Soundings

Secularism asserting its superiority to the religious traditions

Dec 2009    

How should Christians respond to the growing influence of secularism?

THE WORD “SECULAR” comes from the Latin saecularis which means of an age or of a generation. This term points to concern for this world and for the affairs of our time as opposed to other-worldly concerns. Traditionally, the term secular has a negative connotation in the sense that if something has to do with or is related to this world, it does not relate to the supernatural, religion, the church and so on.

The first thing to be said about secularism is that it is a worldview, that is, it is an interpretation of reality based on certain philosophical presuppositions, for example, that all reality is physical. Furthermore, secularism is a philosophy of life in that it proposes a set of life-regulating beliefs, for example, that everyone should have the liberty to conduct their lives as they wish as long as they do not put others in harm’s way. Therefore, secularism is not morally and politically neutral. For example, there are secularists who champion the legalisation of euthanasia and libertinism.

Philosophers have distinguished two different forms of secularism, and a clear grasp of the differences between them is indispensable for a more nuanced Christian response. The first form of secularism has been described as “positive”, “supersessionist” or “militant” secularism. Secularism is here portrayed as the cure that rids human civilisation of the disease of religion. Secularism of this variety is deeply wedded to a naïve philosophy of science, a reductive “scientism” that hails it as the key that will unlock the mysteries of life. With the advent of modern science, so the rhetoric goes, darkness has turned to light and religion has given way to reason.

There is a growing number of “evangelists” for this secularist outlook, many of whom are noted intellectuals like Steven Pinker, Ayn Rand, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Edward O. Wilson. These thinkers are on a crusade to expunge religion from all public debates, and to ensure that religious ideas and institutions lose their public significance. The various Humanist Manifestos (1933, 1973, 2000) are aimed at promoting a naturalistic, reductionist account of human life, framed within a liberal, democratic political theory.

Some philosophers have perceptively described militant secularism as a pseudo-religion. In his powerful critique of communism in his own country, the great Russian theologian and mystic Nicolas Berdyaev argued that communism’s hatred for religion stems from the fact that it looked upon itself as a religion which had to replace Christianity. The deep implacable hostility of communism to faith in God, its ferocious atheism is compelled by its claims to a monopoly on worldviews.

Communism, as an atheistic and militant form of secularism, is therefore, more than an ideology. It is idolatry. Since man, writes Berdyaev in his provocative The Origins and Meaning of Russian Communism (1955), is a “religious animal, when he rejects the one, true God, he creates for himself false gods and idols and worships them”.

COMMUNISM SHOWS ITSELF as a religion in which veneration is not made to the saints but to the leaders of the world proletariat, whose “icons” hang in every room of every building. Militant secularists in democratic West who worship at the altar of science also unconsciously regard secularism as a form of pseudo-religion.

The second form of secularism is often described as “negative” or “modest” (even “benign”). Associated with philosophers like John Locke and John Rawls (rather than Hobbes or Rousseau), this form of secularism on the surface appears to be more accommodating. It maintains that society is indeed ideologically and religiously plural, and that it should be proud of its different cultures and religions. Thus on the surface, it appears to allow a place for religious views. As one author puts it, this softer form of secularism appears to be interested in religion, albeit in a disinterested way. Modest secularism champions the cultivation of tolerance, and appears to be working towards a greater acceptance of the aspirations of individuals. One must be given the liberty to pursue what one happens to believe makes for peace and happiness, including, of course, religion.

According to this view, society merely acts as a neutral referee: it simply observes and regulates the competition between the religious and the non-religious. In some places, the government is given this role as the neutral arbiter which does not take sides, and which works for the common good. This form of “benign” secularism is more acceptable than its militant cousin because it creates space for religion without committing itself to a particular religious doctrine.

Although the Christian can be more open to this form of secularism, he or she must also be critical of some of its claims. Space allows only the briefest discussion of these issues. Firstly, the claim to neutrality must be critiqued because, as we have already seen, secularism is itself a worldview and presents a certain philosophy of life. Thus, it favours certain approaches over others, and it holds a certain moral position. In other words, although modest secularism claims to be neutral, it in fact conceals a whole series of metaphysical and ethical commitments. Even the pragmatism and fair play it champions are established on philosophical and ethical assumptions.

Secondly, its claim that it is better able to achieve consensus in a pluralist environment must be called to question.

Thirdly, in assuming the role of arbiter, secularism is in fact asserting its own superiority to the religious traditions. And insofar as its arbitration is subjected to its own dogma, and not based on rational arguments, modest secularism may turn out to be not so benign, because its announced neutrality can merely be a cover for its hegemony. Finally, “modest” secularism in fact shows its modesty to be false when it suggests that the secular approach alone is capable of fairness and genuine concern for the common good.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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