Secularism: A Short Christian Response, Part 1

What Is Secularism?

My guess is you’ve heard that our (western) world is becoming increasingly secular. But what is secularism and what does it mean? This question, of course, can be answered in more than one way. In his massive tome A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor notes that the word “secular” can have more than one meaning. First, it can refer to the absence of God in public space, that is, in discussions related to politics, education, and recreation. Secondly, it can refer to people who no longer attend religious services. Thirdly, due to the shift in plausibility structures, it can refer to the fact that many people no longer find belief in God plausible.[1] (More on this below.)

In addition, according to theologian and cultural critic Al Mohler, secularism refers to “the absence of any binding theistic authority or belief.”[2] In other words, it’s about rejecting a personal God who exerts authority over a person’s life.

Evidences of secularity are on display throughout our world. For example, we see it in the materialistic mentality of many people. This involves thinking that life is all about acquiring more possessions. Moreover, this mindset reveals itself when we act as if nothing beyond this world exists.

Secondly, we see this in the moral relativism espoused in university settings. Many students are taught that absolute truth does not exist; and even if it does, they cannot know it. Ironically, although moral relativism is self-refuting, people continue to embrace it.

Thirdly—and perhaps most strikingly—increasingly belief in God is seen as implausible. Secularism has so invaded the minds of many that belief in the God of the Bible and in the reality of objective truth is now seen as odd, and in some cases, dangerous. For this reason, belief in God has become privatized—another sign of secularization, since what undergirds this idea is the notion that religious beliefs are subjective and do not count as items of knowledge.[3] This state of affairs testifies to the advance of secularism.

Exactly how our culture came to this point is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, however, that sociologists agree on the following: 1) modernization leads to secularization, which leads to the marginalization of religion,[4] and 2) a culture of non-belief tends to rise as societal health improves.[5]

The secular outlook has flourished in our contemporary world because it presents itself as value-free, tolerant, and non-judgmental. Furthermore, it promotes certain ideas that are taken as givens: We don’t need religion to explain the world; religion restricts us from expressing our freedom; religion prevents people from getting along, etc. In most cases (though certainly not all) defenders of secularism castigate traditional Christianity, labeling it hierarchical, imperialistic, and patriarchal.[6]

 

Why Secularism Doesn’t Work

Two reasons quickly come to mind as to why secularism doesn’t work as a worldview: It’s both illogical and unlivable. To take but one example, consider the fact that many advocates of secularism insist that society must make “progress” regarding a host of social and ethical issues. Given that secularists tend to be moral relativists, however, one wonders how the concept of “progress” can really mean anything. After all, if moral norms do not exist, how can there ever be anything like “progress”? To make “progress” assumes that there is a moral norm toward which society should move. For instance, was the abolition of slavery a mark of progress? My guess is many secularists would say yes (I certainly do!). But one must ask: On what basis can they make such a claim? As Tim Keller asks the question, “If there is no truth, on what basis can the weak say to the strong that what they are doing is wrong?”[7]

In short, you can’t say no moral norms exist, while simultaneously calling for society to make “progress,” which assumes a moral norm.

Here’s another example: The call for tolerance undermines moral relativism. As philosopher Francis Beckwith notes, “[T]he call to tolerance by relativists presupposes the existence of at least one nonrelative, universal, and objective norm: tolerance.”[8] Another philosopher, Tom Beauchamp, also makes a great point: “The proposition that we ought to tolerate the views of others, or that it is right not to interfere with others, is precluded by the very strictures of the theory [of moral relativism].”[9]

In short, you can’t say no moral norms exist, while simultaneously calling for tolerance, which assumes a moral norm.[10]

Here’s a third reason secularism doesn’t work: Secularism doesn’t have the moral resources to call for social justice. Concepts like human dignity and human rights are metaphysical in nature. In order for a person to advocate for these ideas, then, he or she must “embrace a philosophy of the human person . . . that can provide substantive content” to these notions.[11] Ideas like human dignity and human rights do not arise out of a purely naturalistic worldview. After all, as K. Scott Oliphant reminds us, “If all is matter, then nothing really matters.”[12] How one thinks about human beings influences the way one treats human beings.[13]

Perhaps an example would help: The French philosopher Jacques Maritain assisted in writing the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This document waxes eloquent on the “inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Additionally, the authors go on to affirm that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

My guess is you agree with these sentiments. Nevertheless, philosopher Paul Copan notes that the document leaves much to be desired: “What is missing, though, is any foundation or basis for human dignity and rights.” In a moment of honesty, Jacques Maritain quipped, “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.”[14]

The naturalistic worldview is not the only problem, however. Secularists often argue that morality is self-authorizing. In other words, no moral source outside the self exists and people shouldn’t have to conform to any external authority. Again, this outlook simply doesn’t work. Proponents of secularism regularly want to obligate others to behave in a certain way while simultaneously arguing that morality is relative. What they are finding is that it’s impossible to make normative claims without appealing to a moral source outside the self. This is why legal scholar Steven D. Smith says that “a comprehensively naturalistic worldview cancels itself out.” Thus, ultimately, “Most of us really believe in a realm of value that cannot be adequately accounted for in purely naturalist terms.”[15] To paraphrase philosopher Hans Jonas, you can’t have ethics without metaphysics.[16]

To be clear: I’m thankful that self-described secularists, humanists, and atheists stand for social justice. I’m glad they want to help the poor, feed the starving, and clothe the naked. However, I hope they can at least appreciate why Christians have trouble seeing how their worldview provides a solid foundation for their heartfelt pleas.

 

Tim Keller’s conclusion is apropos:

“The humanistic beliefs, then, of most secular people should be recognized as exactly that—beliefs. They cannot be deduced logically or empirically from the natural, material world alone. If there is no transcendent reality beyond this life, then there is no value or meaning for anything. To hold that human beings are the product of nothing but the evolutionary process of the strong eating the weak, but then to insist that nonetheless every person has a human dignity to be honored—is an enormous leap of faith against all evidence to the contrary.”[17]

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 2.

[2] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Advance of Secularism,” Tabletalk 41:3 (March 2017): 11.

[3] David T. Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 67. The idea that religious claims do not count as items of knowledge is on display in the legal realm as well. See, e.g., Francis J. Beckwith, “The Courts, Natural Rights, and Religious Claims as Knowledge,” Santa Clara Law Review 49:2 (2009): 429-458.

[4]  D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 37; Michael Horton, “Introducing the Secularization Thesis,” Modern Reformation 22:5 (September-October 2013): 28-41

[5] Robert B. Stewart, “The Future of Atheism: An Introductory Appraisal,” in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath & Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 3.

[6] At least this is how feminist theologian Sallie McFague describes it. See her essay, “An Epilogue: The Christian Paradigm,” in Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, eds. Peter C. Hodgson and Robert H. King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 326. Careful readers will note that all of McFague’s assertions are value-laden judgments. Also, whether she realizes it or not, every time she calls for people to practice “social justice,” she is being “judgmental.” For a more nuanced presentation of justice see Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). On page 261 he rightly notes, “Justice is inescapably judgmental. . . . Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things” (emphasis mine).

[7] Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 202.

[8] Francis J. Beckwith, “A Critique of Moral Relativism,” in Do the Right Thing: Readings in Applied Ethics and Social Philosophy, 2nd ed., ed. Francis J. Beckwith (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002), 18.

[ 9] Tom L. Beauchamp, Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 42.

[10] Of course, most fair-minded people can see that the appeal to tolerance has almost always been selective. See, e.g., D. A Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 81-87 for some examples.

[11] Francis J. Beckwith, “Dignity Never Been Photographed: Scientific Materialism, Enlightenment Liberalism, and Steven Pinker,” Ethics and Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics 26:2 (Summer 2010): 94.

[12] K. Scott Oliphant, “Secularism and Our Christian Hope,” Tabletalk 41:3 (March 2017): 22-23. Scientism and philosophical naturalism seek to apply the scientific method (which is a great method by the way!) to all areas of human inquiry. But the biblical-theological worldview helps us see that “some things really exist that science has no access to. . . . Science . . . is not the only discipline that gives us true information about the world” (Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998], 166).

[13] For some incredibly sad examples of what can happen when humans see others as less than human see David Livingstone Smith, Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Marten’s Press, 2011).

[14] See further Paul Copan, “God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality,” in The Future of Athiesm, 141ff.

[15] Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 199, 204.

[16] Hans Jonas, “Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Task of Ethics,” in Society, Ethics, and Technology, eds. Mortan E. Winston and Ralph D. Edelbach (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 126, 131.

[17] Keller, Making Sense of God, 48-49. I recently got around to reading Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi was a well-educated neuroscientist and neurosurgeon. He wrote his memoir while he was dying of cancer in his mid-thirties. Earlier in his life he described himself as an “ironclad atheist.” As he was dying of cancer, however, he came to see that his scientific view of the world could not account for love, meaning, beauty, honor, suffering, and virtue.

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