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How (Not) To Be Secular (6) – The Malaise of Secularism

Secularism is a system that seems to give people the meaning and answers they seek. And it has taken root in a time of unprecedented safety and prosperity. Yet secularism is not satisfying. For as soon as unbelief becomes an option a doubt arises: Is this the right option? Just as the believer is tempted the doubt his belief, the doubter is tempted to doubt his doubt: What if there is something more?

Secularism, though it claims to answer our questions and give us meaning, does not answer all our questions and the meaning it provides is shallow.

As an example of the limitations of secularism James Smith refers to the story of Dolores Hart. She was a rising star in the ‘50s and ‘60s, staring alongside the likes of Elvis and Marlon Brando, living the Hollywood dream. At the height of her popularity she abandoned it all to become a Benedictine nun. Try as it might, the secular take can’t explain this. (Her story has been captured in the documentary God Is the Bigger Elvis, a movie made by secular people that are absolutely mystified by her choices.)

But if secularism is true, if the whole world is material and understandable, then we should be able to understand everything. But we can’t. Why not? Marriage, birth, death—we can explain these physical processes, but there seems to be something more in them, a depth that we can sense and not explain. But why? If “this” is all there is, why does it so often feel like there must be something more?  

Two common answers that secularism gives are art and science.

Art makes us feel things we can’t explain (and modern man wants to feel above all, rather than think or understand). And art gives us a feeling of something more without us having to admit there is something more, a something (or Someone) that may ask us to do things that we would rather not do. Instead, while enjoying art we may glory in feelings of transcendence while clinging to our denial of the transcendent. We get “the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage.” This may offer us less than the meaning, purpose, identity, and hope that we find it Christ, but it seems to give us something and it demands nothing of us.

In a similar vein many claim to leave the faith because of science. But when their de-conversion stories are investigated we see two things. First, these apostates are moved not so much by scientific evidence as by what science seems to represent. They see themselves as once being childish and foolish, believing fairy tales and superstition, but science led them into a place of independence where they could have the courage to see the world as it really is. They are led astray not by science itself, but rather by the intertwined myths of Progress and scientism. Second, most have laughably shallow understandings of the faiths they walk away from. As Lewis put it in one of his books, ‘The so-called faith that they left was barely worth losing.’

The fact remains that science cannot and does not answer our deepest questions. Science can tell us how a child is conceived, but it cannot explain how holding your newborn in your arms changes your very soul. Science can tell us how a person died, but not why this person instead of that one or why this man lived long while that man died young. Ultimately secularism can’t make sense of death. To paraphrase Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘if man was made for happiness on this earth he would not die, for death ends all his pursuits. The fact that his body dies shows that his purpose must be spiritual.’ Our hearts yearn for a peace this world cannot give, a justice that we will never attain, and a pleasure that nothing physical can satisfy. This does not prove we will attain these things in Heaven, but it is good evidence that secularism is false and that we are made for more than this earth.