Soundings

Secularism and its discontents

Mar 2015    

The American sociologist Peter Berger is perhaps one of the most interesting scholars of secularism and religion. In his book The Sacred Canopy published in 1967, Berger presented the famous secularisation thesis which postulates that as modernity advances, the influence of religion will diminish and eventually disappear altogether.

Thirty years later, however, Berger changed his mind. In The De-secularisation of the World published in 1999, Berger and his colleagues abandoned their earlier hypothesis because “the theory seemed less and less capable of making sense of the empirical evidence from different parts of the world”. Berger, who now could speak of the “myth of secularisation”, argues that modernisation and secularisation are not synonymous.

Secular philosophers and scholars are also beginning to acknowledge the limits of secularism. For example the eminent atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues emphatically that secularists must take religion seriously because of the enormous contributions it has made to civilisation. He adds that the philosophy and values that the Judeo-Christian tradition has inspired are still important in modern moral and scientific life.

This is not surprising. Theologians have long maintained that it is secularism – not religion – that is an anomaly and must offer compelling justifications for its own outlook.

Can secularism do this? Can it present a substantial and comprehensive rationale and ethic for the moral and social life?

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

Let us begin with the myth of secular neutrality. Far from being philosophically and ideologically neutral, secularism is a way of understanding and constructing reality. It is a worldview.

To be a secular humanist, one needs to embrace certain commitments like “God does not exist” (atheism) and “the physical world is all that there is” (scientific materialism), none of which can be established on scientific grounds. It takes a lot of faith to be a secularist.

On its own secularism is unable to offer a moral vision that is indispensable for human societies to flourish. Irving Kristol writes perceptively that “The philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver such a code itself.”

That Western secular humanists can speak eloquently of values like dignity, freedom and rights is largely because secularism is parasitic on the Judeo-Christian tradition it denounces. But it is precisely because it has rejected the tradition that provides the philosophical and theological foundations for these values, that secular ethics will willy-nilly drown in the sea of relativism.

Secularism often appeals to the Enlightenment myth of the triumph of reason. But experience has repeatedly shown that reason alone is unable to forge a universal consensus, especially when the issue in question is complex and contentious.

Nietzsche is exactly right when he says that no man of reason would rejoice in the death of God. For if God is truly dead, reason’s demise will soon follow.

For if God is really dead, truth itself would dissipate. What is left is an ocean of conflicting and clashing opinions, preferences, and assertions. As the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has pointed out: “If all is chance, random and inherently meaningless, reason has no North Star and its needle spins mindlessly”.

Because secularism fails to offer a substantial vision for the moral and social life, it is also unable to articulate the meaning of human existence. And in a meaningless world, the purpose of human action becomes frustratingly murky.

On its own, secularism must remain silent in the face of suffering because it simply does not have the resources to respond to human tragedy. What has secularism to say to the weak and the vulnerable, asks Novak, “that it does not borrow directly from Judaism and Christianity?”

The great 20th century theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg perceptively notes that “Secular culture itself produces a deep need for meaning in life and therefore also for religion”. Secularism raises a bitter protest, but offers no answers.

And it is perhaps the very impotence of secularism that has led to what G.K. Chesterton has memorably described as the “revolt into orthodoxy”. It has caused atheists like Francis Collins and many others to put their faith in God.

“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg/).

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