Christian witness in a dogmatic secularist public culture

some sources and brief quotations

There has been a titanic change in our western civilization. We have changed not just from a condition in which most people lived ‘naïvely’ in a construal (part Christian, part related to ‘spirits’ of pagan origin)…to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their option as one among many…But we have also changed from a condition in which belief was the default option, not just for the naïve but also for those who knew, considered, talked about atheism; to a condition in which for more and more people unbelieving construals seem at first blush the only plausible ones…[Atheism] seems to them the overwhelmingly plausible construal, and it is difficult to understand people adopting another. So much so that they easily reach for rather gross error theories to explain religious belief: people are afraid of uncertainty, the unknown; they’re weak in the head, crippled by guilt, etc.

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007, p.12.

[a radical feature of the Genesis creation story]: just as humans are not divine, so also the rest of the universe is freed from all suggestion of inherent or pervasive sacredness, where the sacred is liable to penetrate or identify with anything and everything.. There is a whole range of terms for this new understanding of the universe, and each adds a special overtone to the idea. The world is now 'de-animized'… 'disenchanted'… 'demythologized' and even in its proper sense 'secularized'…All these terms refer to the same process. I shall use the term 'desacralized' as indicating this process most clearly…

            Note that 'secularized' in this usage has nothing to do with 'secularism' - the latter refers to an autonomous universe that has no relations with anything else. Nor is it identical with… dualist cosmology, where the world is evacuated of the spiritual and divine and placed over against the latter as a hindrance to be discarded or even as positively evil and to be opposed.

Harold Turner, Frames of Mind: A Public Philosophy for Religion and Cultures, 2001, p.149.


[secularization] has involved several strands: intellectual, involving the growing explanatory power and influence of secular enlightenment modes of thought, particularly in the natural and social sciences; political or institutional, involving the displacement of the church from a position of power and influence over public life, including government, the judiciary and higher education; and sociological, involving the increasing diversity and complexity of modern industrial society which has done so much to undermine the plausibility structures of a pre-modern religious culture. The displacement of 'religion' is reinforced by the ideological dominance, particularly amongst cultural elites, of a secularist public philosophy which consistently down plays the historical significance of 'religion'…

Ian Barns, 'Contesting Secular Public-ness', unpublished, Perth 2000.


To talk in bland blanket terms about 'secular society' is not on. Thankfully, some hopeful signs are emerging, which demonstrate an awareness of the complexity and ambiguity of 'secularization'. For instance, the secularization of thought, regretfully documented by various Christian commentators, ought not to be confused (though connections should be displayed) with social secularization or 'disengagement'. An aspect of the secularization of thought is what is often called the 'loss of a Christian mind'. From a Christian viewpoint this is properly deplorable, in a way that, for example, the prising apart of Church and State is not.

David Lyon, 'Secularization: The Fate of Faith in Modern Society', Themelios, 10.1, 1984


from a religious point of view “secular” culture has its greatest impact in the zones of imagination, disposition and sensibility. Ours seems a crisis not of creed but of culture, not of faith in itself but of the capacity to believe beyond ourselves. Old-style atheism, with its militant and angry rejections, appears increasingly rare nowadays. The battle ground has moved deeper - into what Newman would call antecedent assumptions, those attitudinal preambles that either make faith existentially credible or incredible. If culture is in part a shared “structure of feeling,” which silently shapes the images we live by, then a dominantly secular culture can quietly marginalize those ways of feeling-towards-God without which faith remains unborn or unreal…. Christian faith becomes not so much incredible as unimagined and even unimaginable. This is no longer a merely social or external phenomenon. It involves the secularization of the shared consciousness at the root of culture. 

Michael Paul Gallagher, From Social to Cultural Secularization, Louvain Studies, 1999.


'There is a sect, originated recently, adherents to a system called 'Secularism'; the principal tenet being that, as the fact of a future life (in their view) is at all events susceptible of some degree of doubt, while the fact and the necessities of a present life are matters of direct sensation, it is therefore prudent to attend exclusively to the concerns of that existence which is certain and immediate - not asking energies required by present duties by a preparation for remote and merely possible contingencies. This is the creed which probably with most exactness indicates the faith which virtually, though not professedly, is entertained by the masses of our working population, by skilled and unskilled labourers alike… they are unconscious Secularists, engrossed by the demands, the trials or the pleasures of the passing hour, ignorant or careless of a future.'

Horace Mann, 1851, quoted in Edward Wickham, Church and People in an Industrial City, 1957.


Social history or intellectual history? Orthodox Christianity was proved untrue because miracles became improbable, and Genesis was proved to be myth by science, and philosophical axioms were transformed by intellectual processes derived from the Enlightenment, and the intellectual revolution passed from universities to newspaper, and newspaper to drawing room, and drawing room to housekeeper's parlour, and newspaper to working men's clubs - are ideas what moves the souls of men? Or did the working man, thrust by economic development into a new and more impersonal class-structure, develop a consciousness of his class, and distrust or hatred of the middle class, and find the churches middle-class institutions, and start to beat them with whatever sticks lay to hand, and found the weapons of atheist pamphleteers and potted handbooks of evolutionary science. Did men's minds move because educated men told them their axioms about God needed changing, or did they move because they felt a need to be 'free' from their fellow-men and seemed to mean being 'freed' from God? Was the process the result of new knowledge, or the result of a new development of society?

Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, 1977, p.12-13.


Since religious institutions undergo a process of differentiation and institutional specialization similar to that of other institutional domains, religious roles also become specialized, "part-time" roles within the individual conscience. The more the performance of the non-religious roles becomes determined by autonomous "secular" norms, the less plausible become the traditional global claims of religious norms. Consequently "a meaningful integration of specifically religious and nonreligious performances and norms with their respective jurisdictional claims remains a problem."

José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, 1994, p.36, quoting from Luckmann, The Invisible Religion.


Modern secularism is the belief that religious descriptions of reality are always a sort of varnish which can be scraped away to reveal a more basic 'secular' account which was always already there underneath. The sleight-of-hand lies in the assumption that the "secular" version of reality is not simply an alternative to religious accounts, but their underlying presupposition. According to modern secularism, all of us agree (or should agree) on a fundamental secular description of the real, whatever religious elaborations we may lay over it; secular rationality, therefore, is natural, the understanding of reality we all have in common, transcending all our divisive particularities, including religious ones. As John Milbank has brilliantly shown, modern secular reason, which has indeed come to seem 'natural' to us, is in fact a deliberate cultural-political artifice; it was invented, in a cultural process that can be precisely described, between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries.

            If secular rationality is the "natural" understanding of reality which all of us share, then it is only a step to the key socio-political move in the rise of modern society: the equation of public reality with the secular, and the consequent relegation of religion to the sphere of private inwardness and individual motivation. Secular culture, therefore,… allows it no other status than that of a private "voluntary association" of like-minded individuals within a public order governed by secular rationality; what it cannot be is a distinctively public community in its own right, the present civic assembly of the eschatological city, constituting a new public order which occupies its own public space in the midst of the nations.

David Yeago, Messiah's People: The Culture of the Church in the Midst of the nations, Pro Ecclesia, 1997, pp.147-8


There is a militant secularist fundamentalism both in the West and in parts of Asia that is as destructive of authentic pluralism as is its religious counterpart… Secularization is not an inevitable process thrown up by abstract, impersonal forces that are subsumed under the label of modernity. It is often actively promoted by vested interests (whether academics, artists, businessmen or journalists). Intellectuals are especially prone to self-deception, seeing themselves as the standard-bearers of the cult of originality, having emancipated themselves from all the constraints of tradition, community and obligation….

            a latent paternalism has operated within secular liberalism… it simply took for granted that any individual who has tasted the autonomy and range of choices made available in a liberal, consumerist society will choose this form of life over any alternative.

Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths, 2008, pp. 154-5.


the modern invention of the 'secular' carried with it concomitant redefinitions of 'religion'…. In inventing the 'secular' - the territory of 'rational' behaviour, in which the component of 'natural' religion gradually modulated into 'civil' religion, 'public philosophy', class or national ideology - we invented, alongside it, a new world of private feelings, hermetic practices, individual and tribal fantasies, which was first called 'positive' religion and then, in due course, tended to be referred to simply as 'religion', tout court.

Nicholas Lash, 'Hollow Centres and Holy Places', in Lash, The Beginning and End of Religion, 1996, p.189.


In a secular milieu, even an elementary knowledge of Christianity - its history, teachings, sacred texts, and formative figures - dwindles. It is no longer a matter of rejecting Christian teachings; large numbers of people have not the vaguest knowledge of what those teachings are. This is a remarkable development when one considers how foundational Christianity is to the entire story of Western culture. The more widespread the ignorance of Christianity, the greater the prejudice against Christianity. Thus people who do not know the difference between Saul of Tarsus and John Calvin are quite certain that Christianity has been tried and convicted as a religion of oppression.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, 'How the Think About Secularism', First Things, June/July 1996, p.27.


 (common in our day is)… a notion that extreme convictions, especially upon cosmic matters, have been responsible in the past for the thing which is called bigotry… The people who are most bigoted are the people who have no convictions at all.. it is the vague modern who is not at all certain what is right who is most certain that Dante was wrong… It is the hard-headed stockbroker, who knows no history and believes in no religion, who is, nevertheless, perfectly convinced that all these priests are knaves… Bigotry.. [is] the anger of men who have no opinions.. the appalling frenzy of the indifferent… It was not the people who cared who ever persecuted; the people who cared were not sufficiently numerous. It was the people who did not care who filled the world with fire and oppression.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905, p.159.


Nothing could be more important for an understanding of modernity… than to recognise that we are not living in an age in which religious adherence has simply withered away before the parching wind of Enlightenment reason, but in one in which a new evangel has - over the course of a few centuries- displaced the old, and with it the cultural energy and rationale of Christian Europe: a new religion, whose most devout believers are as zealous, intolerant, and absolutist as any faith has ever produced, and whose vast silent constituency is as unreflective, passive, and pliant as any enfranchised clerisy could desire. It is good for Christians to grasp that, even in this hour, we struggle not simply with disillusion and demystification, but with strange gods.

David  Hart, 'A Most Partial Historian', First Things, December 2003.


… the real menace to Christianity is the attempt to use the supreme authority of the state and all the agencies at its command to impose on the whole community a philosophy of life and a pattern of living which are wholly, or in important respects, contrary to the Christian understanding of the meaning and ends of human existence. If that is where the chief danger lies, it would be folly to allow the highly important difference between authoritarian and democratic forms of government to blind us to the fact that this menace may be present even where there is no dictatorship. It may be all the greater when it is manifests itself in more subtle and less easily recognisable ways.

J. H. Oldham, Introduction to Church, Community and State, 1937, p.14-15.


I have found that conservative Christians are positively astonished when their views are given editorial voice by mainstream TV, radio, or print media. I wonder if we see just beneath the surface here an ideological secularism that views traditional religion as necessarily oppressive and intrinsically unintelligent, and as frequently a cover for some financial or sexual or political impropriety. Indeed, this is part of the secularization myth that shows up too often in religious reporting, namely, that "religion is declining under the impact of reason - and a good thing, too".

John Stackhouse, 'Faith and the Media', Crux, 1999, p.29.


I think that all of these pathologies of modern culture can only really be understood if we see them as episodes in the religious history of humanity - and in particular as episodes in the history of Christianity and its aftermath. Which is not to say that Christianity has ceased, but that a certain kind of secular shadow of it now is taken to be independent of it and a genuine successor to it. But it's not a genuine successor to it: it's a hollowed-out version of it.

… Freedom of thought seems to me to be more practicable when you know your own dogmas - which is one reason why Christians are incomparable more interesting to talk to than secular humanists, who are characteristically totally in the grip of dogmas they don't know and so can't inspect, because most of them are mutilated versions of Christianity. They should either take up something else or go back to the real thing.

John Gray, 'Think Small', Third Way, June 2004, p.21.


The first signs that liberalism was abandoning its benign indifference towards religion came with the advent of political correctness. Under its rules, the secular, liberal establishment set itself up as a referee wherever they imagined there to be an inter-faith contest, to try to ensure that no-one offended anyone else. From this bizarre paternalism came weird anomalies such as a Jesus-free Millennium Dome, and odd 'Wintervals' in place of Christmas.

            But the new mood seems different. The secular liberal seems more inclined to swap the black shirt of the referee for the chain-mail of the crusader. Paradoxical it may sound, but in various places what might be described as militant liberalism seems to have emerged. In just the last few months our newspapers have been strewn with instances of the phenomenon.

Duncan MacLaren, 'Crusading for Tolerance', Third Way, March 2007, p.13.


There's an aspiring totalitarianism in Britain which is brilliantly disguised. It's disguised because the would-be dictators - and there are many of them - all pretend to be more tolerant than thou…. They - call them secular fundamentalists - are anti-God, and what they really want is the eradication of religion, and all believers, from the face of the earth.

            In recent years these unpleasant people have had a strategy of exploiting Britain's innate politeness. They realised that for a decade overly sensitive souls (normally called the PC brigade) had bent over backwards to avoid giving offence. Trying not to give offence was, despite the excesses, a noble courtesy.

            But the fundamentalists saw an opening. Because we live in a multiconfessional society, they fostered the falsehood that wearing a crucifix or a veil or a turban was deeply offensive to other faiths...

            But Britons are actually laissez-faire about such things. And so the fundamentalists deployed an opposite tactic. Instead of pretending to protect religious sensibilities, they went on the offensive and sought to give offence….

            In recent years the nastier side of this totalitarianism has become blatantly apparent.

Tobias Jones, 'Secular Fundamentalists are the New Totalitarians: Militant secularists like Richard Dawkins are taking their revenge on us believers for refusing to stay in the closet', The Guardian, 6th January, 2007


The believer can hardly help being saddened at the sight of humanity caught in the quicksands - and who knows for how many centuries it may be? - at the very moment when it seems to aspire more fervently than ever to be free. He sees it shun its God as "a strange being". He sees it alienate itself in the very act in which it believes it has finally freed itself. Howe can one avoid being saddened at the thought that it is lowering itself in a movement that seemed as though it were struggling to greater dignity?'

Henri De Lubac, The Discovery of God, p.195.


…the Christian is not seeking to make the state into a church, but is proposing to the state and to the culture in general a style and direction of common life - the life of the body of Christ - that represents humanity at its fullest. A determinedly secular society is always in danger of becoming closed upon itself, never really copying with radical criticism, lacking a forum for discussing general moral priorities, reluctant to change.

            In contrast to much Islamic history, Christian history shows a pattern of engaging with society and law from alongside. It had not generally attempted to suggest that the affairs of the state should be directed by religious experts. And that has normally had the healthy effect of making Christians suspicious of any claims by earthly rulers to be religious experts simply in virtue of their position… Christianity has asked not for licence for its leaders to control society, but for a proper hearing of its concerns and  - ideally - a willingness on the part of political leaders to show self-critical honesty and, where appropriate, repentance…. It is not that the state and the laws of society must represent in all aspects the commands of the gospel; it is rather that the state will become a sterile and oppressive thing unless it is continually engaged in conversation with those who speak for the gospel.

Rowan Williams, 'Christianity: Public Religion and the Common Good', speech delivered in Singapore, May 2007