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How (Not) To Be Secular (4) – Some Effects of Secularism

The things we do change our beliefs. Every man, even very wicked men, want to think good of themselves so they find ways to justify their behavior. Rather than change their behavior so that it reflects what is right, they redefine their belief as to what is right so that they can consider their behavior good. This new belief encourages more of that behavior, which in turn further binds them to that belief.  

Similarly, secularism assumes that the natural world is all that exists and meaning must therefore be found exclusively in it. In the past people used to restrain their desires because they believed there would be judgment for them if they transgressed, and rewards for them if they obeyed, God’s commands. When people think that the physical world is all there is, there is no such need to restrain behavior in that way. As Fyodor Dostoevsky put it, “If God is dead, everything is permissible.” In the world we live in we are all free and encouraged to pursue pleasure in our own way so long as our pursuit of pleasure does not inhibit another’s pursuit. Our belief that only the material exists justifies our pursuit of material pleasure and our exclusive focus on material pleasure furthers the belief that only the material world exists.

According to Taylor, the world we live in now where everyone is allowed to pursue their own version of the good life in their own terms is a relatively benign outcome of secularism. But secularism has often produced much more destructive outcomes. One of the great political movements of secularism over the last century was Marxism. Seeking wholly earthly goods, by earthly means alone, without reference to transcendent morals led to the murder of more than one-hundred million people by Marxist governments.

And secularism has not just affected secular people, it has affected the faith of Christians. For example, most Christians hold to the assumption that the universe is run by certain laws instituted by God. God is therefore not “here” and not involved; rather He has ordered the universe like a watchmaker. Many assume He likewise made moral laws that we can understand by using our reason in the same way we understand physical laws. If that is the case there is no need of divine revelation; we can figure things out on our own. God is thereby reduced to creator and the grounder of moral laws, which is a woefully inadequate description of God! What is more, many Christians accept secular ideas of meaning. For example, for many the goal of life is to no longer be holy because God is holy, but rather to simply “do no harm”. If this is the case, it seems that we can do that without God’s grace.  

In all of this this we move from a religion of mystery, where God’s will is hidden insofar as He does not reveal it, to a faith we can completely understand and defend. Whereas the problem of evil led earlier Christians to cling to Christ and beg mercy of their Savior, modern ones seek to understand. This can lead us to reducing God to a “force” that explains the problem of evil, rather than the Savior that overcame it on our behalf and in whom we must have faith. Taylor is clear to say that apologetics is not sinful and that it is often useful, but he worries that we may have conceded too much to secularism. Secularists claim to be able to understand reality in their way; in seeking to respond to them we have sought to understand our faith in the same way. But this, according to Taylor, is a fool’s errand. If God is who He says He is we cannot reduce Him to human terms and understand Him like we can understand a mineral or a star system. There will always be much about our faith that will transcend our understanding and we must embrace this aspect of mystery.   

Finally, secularism creates a “cult” of therapy. (Note: a lot of therapy is good and wise and for many people it is probably helpful. I am talking here about therapy that tries to heal a person without any recognition of the need to repent and have faith in Christ.) As we have moved to the secular from Christianity we have ceased to think in terms of sin and instead think in terms of sickness. But when the moral is transformed into the therapeutic we move from responsibility to victimhood. As we have collectively grown in our belief in the power of therapy we have been led to look for things in this world that are not possible. Are you unhappy? You shouldn’t be! There is a pill or a technique to fix that! Contrast this with traditional Christian teaching that has always affirmed that it is impossible to be fully happy in a sinful world. The expectation of happiness, because it can never be fulfilled in our fallen world, ironically makes us more unhappy, which leads us to pursue it frenetically, which in turn leads to greater unhappiness.

But, it could be argued, doesn’t Christianity lead to repression, which leads to cruelty, and even madness? Something many people do not know is that it was pagans who rejected physical pleasure—e.g. it was groups like the Platonists that conceived of the body as a prison from which we need to escape. Christians, in contrast, receive physical pleasure, but recognize that it often must be restricted so that we can pursue higher things. So a nun may forego marriage, but only that she may know God better; a man may forego food while he fasts, but only that he may learn to rely more on Christ. Christians do not think there are good or bad desires in and of themselves—the desires for food, rest, friendship, etc. are all natural and are all given by God, it is sin that encourages us to seek these good things in the wrong way, the wrong time, or to the wrong degree. It follows that it is ultimately not right, as some pagans taught, to completely repress our natural desires. Instead we believe they must come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, be used the way that He has commanded them to be used, and we believe that ultimately His Spirit will transform our desires so that we not only begrudgingly follow them in the right way, but delight in their right and healthy expression. No clinic, no doctor, no program, no pill can provide that—that is a gift from Jesus Christ.