Secularism 101

Secularism 101

What is it, why does it matter and how to address it

Many Christians are unfamiliar with the concept of secularism. They have not had the opportunity to consider the threat it poses for our society – for our children, and for future generations.

This resource is designed to help readers understand what secularism is, recognise the ways it subtly shapes society, realise how it is contrary to God’s will, and discern how we should respond.

Secularism – What is it?

S14-01_aOnline dictionaries define secularism as:

  1. A system of social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship
  2. The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education

The UK National Secular Society describes it as a principle that involves two basic propositions:

  1. The strict separation of the state from religious institutions
  2. That people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law

Most descriptions boil down to the basic idea of keeping God out of everyday life.

S14-01_bThis means keeping your beliefs (unless it happens to be atheism) out of the public square – which includes public debate, public policy, public institutions (e.g. government and schools), and public spaces (e.g. the workplace).

In other words… it may be OK to believe in God as long as you keep it to yourself and you keep it private. Although people like scientist Richard Dawkins would even argue against this.

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There is a ‘softer version’ of secularism which allows for expression of God in public as long as no one religion is given preferential treatment. This is sometimes referred to as ‘inclusive secularism’.

Inclusive secularism could be seen as consistent with Christian faith which holds that God gives people free-will and choice and does not impose belief onto people.

But groups in New Zealand, such as the Rationalist-Humanist Society and the Secular Education Network, are active in pushing for ‘exclusive secularism’, where God and religious faith would be restricted to a ‘private’ activity.

Why does it matter?

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There are two ways to look at this…

From God’s perspective,

Christian understanding is that God created everything – life, family, community, government. God is sovereign over everything, and His desire is that He would be honoured and every sphere of life would function in line with His will.

For spheres (e.g. government or education) to operate as if God is irrelevant or to relegate God to the margins or the private sphere, is not giving God the honour He deserves.

From society’s perspective,

  • if God is real and,
  • if God is the source of all justice and goodness and truth and meaning…

then it would be unwise to exclude God from the public sphere.

Therefore:

If God is treated as irrelevant it can only have negative consequences for a society that tries to live that way.

Such a society would eventually see injustice and inequality increase; goodness, respect, and compassion decrease, and standards of truth and morality undermined. It also leads to erosion of freedom of belief and conscience.

Those with eyes to see will observe some of these signs in New Zealand today.

How do we address secularism?

  1. Recognise that ‘exclusive secularism’ is hostility to God and be prepared to engage.
  2. Understand that ‘exclusive secularism’ is a belief system like any other, as are atheism, agnosticism, and rationalist-humanism. There is no more evidence for it being ‘true’ than for Christianity. Whereas there is good reason to argue it has much less.
  3. Understand that public spheres that seek to suppress or exclude Christian or any other religious expression, are actually giving priority to atheism or beliefs that say God is not important in the public realm.This is the myth of ‘secular neutrality’ or the so-called ‘naked public square’ – a public square where beliefs supposedly have no place.
  4. Highlight the unreasonableness of people who oppose any inclusion of Christian faith in public spaces when around half of the people in our country still describe themselves as Christian. Why shouldn’t schools teach the basic ideas of Christianity and the profound impact it has had, and continues to have, in Aotearoa New Zealand?
  5. Recognise that ‘inclusive secularism’, which permits religious ideas and comments, is not a bad thing. It gives everyone freedom to share their real convictions, not just atheists and exclusive secularists.
  6. Work together – connect to New Zealand Christian Network via the web. If you are able, consider supporting the work we do promoting Christian viewpoints in the public square.

S14-01_eKey Point

Everyone has beliefs. A so-called ‘naked public square’ simply advantages some people’s beliefs (a minority) over others.

It is ironic that atheistic belief should be elevated in this way given that it has been consistently shown to produce more authoritarian regimes than almost any other. (e.g. most communist dictatorships in the 20th century)

 

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There’s more to marriage!

There’s more to marriage!

Is Marriage for you?

We’re confused about marriage. We want ceremonies with vows “till death parts us”, yet every year half as many divorce as marry.

How do you picture “marriage”?

Weddings, like Hollywood productions, present the dream of perfect couples, it’s all about love and fulfilment. But that Hollywood self-fulfilment picture of marriage isn’t true.

Another picture of marriage

There’s another picture that surfaced last year in a blog post that went viral. Seth Adam Smith was unknown to most people until he wrote “Marriage isn’t for you”. He repeated advice his dad gave him, when he was having cold feet about marriage. The post was so popular the server crashed, and he featured on US TV news.

As the wedding approached Seth asked himself: “Was I making the right choice? Was Kim the right person to marry? Would she make me happy?” His dad’s response was sharp:

Core Bible teaching on marriage

The foundation for marriage is summed up at the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 2.

“For this reason” refers back to the story in Genesis 2; of how God made a human being, planted a wonderful garden and put the human there to cultivate and care for it.

God also recognised that it is not good for man to be alone so He made a suitable helper for him. Let’s examine what that means:

  • a helper is not subordinate. In the Old Testament, almost always the strong “help” the weak. This speaks of our human need for each other.
  • suitable implies both “like” and “appropriate”

Animals didn’t fit the need… So God made a woman who really was: “bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh” – a helper who matches.

Marriage is a spiritual discipline

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5 deals extensively with marriage and specifically quotes Genesis chapter 2. He goes on to say:

This is a profound mystery – I am talking about Christ and the church.

Marriage echoes God’s love for us in Christ. In marriage we should love as God loves us. Marriage is a “spiritual discipline”.

Seth’s dad expressed deep truths about God’s intentions for marriage.

Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.

That’s the Creator’s plan. Genesis 2 tells us that woman and man were “made for each other”, but Genesis 1, telling of the creation of humans, talks about the image of God.

So God created humanity in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Love and partnership between man and woman echoes the love within the Godhead. We are to love our wives or husbands as God loved us, but we are also to love and share as God does!

Talk of loving like God seems idealistic. Since Genesis 3, the world is broken by human sinfulness.

Living in a broken world: Marriages in the Bible

Think of Abraham and Sarah, they seem a perfect couple, but Sarah has Abraham sleep with a slave-girl (Gen 16:1-3), and then gets jealous (Gen 16:5). The only perfect marriages in Scripture are the ones we don’t see close enough to see the cracks.

Just as all humans are broken (sinful) and need to repent, all marriages need repentance and God’s grace – as does every other sphere of life.

Marriage can only work with forgiveness and grace – between spouses.

  • If you are thinking of marriage:
    Are you asking “Is marriage for you”, or are you ready to live for your future spouse and children?
  • If you are married:
    Are you behaving as if the marriage was “for you”? How can you change that?
  • If you prepare people for marriage:
    How do you help people understand what marriage really is, and to aim for the real thing?

Tim Bulkeley has been pastor (in England), missionary (in Congo) and taught Old Testament (for twenty years at Carey Baptist College) he and Barbara live between Tauranga and Rotorua and attend South City Baptist Church. They have four adult children and one granddaughter. Tim podcasts and has several websites including his latest project Reading the Bible Faithfully.

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Secularism 101

Secularism is religious

A gospel by any other name

Ideologies, “isms”, such as secularism, embrace the same concerns as the Christian gospel. They are concerned about the good life, about the purpose and meaning of being human, of living well in the world, forming communities, making moral choices etc.

This resource is designed to help people recognise a gospel by any other name.

Secularism is a belief system

An article on the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists website (reason.org.nz) states:

“The NZARH strongly believes that government should be secular; that is dealing with the issues of this world rather than following a religious agenda. Our law should not give one set of beliefs privilege over another and the state should treat religious organisations the same as any other organisation … Societies in which all people can openly express and practice their beliefs are far better places to live in than those that enforce dogma – religious or otherwise.”

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The NZARH strongly believes that government should be secular; that is dealing with the issues of this world rather than following a religious agenda. Our law should not give one set of beliefs privilege over another and the state should treat religious organisations the same as any other organisation … Societies in which all people can openly express and practice their beliefs are far better places to live in than those that enforce dogmareligious or otherwise.

 

What is secularism?

David Koyziz answers:

Secularism may be described as an idolatry which, as its name indicates, worships some created thing, or more than one thing, within the saeculum – the present age.

S14-02bAs Koyzis asserts, secularism is, like all ideologies, inescapably religious. Rather than equating ideology and religion, Koyzis goes on to say that an ideology flows out of the religious commitment of a person or community.

Neither the NZARH nor groups such as the New Zealand Secular Education Network can claim high ground or neutrality in this regard. There are some issues to address with regard to the statement of the NZARH for example:

  • The statement proceeds from faith – “the NZARH strongly believes”. This is of course inevitable with all such bottom-line statements of conviction. We believe before we affirm.
  • The statement characterises religion as being only concerned with issues that are otherworldly and future – not with “the issues of this world”. This is a highly contentious assumption, one that Christians, as well as followers of other religions would contest.
  • The statement contends that one set of beliefs should not be given privilege over others. Do the NZARH hold this to be the case in propagating their own faith position?
  • The statement accuses others of seeking to “enforce dogma”. Do they seek to stand above that accusation themselves?

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Ideologies, “isms”, such as secularism, embrace the same concerns as the Christian gospel. They are concerned about the good life, about the purpose and meaning of being human, of living well in the world, forming communities, making moral choices etc.

Ideologies are, in this sense, gospel stories – declarations of good news. This is the meaning of “gospel”, as we find it in Scripture. It is a public word, not uniquely a Christian word. It was widely used in the first century as the proclamation of good news through the Roman Empire. The Priene inscription, from 9 BC, makes use of the word as follows:

Caesar [Augustus] through his appearance has exceeded the hopes of all former good messages [euangelia], surpassing not only his benefactors who came before him, but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future would surpass him, and since for the world the birthday of the god was the beginning of his good messages [euangelia]…

The gospel of Christ, the gospel of God’s kingdom and reign in Christ, has always been proclaimed not only as the biblical vision and promise of life but always in contention with other visions and promises, other stories of the good life, told by emperors, educators, politicians and ad makers.

Such was the case in the days of the prophets when Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian or Persian stories of the good life were on offer. Such was the case in the days of Jesus and the 1st century disciples when Roman versions of the gospel were widely proclaimed – peace and blessing in the name of the Caesar who was lord and saviour of the world. When Paul proclaimed Jesus as Lord, he consciously did so in contention with the alternative Lord of the day, the Roman Caesar.

What are the threats and opportunities that present themselves in this era of secularism? Surely the greatest threat is that secularism will proclaim itself as the only way; that the secular ideology will be enforced as dogma to the exclusion of other faith positions. The danger in this is that the Christian gospel will be locked out of the main arenas of public debate and decision making, as though it was irrelevant or outdated.

However, there is also opportunity in the current secular context in which many find themselves in Western nations such as Aotearoa New Zealand. In the words of Stanley Hauerwas:

I think this is a time that God is finally helping us Christians get over what is called Christendom – namely, when we thought we were in control of the world. It’s terrific. We’re discovering we’re going to be forced to learn to live by our wits. When you have power, it dulls the mind, and it dulls the intellect. We’re learning what it means to live without power. We may learn to live wittily again. When you’re not in control then you have to know those who are in control better than they know themselves in order to survive. That’s great. We can do that now in a way that I think is quite promising.

Amen. May we graciously and courageously take such opportunity.

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References

Hauerwas, S. (2011). Sunday Asylum: Being the Church in Occupied Territory. The House Studio and The Work of the People.

Koyzis, David T. (2003). Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Critique of Contemporary Ideologies. Downers Grove, Ill. IVP.

Stenhouse, J. and Wood, G. A. (Ed’s.). (2005). Christianity, Modernity and Culture. Adelaide, Australia. ATF Press.

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RT-thumbDr Rod Thompson – National Principal of Laidlaw College

Rod holds a BA (Sydney University),ThL (Australian College of Theology), MEdS (Institute of Christian Tertiary Education), and a PhD from Macquarie University, is married to Rosanne and they have four adult children and two granddaughters.