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Benefits of Secularity

If someone asked us about the current state of North American society, how would we respond? Would we bemoan the state of our leadership? The lack of Biblical values in education? The various policies enacted by our government? Sure, if pressed, we may express thankfulness for the freedom we enjoy and the security we have, but how many of us would thank God for the benefits the condition of our society holds for the Church?

In the following article, I want to suggest that we can and should do this very thing. I do not want to suggest that our society has no serious problems. Yet as we are called to take joy in and recognize God’s hand in the pain of suffering (Jas 1:2-4), we can and must recognize God’s hand in our society’s present condition. After looking at what exactly the condition of our society is, I want to then suggest a way we can see God’s good purpose in it.

A Secular Society

Broadly speaking, Western North American society could be described as post-Christian. By that we mean that for a long time, the  Christian worldview provided a foundation for the ethics and epistemology of the Western world. Some of these basic assumptions have included the intrinsic value of a human being, the ordered nature of the world, the rationality and reality of the world outside of us, and the objectivity of truth and morality.  North American society however — and especially Canada— is now moving steadily away from this foundation.

It isn’t that our society is a-religious but that whatever religion or spirituality people hold has very little impact on their public life. While most would affirm it’s okay to believe in God, this must not influence the cakes you bake or the decisions you make. Though it’s okay to believe in the power of prayer, don’t insist that others need to do the same. It might even be okay to think that Jesus was a real person who died for your sins— just don’t expect anyone else to make this their truth. This separation of religion or spirituality from public life is often called secularism.

This being the case, the nature of public education, of public institutions, of laws, and the expectations of those in places of power are not determined with reference to an all-powerful, sovereign God but to individual autonomy. What society will consider appropriate and normative (what ought and ought not to be done) is determined by human reason and—often—individual preference.

Benefits of Secularity

In what possible ways then, you may be thinking, could such a society be considered a benefit? Throughout Christian history, it has been recognized that some things, though bad in themselves, can have a greater purpose—be, from a different perspective, blessed. Some theologians have even defined the fall of Adam and the entrance of sin into the world as felix culpa— a blessed transgression. It is in this way that I see secularism as a blessing or benefit for society.

Thought secularism is evil by definition, for it describes a society bent on opposition to and rebellion towards God, it may be considered a benefit because it lays bare the utter inadequacy of life apart from God. In a sense, secularity functions as a reductio ad absurdum of atheism.

A reductio is an argument that shows how a position which at first appears sound , may lead to destructive ends if followed to their likely  conclusions.Secularism functions in this way for atheism; it shows that atheism results in an unlivable and horrid world when held consistently.

The brighter atheists have seen this. They have recognized that removing God from the equation is devastating, though they themselves accepted these consequences.[1] Though for many, seeing the results of atheism is insufficient to turn them to God, for others however, it may very well be a tool God uses to point them to Christ. If this is the case, then Secularism is a blessing; its failures point beyond itself to the God who brings order to the chaos of human sin. Consider with me three spheres that Secularism has left in ruins; knowledge, education, and life.

Secularism and Knowledge

At first, Secularism seemed to offer hope that life without reference to God would lead to a better world. Because the outdated beliefs of Christian theism were replaced with human reason and so people were no longer blinded by religious dogma, it was thought that we would see the world as it truly is.[2] However, whatever fruit secularism has borne, more dependable knowledge  has not been part of it. Instead, the embrace of Secularism has produced greater blindness and confusion.

In philosophy for example, the rejection of a transcendent God – a being who stands in a position of authority over humanity and provides a standard for truth and falsehood -, has led to a radical embrace of relativism. In literature, Deconstructionism argues that since there is nothing that stands behind language to ground its meaning, the intent of someone’s writing is inaccessible. This means that the reader is free—indeed, obligated—to create meaning for every text they read. As it concerns epistemology, the ability to discern truth and falsehood depends on the individual and the cultural lens they bring to the world, yielding an infinite variety of conclusions for every person and culture.

Many retreat to science as a firm ground of truth within the shifting sands of relativism. However, secularism has also succeeded in eroding science. It has done so on two fronts. First, many scientists act as if science is free from philosophical presuppositions that are not themselves scientific.[3] However, philosophers of science have long observed that this is not the case.[4]

The trouble is that the very foundations of science emerged within a Christian worldview. For example, science assumes that the order we observe in the world is descriptive of the external world and not only our minds. The Christian doctrines of creation and providence give us reason to believe in an external and orderly world; the Secular doctrines of evolution and an infinite, material world do not do so.

Second, the secularist dogma of materialism undermines the possibility of knowing anything, including through the means of science. If there is nothing beyond the matter and processes observed in science, as is claimed in materialism, then we cannot trust our own minds and reasoning.

That is, if our minds are subject to the same cause and effect processes observed in nature, then reason and thought are an illusion created by physical cause-effect processes. Because these processes are mechanical, they leave no room for creative insight into problems.

Furthermore, on such a view of the world, the ideas we have are not knowledge in the sense of right understanding of the world but merely mental states, descriptions of how we experience the interaction of atoms and chemical processes. On such a view, there is no reason to believe that our experience of these processes is actually “knowledge”—true insight into a world beyond the mind.[5]

Concerning knowledge and truth (epistemology) secularism shows that atheism is insufficient. We all know that there is truth beyond our minds—everything we do presupposes this fact—yet secularism gives no reason to believe this.[6]

Secularism and Education

The loss of truth has obvious implications for education. Modern education theory has married itself to the relativism of our society; if knowledge can’t be found at a fixed point outside of our minds, then it must be found within the minds of students. For this reason, contemporary education theory has assigned teachers the role of “facilitator” of learning, as opposed to communicator of truth.[7]

But if truth doesn’t stand above both student and teacher, then the teacher has no right to teach the student what they should believe. Instead, they may only equip them to understand themselves and use the tools of learning, such as empirical observation and reason, to discern for themselves what is truth. This approach has yielded some genuine insights, yet overall it has had a devastating effect on education at all levels.

With an objective standard for truth in education abandoned, schools have also lost the ability to give a moral foundation for life and thought. Though it may not appear to be so, science, business, politics—indeed, every field—rely on a foundation of morality to function. It is assumed that the scientist will accurately record the results of his or her research and not doctor the evidence for personal gain. In business, it is assumed that contracts will be honoured and that business will be done above-board, to the benefit of all parties.

In politics, it was for a time the assumption that a leader ought to honour the law they swore to uphold and be a model of virtue. However, if secularism erodes the foundation for morality, there is no reason anyone ought to do any of these things.

This thinking is also evident in secondary and post-secondary education, where the communication of such obligations is no longer possible or practiced in any meaningful sense.  Education is no longer able to produce good citizens of the state, for there remains no objective standard for “good.” Instead, education theory is riddled with the dogma of subjectivism. Furthermore, with God and His Law ruled out, students are given no compass by which to direct their lives.

Secularism and Life

This loss of a moral and epistemic compass has produced the most significant evidence of the insufficiencies of secularism. In the United States, the political discourse has escalated over the last several decades to fiery levels on both sides of the party line, with little signs of change. This is not, of course, unique to the political sphere but merely demonstrates in the headlines what anyone on social media witnesses every day. Without an objective reference point for truth, as assumed within Christianity, there is no ground remaining for rational and civil discourse. At the very least, there is no transcendent authority that requires one person to treat another with civility and love as they would like themselves to be treated.

The replacement of a transcendent standard with the Modernist assumption of an objective rational reality beyond the mind, leads not only to a vacuum in social values but also in purpose. That is, without a God who orders and directs the created order, there can be no prescriptive philosophy of history. Though evolution may give reasons as to why history has turned out the way it has (ultimately, it is a record of the various mechanisms of natural selection), the descriptive statements of evolutionary theory cannot tell us how things ought to be.

Purpose comes from aligning oneself with a transcendent goal that is objectively good or right. Without an ultimate purpose for history, there can be no individual purpose. Secularism provides no goal or purpose towards which history moves, so it cannot provide individuals with a purpose.

As the late evolutionist William Provine put it:

There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either. What an unintelligible idea.[8]

In such a world, the only hope for purpose is to invent proximate meanings—I will get a well-paying job, have a family, move up the corporate ladder, etc. But these are only ever products of our own invention and are ultimately meaningless. Such goals are not sufficient to get many of us out the door, let alone motivate anything. However, this is all secularism can expect of its adherents, for it has removed every foundation for purpose in life.

Conclusion

These are three areas of contemporary society where secularism has been found wanting, and many more could be added. What, you may ask, is the blessing or good to be found in this bleak situation? If secularism is the lived-out result of an atheistic worldview, then the failures of secularism ultimately demonstrate the failures of atheism. More significantly, in each of these areas—and in every area where secularism falls short—the Bible provides an answer to the problem.

The Bible gives an answer to the holes produced by secularism. At the centre, it is missing an answer to the heart of man, an answer provided in Jesus Christ. That is, behind the aimlessness and corruption of our society lies the need for submission to the God who created us. According to Paul, at the root of human sin is the rejection of the Creator. It is an act of rebellion—worshipping and giving honour to the creature rather than the Creator. By seizing for itself the authority to manage life, secular society has left itself with nothing but mute idols (Romans 1:18-32). The created world is insufficient to give us the truth, purpose, and guidance necessary to live the meaningful, joyous life to which God has called humanity.

However, we cannot simply remedy the problem by submitting ourselves in worship to the true God. We are separated from Him by the sin of our rebellion. Thus, to turn from secularism and find what the human heart needs, we need Jesus Christ and His sacrifice. With the full assurance of the forgiveness of sins and a New Covenant forged in His blood, we can draw near to God the Creator in humble worship. From this posture of submission, we find a remedy to these three problems secularism faces.

Only in God do we find an external ground for knowledge and truth. We can only know anything because God has revealed Himself and made knowledge possible. We can only educate because we know that knowledge comes from outside of ourselves, from God, so we need to be taught His ways. Finally, we find purpose because we are part of His story, His all-encompassing purpose to redeem a fallen world and present to His Son a bride, the Church, clothed in glory.  This story is sufficient to encompass every thought and every action, so that all we do may be given purpose; to do all we do in the name of Jesus Christ and for His glory (1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:17).

What then is the blessing of secularism? By showing the utter inadequacy of life apart from God, it leaves the door wide open for us to show our neighbours the dire necessity of God and our need for redemption through Jesus Christ. The problems of our society are real, but they are caused by rebellion against God. Though this rebellion makes us deserving us of God’s wrath, He has acted to offer reconciliation through Jesus Christ to all who would cast themselves on His mercy. In turn, we receive the promises of life, of hope, of the knowledge of God and His world, and wisdom to live for His glory in the present age.

 

 


[1] Consider Nietzsche’s description of the death of God: “What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” spoke the madman, “Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing?” From Kaufmann’s translation of The Gay Science.

[2] This was seen clearly in the Logical Positivists of the early 20th century but consider as a more recent testimony the latest Humanist Manifesto, https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/.

[3] This is evident among those who adhere to “Scientism,” the belief that only science yields true knowledge—or at least that it has the highest authority among methods for knowing. J. P. Moreland’s Scientism and Secularism addresses this. However, it implicit in modernism, the worldview that accompanied the rise of science. Though philosophy has moved past modernism, many scientists function on the presupposition of modernism.

[4] Several works throughout the 20th century drew attention to this, preeminent among them being Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy.

[5] See further J.P. Moreland’s Science and Secularism for a helpful recent book on this matter. The book is semi-technical, helpful for the student or pastor.

[6] I unpack this to a much greater extent in my book The Gift of Knowing: A Biblical Perspective on Knowing and Truth (Teleioteti, 2019), published under the name J. Alexander Rutherford.

[7] Many resources illustrate this point, but the popular work of the Parker J. Palmer is clear on this point, see To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.

[8] Taken from a Debate with Philip E. Johnson titled, “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?” On youtube at, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7dG9U1vQ_U. Transcript on http://www.arn.org/docs/orpages/or161/161main.htm.

Secularity broadly means that religious and spiritual worldviews are okay but only in private. They are okay so long as they do not enter the public sphere—so long as they are left out of business, politics, education, etc. The public sphere is to be lived out on another basis. Broadly speaking, North American society is being shaped and formed on an atheistic foundation.

 

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