he purpose of this symposium is to explore the many contributions that the eminent Polish philosopher and historian of philosophy Leszek Kolakowksi has made to our understanding of modernity, Marxism, secularism, and atheism. It provides an occasion to celebrate Professor Kolakowski’s eightieth birthday. The conversation is focused not only on his impact on contemporary thought but also the clash of ideas currently ascendant in Europe. The scholars gathered at All Souls have come to Oxford to evaluate the present state of the debate over the origins, future, and characteristics of modernity, with particular reference to how Professor Kolakowski has moved forward the discussion, while at the same time opening up some related questions that emerge from this assessment – such as the future roles of religion and secularism in society.
Religious leaders in the West, notably Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, have recently called attention to the challenge an increasingly secular Europe poses to the Church in the first decade of the twenty-first century. At the same time, patterns of immigration have strengthened the presence of Islam and Indian religions in the major cities of the West, while various forms of Pentecostalism brought to the continent and the United Kingdom by immigrants from Africa and Asia have become a rapidly growing force. If the influence of established churches appears to be at a nadir, an interest in a loosely defined spirituality is a potent undercurrent in the lives of young people from Manchester to Moscow.
Secular values like freedom of inquiry, equal justice, and widespread public education, attributable to the process of laicization, were undoubtedly associated with astounding economic and social progress in post-World War II Europe. But is Benedict right to fear that secularization, when it involves the transfer of religious essence from a divine object to a humanistic one, compromises the future of European society? When, elsewhere in the world, whole cultures blaze with spirituality, is Europe, the birthplace of modern science and nurturer of liberal democracy, still in the vanguard of history? Is it possible, to quote Archbishop Rowan Williams’s memorable phrase, “to reignite the Christian imagination” of the secular West? How large will newer forms of spirituality loom in the religious landscape of the future? Can we any longer identify fundamental truths at the heart of European culture? How will the conflict between heterodoxy and orthodoxy play out in the years ahead? The conversation addressing these questions at the fifteenth century College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed, founded by Henry VI and Henry Chichele, the Archbishop of Canterbury, takes place under the aegis of the John Templeton Foundation.