April 30, 2017

Review: The End of Secularism

A review by Brian Collins

Baker, Hunter. The End of Secularismclip_image001. Wheaton: Crossway, 2009.

Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism provides a good introduction to secularism. His endnotes point to resources of greater depth. Baker notes that secularism is a Western reaction against the idea of a Christian state. After religious pluralism developed in the sixteenth century and the wars of religion followed, philosophers posited that given differing beliefs about God and uncertainty about who God is, religious issues should be excluded from “education, law, and any other public endeavor” (19). Religion may be pursued privately or with groups of likeminded people, like a hobby. But it should not be brought out into public.

Along with the argument for secularism came the secularization thesis. This thesis proposes that as societies modernize, they secularize. Eventually science will push religion from every sphere of life except, perhaps, the personal, devotional sphere. Peter Berger, once a proponent of the secularization thesis, concluded that, empirically, secularization does not progress with modernization. Whereas the United States was once seen as the exception to the secularization thesis, the secularization of Europe and of the American academy is now seen as the exception to the norm. Baker concludes that far from being inevitable, secularization has succeeded in these limited areas because of the activism of key secularist figures.

Baker argues that not only has the secularization thesis failed empirically, but also the entire premise of secularism (that it provides a neutral space mitigates religious controversy) has failed for three reasons. First and foremost, secularism is not a neutral party but an ideological player in religious debates. When it arrogates to itself the role of deciding who is allowed to speak in public and who is not it harms the democratic process and angers those whose voices are shut out from the discussion. This does not lead to social harmony, but to social dissent. The second, and related reason, is the critique of Stanley Fish that “finding common ground assumes a capacity that has already been denied … by the framing of the problem.” Thus secularism is simply a power play to exclude some orthodoxies in favor of others. The third failure of secularism is that the problem secularism proposes to solve is not uniquely religious. Baker notes, “One need not be forced to live under Christian or Muslim values to feel severely put upon. Equally negative emotions may arise when socialists, feminists, or ethnic groups find channels for imposing their will” (132). In fact, given the non-neutrality of secularism, a secular hegemon may be just as coercive as a religious one.

Baker is not interested in replacing secularism with erastianism. But he does argue for a world in which every view, whether religious or secular, has the right to make its case in the public square.

Insightful quotation:

“McConnell retells the story of Zarathustra, who brings the news that God is dead. When he encounters a hermit who sings, laughs, weeps, and mumbles so as to praise God, Zarathustra ‘leaves the old man to worship in peace.’ The hermit has been spared because he lives alone in his self-constructed reality. “If the hermit left the forest and attempted to enter into public discussion and debate, he would be given the news of God’s death like everyone else.’ The lesson to be drawn from the story, McConnell suggests, is that religious freedom is to be protected, strongly protected—so long as it is irrelevant to the life of the wider community’” (111).

Dr. Brian Collins is employed at the Bob Jones University Press.

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