March 26, 2019

Secularism’s (Misplaced) Confidence

I wrote last week, in light of the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, that the decision by the government to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer as part of its memorial was a display of secularism’s hegemony, rather than a kow-towing to Islam.

And I wrote that in light of a lot of huffing and puffing by those who considered this action to be the thin end of the wedge, and a sign that New Zealand  – and the West in general – is headed towards becoming an Islamic theocracy.

The strangest reactions were from those who, although they constantly despise all that secularism espouses in our late modern West, are outraged that they do not get a seat at the table.  I’m with Marx on this one (Groucho not Karl), who wryly stated:

I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member

Well that’s how I feel about the secular frame, in its current iteration in the West at least. Join that club and you are virtually begging to be a domesticated version of what you once were.  Perhaps not in the past, but definitely now, and increasingly more so in the future.

Why spend all your time bagging out secularism, and then complain that it isn’t inviting you to the party? Woody Allen tells the story of two elderly women have a meal at a resort hotel:

… and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

Bad food, but more of it please.  That seems to be the logic at work in our current debate.

So perhaps its time to gird our loins and stop such public pouting, especially as Christians who know that the kingdoms of this age already belong to Jesus through the work of the cross, and that the vision of human flourishing espoused by our secular agenda is at odds with that of the one King Jesus is calling us to and, more importantly, bringing us to in fulfilment at the end of the age.

All that aside, it needs to be pointed out that secularism’s confidence is actually a misplaced confidence.  Rather than seeing the sidelining of Christianity and the push to include others – any others – as a sign of secularism’s strength, it’s time to see it as a sign of secularism’s weakness.  Let me explain why.

1.Modern Secularism’s Commitment To Diversity is A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

Secularism in the West prides itself on diversity. On the surface at least.  All colours, creeds and nations.  As long as that diversity does not go below the skin.  That’s why a modern university board or student union can look so diverse, and indeed champion all sorts of sexual diversities, but think exactly the same.

Scratch beneath the surface of the modern secular state and it becomes apparent that it is dominated by group-think in terms of sexuality, gender an understanding of what statements are acceptable in the public square, etc.  The university boardroom is populated by a stifling uniformity that is unrepresentative of the wider populace.

Modern secularism’s confidence in itself is an unexplored confidence.  It hasn’t truly been put to the test.  And where it is, it displays a nervousness that borders on insecurity.

2. Modern Secularism’s Confidence in Progress is Misplaced

The modern secular understanding of the direction our culture is headed is misplaced.  Central to the secular narrative is the committed belief that over time, as science and reason have taken hold, religion – or at leasts its grip on the social imaginary – has waned, and will continue to wane as these secular attributes expand.

This is a misreading of history.  Rather than history being a cable-car ride that smoothly takes us from an unenlightened religious past towards an enlightened post-religious utopian future, history is more like a rollercoaster.  There are twists and turns and unexpected jolts that refuse any simple explanation.

So as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes, while it is true that the French rural dweller was increasingly secularised as he made the move to the big urban centres of Europe, the opposite was the case in the United States.

The shift from country to city in the US increased the likelihood of an encounter with religion. Indeed religious organisations not only survived in the cities, they thrived under the conditions of modernity, adapting to meet the spiritual needs of those who flocked there.

And as the camera pans out and we look at the last three to four hundred years of history, there is not straightforward pattern of religious decline as science and reason advance.  None at all.  And certainly not in the “rest” of the world either.  Religion is both in decline AND in advance.  Secularism struggles to own this as part of the narrative.

3. Modern Secularism Is Digging Up Its Own Foundations

The secular West has become an A.B.C culture – Anything But Christianity.  Os Guinness makes the observation that cultures that are in decline display this decline by a rejection of the institutions that were central to their rise.  And for the secular West one of those institutions is the Church.

Secularism is like the teenager coming of age in his parents’ house, and who displays his wilfulness and independence by slamming the doors and abusing his long-suffering mum and dad, rather than moving out and getting a job and paying for his lifestyle himself.

Hence when the European Union decided to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in 2007, the statement they included in the celebrations ignored Christianity altogether as an influence in European culture.  Not a mention!

As Pope Benedict said at the time:

“If on the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome the governments of the union want to get closer to their citizens, how can they exclude an element as essential to the identity of Europe as Christianity, in which the vast majority of its people continue to identify?”

Aside from the fact that the governments of the union don’t want to get closer to their citizens, but want to distance themselves from those of whom they are increasingly afraid (hello President Macron if you’re listening), this is a telling statement.

It seems remarkable that, given the huge religious framework that delivered the modern nation state to the world, and the fact that the West’s historical commitment to the Christian gospel birthed the scientific advancement, humanism, justice system and economic frameworks we take for granted, that it would be ignored.

But perhaps that’s the point.  It is taken for granted. Secularism’s misplaced confidence is most misplaced when it assumes it can have the fruit of the gospel without the root of the gospel.  It cannot.  To mix the metaphor, the West’s secular car will only run for so long on the gas fumes of the Christian faith it has abandoned.  Without a fuel fill up and a lube and oil change, this thing will grind to a halt.

Mark Sayers, in his book Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, points out that the culture has not succumbed – yet – to the Zombie Apocalypse of mass orgies and depravity door to door, but nevertheless the beauty of our secular state is a facade.

This utopian ideal cannot hold, it cannot last, it cannot carry the weight of our hopes and expectations.  And it certainly cannot contain the tensions of a world in which there are competing visions of the good life that refuse to be subsumed by secularism’s agenda.  Which is where we come to next, and which is where the cracks are starting to show.

4. Modern Secularism Will Not Be Able to Handle The Tension

In the English city of Birmingham in early March, six hundred families removed their children from the Parkfield community school in protest.  Six hundred Muslim families. Hundreds of other families are also holding protests outside other schools around the city.

What are they protesting? They are protesting a central plank of the Sexular Age – the promotion in their schools of  gay and transgender lifestyles as a normal – and even desirable – expressions of modern British life.

Faced with a school program called No Outsiders that was created by the school’s assistant head Andrew Moffat, who is himself gay and in a civil relationship with another man, and that is designed to teach children about the Equality Act and British values, the parents’s response was clear: If this is what it means to hold British values, then we do not hold them.  And never will.  In fact we are opposed to such values.

The fact that Moffat is up for an international teaching award on the back of this program simply shows that these two central values of secularism – the championing of minority religious groups (apart from Christianity), and the promotion of the LGBTQI communities and lifestyles are on a collision course.  They are incompatible values.

As reported in The Guardian:

Children from reception age through to year six were being taught five No Outsiders lessons a year, each one covering topics to meet requirements in the Equality Act. Books being read by the pupils include Mommy, Mama and Me, and King & King – stories about same-sex relationships and marriages.

Requirements of the Equality Act.  Think about that.   Modern secularism constructs a narrative of progress where all minorities are included, but in the process reveals that it does not understand religious communities and indeed feels threatened by alternate ethical communities who refuse to buy into its agenda.

It may be a sign of solidarity with a minority to wear a headscarf and put the call to prayer out on the airwaves, as happened in New Zealand last week, but faced with such an either/or situation, the modern western secularism project does not where to side.  Islamophobia or homophobia.  It’s one or the other.

Muslim families in Birmingham pointedly reject the homophobic label, but were adamant that their children were not going to be taught values that they as a community were opposed to.  Sound familiar?

The confidence that secularism has will ebb away when it is faced with an either/or situation by a minority group that it wishes to champion, but which is itself implacably opposed to the agenda of another minority group that it wishes to champion.  The tension cannot hold.

What makes it more intriguing is that the Anglican bishop in Birmingham, who is a theological liberal and who has been a strong advocate for the Muslim community up until this point, has now, pointedly, withdrawn that support on this issue.

All proof, if we ever needed it, that when they are pulling in opposite directions, one value has to trump the other, and for the hopelessly compromised Church of England the rights of sex freedom trumps the rights of alternate religious communities. Every time.

Modern secularism’s goodwill will, eventually, crack under this sort of pressure.  It does not have a program that enables it to hold competing values in tension, or indeed convince others to do so.  It does not have a plan for what to do with those who oppose its vision of the good life.  It will either crumble, or as is more likely, betray its more ugly side, even towards those it has recently championed, and start compelling its less than compelling vision in increasingly restrictive ways.

Not that it sees this of course.  The hastily beaten together solution offered by the local MP was for “parents, faith leaders in the Muslim community and the LGBT rights group Stonewall to work together on a curriculum.

It’s interesting that The Guardian mentioned that Christian and Jewish groups might sneak into that meeting also.

Yet the idea that one would even think there could be a meeting of minds in such a room, never mind that they could work together holding such diametrically opposing views – and practices – beggars belief and betrays the naivety and vanity of the secular project.

Stonewall’s slogan?  “Acceptance Without Exception”.  That’s the modern secular project’s slogan too, except there’s an asterisk attached.  Theres a whole bunch of fine print at the bottom of the page that tells you who exceptions will be enforced to ensure that “all” are accepted.

In other words, if through the free will of all groups you can make two plus two equal five, then the West’s totalising secularism project has a chance of succeeding.  If not, then you’ll probably need a more creative – and forceful – way to make that particular sum add up.

Which simply means, you can wear and headscarf and you can broadcast the prayers as an act of compassion, but if in the long run you’re adamant that the only values you will permit in the public square are your  values, and that the sexual ethics of traditional groups, such as Muslim communities are not invited into that space as equally valid, then your compassionate acts run the risk of being reduced to cultural appropriation;  the act of aping the trappings of a culture without truly honouring it.










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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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