannot control them), and

b) “manipulative technique” and an ideology that we have total control over human life and historical change.


So to Engels’ thought that secularization would

bring about a new secular set of beliefs in terms of which men would be able to understand themselves and their society and to control their own future [75]

–this thought turns out to be false. The “inability of men to discard Christianity is part of their inability to provide any post-Christian means of understanding their situation in the world.” [75] MacIntyre grants that there is not anything necessarily ultimate about this.

In the end, MacIntyre says that the “positive theses” he’s tried to advance about religion & morals is best illustrated by two negative statements:

1) Christianity is unable to perform certain social functions (unifying post-industrial society).

2) It is not only impossible to develop a common morality for society as it is, but impossible to find a way to do that.


Header image found here.

3 thoughts on “MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, III

  1. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, Summary | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: MacIntyre, Demant, and the Book of Sirach | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, Some Concluding Thoughts | Into the Clarities

Start a conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.