Post-Secular Times

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken May 9, 2004

Secularism is the view that religion is a private matter, that God has no claim on public life. It has long been commonly held that secularism is the wave of the future, not only in America and the West, but also around the world. Probably this idea originated during the Enlightenment, when some leading thinkers said that the Age of Reason would supersede the Age of Faith. Generally speaking, this is what has happened in Western Europe, where the church has suffered a long, slow decline.

Many people assume that the same thing is happening in America. Organized religion is on the way out—an illusion that is fostered by the lack of a strong Christian presence in the media, and by the seemingly relentless pressure to exclude Christianity from the public square. As Philip Jenkins recently explained, “Religion is just not something that educated people take seriously, and if they claim to, they must be either deranged or hypocritical” [“The Real Story of Secularization,” Books & Culture, Vol. 8, No. 6 (Nov./Dec. 2002), p. 10]. Eventually, say the secularists, tolerance will prevail and religion will be completely confined to private life, where it belongs. Or better yet, it will disappear altogether, because the more modern we become—the more scientific and materialistic—the less religious we will be.

However, recently some journalists have begun to rethink the secularization thesis. Maybe secularism isn't the wave of the future after all. Events such as the bombing of the World Trade Center and the War in Iraq have forced people to recognize that religion continues to play a dominant role in global conflict. Of course it would be a mistake to view America's war on Saddam Hussein as a conflict between Muslims and Christians, but at the same time, it would be foolish to deny that religion is inextricably bound up in the fight itself, and in the international debates that swirl around it.

Nor can the secularist thesis account for what is happening inside America, where the persistence of evangelicalism seems to puzzle the educated elite, and even to annoy them. The ongoing cultural influence of Christian values can hardly be denied. Christian books are near the top of the bestseller list, and Christian perspectives have a significant influence on politics. People thought we were headed for secularism, but in fact, a sense of the sacred still pervades public life. As David Brooks recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Secularism is not the future; it is yesterday's incorrect vision of the future. This realization sends us recovering secularists to the bookstore or the library in a desperate attempt to figure out what is going on in the world.” And frankly, they have a lot of reading to do, because most journalists seem virtually clueless about religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

It is easy to understand why a culture would gradually become more secular. We see the same pattern of deformation in Old Testament Israel, where on a recurring basis, godly communities gave way to generations that no longer revered the faith of their fathers. The sinful nature, both individually and collectively, is prone to wander away from God. But God cannot be banished altogether, as the old secularists are discovering. This is because human beings are inescapably religious. As the Reformers said, we have a sensus divinitatis—a basic, intuitive perception of the divine existence.

In one sense, secularism itself is a kind of religion because it treats tolerance as the ultimate absolute. But if it is a religion, it is a religion without the real God, and for that reason it cannot satisfy the longings of the human soul. We were designed to have a relationship with God, so even when we are looking for him in all the wrong places, we are still looking. As the apostle Paul explained it, human beings were made to “seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). We see this in cultures that have tried to eliminate God altogether, like China and the Soviet Union. Nationally institutionalized atheism is the most extreme form of secularism. Although it does real damage to the soul, in the end it cannot prevail, because it seeks to deny something essential to human nature: our longing for God.

There is another reason why secularism has not yet triumphed in America, and that is the living presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church of Jesus Christ. God is still with us. Of course there have been times when the gospel has all but left a culture. It happened in Turkey, and it may yet happen here. The secularization of our common life does real damage to the Christian community. But God has promised that his church will not perish; rather, it will prevail against the strongholds of Satan (Matt. 16:18). A remnant will always remain. Although Christianity may decline at certain times or in particular places, there will always be a church in the world.

So what kind of times are we living in? I have often described them as post-Christian times, and I still think that's true. The Christian worldview seems to exercise ever declining influence on American life, partly because in so many ways the church itself has become secular. Churches no longer preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, but of self-esteem, or entertainment, or political involvement, or some other secular substitute for real religion.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging to know that some observers, recognizing the ongoing influence of Christianity in America, are calling the same era post-secular. It does not seem to me that we are seeing a strong resurgence of authentic Christianity. But maybe we are at least seeing the stubborn persistence of the church. This is part of the perpetual spiritual struggle that will remain in the world, and maybe even in America, until God returns in the person of his Son.

© 2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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