Secular asceticism is a form of the Enlightenment, having risen from the historical movement which we call the Enlightenment, and taken shape in the Western societies in the aftermath of two World Wars; the individual considers himself the autonomous subject – the individual decides for him self who he is or should be. Secular asceticism places personal subjectivity at the centre of everything, exalting freedom of choice whilst losing sight of the full truth of human freedom. The questions about my identity and the meaning of my life are avoided, in favour of questions of superficial consequence – a sort of ‘playing for time’. Human interiority can never be seen in an objective way and the individual conceals the mystery which lies at his heart.
The root of secular asceticism, which is the secular identity or anthropology, seeks to build human life and activity upon those things which are marginal in terms of man’s life: material things, entertainment, and opinion. The secular person is then, a consumer, an economic unit, a collector of data. The root of secular asceticism then, suggests to people today that the human spirit and the human body represent two separate orders, that Gnosticism offers a fragile perspective on life, and that we are a sort of ‘given’ – we are as we are, and that is all that there is.
The novelty of contemporary secularism is its agency: the secular mass media. Never before has a human movement had such a powerful tool with which to impress itself upon human lives. Secular culture then, is of a form and nature hitherto unseen in the Western world.
We should note here that it is not simply Christians who discern the secular ascetic to be inadequate; many people though not possessing the gift of faith, are nonetheless searching for something better.