Secularism: Staging-Post on the Road Back to Paganism
An article by the Very Rev. Dr. Justyn Terry
Secularism promises a neutral public space in which people of all religions and those with none can live together in peace. This is a compelling vision, which raises the hope that conflicts between all religions and ideologies will be overcome and that a new more advanced civilization will emerge. Who would not be in favor of that?
Over the last hundred years or so, however, that hopeful vision has not materialized. Rather than seeing greater harmony in secular societies, we have witnessed more community breakdown. We also notice that the greatest losses of life in the twentieth century (Mao Tse-tung: 70 million deaths; Stalin: 20-40 million deaths; Hitler: 11-12 million deaths; Pol Pot: 1-2 million deaths…) have been inspired by secular ideologies, not religious ones. The atrocities that human beings commit against each other continue apace, and secularism is at a loss to know what to say about them. “It is the work of a few rogues” sounds less plausible every time we hear it. The incoherence of secularism also means that it cannot withstand determined pressure groups or totalitarian ideologies.
I believe secularism in the West is really a combination of Christianity and paganism, with the proportions shifting over the years from the former to the latter. Secularism does not supply values of its own but borrows them from Christianity (human rights, care for minorities, freedom of speech, toleration of differences, etc.) or paganism (fascination with astrology and ever more extreme forms of entertainment, lower views of marriage, higher views of other relationships, openness to abortion/infanticide, euthanasia, etc.). Credit is rarely given to these sources, and it is only as the proportion of paganism has increased that the true nature of secularism is becoming more apparent.
The strongly Christian content of early forms of secularism gave it a veneer of plausibility. It also made it very hard for Christians to contest it. When we have tried to do so, it seemed we were arguing against many of our own values, which to some extent we were. It has also made us slow to see how secularism has become increasingly antagonistic to Christianity. In the end, the secular claim of neutrality cannot be valid since, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God…” (Rom 8:7).
At this stage in its development, however, the pagan content is much more obvious. The new secular morality looks increasingly like the old pagan morality. Many of the ethical developments that have been presented as progress look ever more like regress. And whilst first century pagan ethics often included an expectation of judgment beyond the grave, many neo-pagans have no such expectation, leaving them with only a “don’t get caught” morality.
The great missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin puts his finger on the problem when he discusses “The Myth of the Secular Society” in his classic text The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
In the 25 years since Munby wrote his book [The Idea of a Secular Society, 1963], we have learned something about the secular society. We have learned, I think, that what has come into being is not a secular society but a pagan society, not a society devoid of public images but a society which worships gods which are not God. But the myth of a secular society remains strong. (p 219f)
Newbigin even wonders if open democratic societies can continue to exist if secularism goes on eroding the roots of the Christian worldview in which they have developed.
The pagan gods are endearingly indulgent, not being paragons of virtue themselves. The price of placating them, however, does seem to be very high, frequently involving the sacrifice of others. The problem is that the pagan gods are preoccupied with themselves and that they tend to “create” people in their own image. They also suffer the significant disadvantage of not actually existing, except perhaps to the extent that they embody demonic powers.
Rodney Stark, Professor of Sociology at Baylor University, charts how the pagan world rapidly turned to Christianity two-thousand years ago when they discovered that the Christian God actually loved them. They experienced God’s love as it was demonstrated by Christians who cared for their abandoned children and who risked their lives to tend to those suffering from plague. This God also enjoys the great advantage of actually existing.
The church has been painfully slow in responding to secularism. But as its pagan face is seen ever more clearly, may we now engage it for the sake of those caught in its thrall, with all the resources of our forbears who, like Augustine, exposed paganism for what it really was and won many to Jesus Christ.
The Very Rev. Dr. Justyn Terry is Dean and President of Trinity School for Ministry
and Professor of Systematic Theology.
He lives in Sewickley, PA with his wife Cathy and their two daughters.