If someone asked us about the current state of North American society, how would we respond? Would we bemoan the state of our leadership, the lack of Biblical values in education, the various policies enacted by our government? Sure, if pressed, we may express thankfulness for the freedom we enjoy and the security we have, among other things. However, would we praise God for our society? Would we thank Him for the blessing the condition of our society holds for the Church?
I want to suggest that we can and should do this very thing. I do not want to suggest that our society has no serious problems. Yet as we are called to take joy and recognize God’s hand in the pain of suffering (Jas 1:2-4), we can and must take joy and recognize God’s hand in our society’s present condition. After looking at what exactly the condition of our society is, I want to then suggest a way we can see God’s good purpose in it.
A Secular Society
Broadly speaking, Western North American society could be described as “secular.” We could also call it post-Christian. That is, for a long time, the basic assumptions and foundation of society were Christian, even when Christianity was rejected. The basic Christian worldview provided the ethic and epistemology of the Western world. The basic assumptions have been the intrinsic value of a human, the ordered nature of the world, the rationality and reality of the world outside of us, the objectivity of truth and morality, etc. However, North American society—especially Canada—is moving steadily away from this foundation.
It is not that our society is a-religious or purely atheistic, though atheism is strong in our land. Instead, what religion or spirituality people hold has very little impact on their public life. That is, religion or spirituality is largely considered a private matter. It is okay to believe in God, but this must not influence the cakes you bake or the decisions you make. It is okay to believe in the power of prayer, but do not insist that others need to. It is even okay to think that Jesus was a real person who died for your sins, just do not expect anyone else to make this their truth.
Secularity broadly means that religious and spiritual worldviews are okay but only in private. They are okay so long as they do not enter the public sphere—so long as they are left out of business, politics, education, etc. The public sphere is to be lived out on another basis. Broadly speaking, North American society is being shaped and formed on an atheistic foundation. The nature of public education, of public institutions, of laws, and the expectations of those in places of power are not determined with reference to an all-powerful, sovereign God but with reference to individual autonomy. What society will consider appropriate and normative (what ought to be and not to be done) is determined by human reason and—often—individual preference. As a secular society, ours is a society where the basic presuppositions of life are not those of Christianity but of atheism.
In what way, you may be thinking, could this be a blessing? Throughout Christian history, it has been recognized that things bad in themselves can have a greater purpose—be, from a different perspective, blessed. Some theologians even discussed the fall of Adam, the entrance of sin into the world, as felix culpa, a blessed transgression. An event that is evil and horrible in itself may be a blessing when seen in light of greater purpose. It is in this way that I see Secularism as a blessing.
Secularism is evil by definition: it describes a society bent on opposition to and rebellion towards God. However, it is a blessing because it lays bare the utter inadequacy of life apart from God. In a sense, secularity functions as a reductio ad absurdum of atheism. A reductio is an argument that shows how a position that appears sound implies something untenable, something that will be recognized as undesirable or horrid. Such an argument is persuasive because it shows how consistently holding a position results in beliefs and actions that cannot be justified. Secularism functions in this way for atheism; it shows that atheism results in an unlivable and horrid world when held consistently.
The brighter atheists have seen this. They have recognized that removing God from the equation is devastating. They nevertheless accepted these consequences.1 For many, seeing the results of atheism is insufficient to turn them to God, but for others it may very well be a tool God uses to point them to Christ. If this is the case, then Secularism is a blessing; its failures point beyond itself to the God who brings order to the chaos of human sin. Consider with me three spheres that Secularism has left in ruins; knowledge, education, and life.
Secularism and Knowledge
At first, Secularism seemed to offer hope for a better understanding of the world, leading to a better world. Because the outdated beliefs of Christian theism are replaced with human reason and we are no longer blinded by religious dogma, we should see the world as it truly is.2 However, whatever fruit Secularism has borne, dependable knowledge or more knowledge is not part of it. Instead, Secularism has produced greater blindness and confusion.
In philosophy, the rejection of a transcendent God, a being who stands in a position of authority over humanity and provides a standard for truth and falsehood, has led to a radical embrace of relativism. In literature, Deconstructionism argues that language cannot communicate. It argues that there is nothing that stands behind language to ground its meaning, instead the meaning of someone’s speech and writing is inaccessible to another. This means that the reader is free to—indeed, they must—create meaning for every text they read. In epistemology, truth and falsehood depends on the individual or cultural lens a person brings to the world, yielding an infinite variety of truths and falsehoods within each subjective frame of reference—within each individual or cultural worldview.
Many retreat to science as a firm ground of truth within the shifting sands of relativism. However, Secularism has also succeeded in eroding this foundation. It has done so on two fronts. First, many scientists assume or act as if science is free from philosophical presuppositions, from foundational beliefs that are not themselves scientific.3 However, philosophers of science have long observed that this is not the case.4 The trouble is that the very foundations of science emerged within a Christian worldview but are eroded by Atheism. For example, Science assumes that the order we observe in the world is descriptive of the external world and not only our minds. The Christian doctrines of creation and providence give us reason to believe in an external and orderly world; the Secular doctrines of evolution and an infinite, material world do not do so. Furthermore, if there is nothing beyond the matter and processes observed in science (the view known as physicalism), we cannot trust our own minds and reasoning. That is, if our minds are subject to the same processes observed in nature, then reason and thought is an illusion created by physical cause and effect processes. Such processes leave no room for insight and there is no reason to believe that such a process would create “knowledge”—true insight into a world beyond the mind.5
Concerning knowledge and truth—epistemology—Secularism shows that atheism is insufficient. We all know that there is truth beyond our minds—everything we do presupposes this fact—yet Secularism gives no reason to believe this.6
Secularism and Education
The lose of truth has obvious implications for education. If knowledge is eroded by secular views, then what role does education take? Modern education theory has married itself to the relativism of our society; if knowledge is not to be found outside of minds, to some extent it must be found within the minds of students. For this reason, contemporary education theory has assigned the teacher the role of facilitator of learning not communicator of truth.7 That is, if truth does not stand above the student and teacher, a norm or standard to which they both conform, then the teacher has no right to teach the student what they should believe. Instead, they may only equip them to understand themselves and use the tools of learning, such as empirical observation and reason, to discern for themselves what is truth. This approach has yielded some genuine insights, yet overall it has had a devastating effect on education at all levels.
With an objective standard for truth in education abandoned, schools have also lost the ability to give a moral foundation for life and thought. That is, science, business, politics—indeed, every field—rely on a foundation of morality to function. In science, it is assumed that a scholar will record accurately the results of his or her research and not doctor the evidence for personal gain. In business, it is assumed that contracts will be honoured and that business will be done above-board, to the benefit of all parties. In politics, it was for a long time the assumption that a leader ought to honour the law they are sworn to uphold and be a model of virtue. However, if Secularism provides no foundation for morality, there is no reason anyone ought to do these things. This is evident in secondary and post-secondary education, where the communication of such obligations is no longer possible or practiced in any meaningful sense. Education is no longer able to produce good citizens of the state, for there remains no objective standard for “good.” Instead, education theory is riddled with the dogma of subjectivism. Furthermore, with God and His Law ruled out, students are given no compass by which to direct their lives.
Secularism and Life
This loss of a moral and epistemic compass has produced the most significant evidence of the insufficiencies of Secularism. In the United States, the politic discourse has escalated over the last several decades to fiery levels on both sides of the party line, with little sign of change. This is not, of course, unique to the political sphere but merely shows on the headlines what anyone on social media witnesses everyday. Without an objective reference point for truth, as assumed within Christianity and Western society built on a Christian foundation, there is no ground remaining for rational and civil discourse. At the very least, there is no transcendent authority that requires one person to treat another with civility and love as they would like themselves to be treated.
The loss of a transcendent standard, God or the Modernist assumption of an objective rational reality beyond the mind, leads not only to a vacuum in social values but also in purpose. That is, without a God who orders and directs the created order, Secularism provides no prescriptive philosophy of history. That is, evolution tells us how history has turned out the way it has; ultimately, the mechanism of natural selection and the scientific laws have acted consistently throughout history producing consistent change, from the big bang to the present day. However, the descriptive statements of evolutionary theory, those statements describing the way things are, cannot provide prescriptive statements, statements telling us how things ought to be. Evolutionary theory, and Secularism built upon it, cannot tell us what to do and why we should do it. Secularism provides no goal or purpose towards which history moves, so it cannot provide individuals with a purpose.
Purpose comes from aligning oneself with a transcendent goal, with a goal that is objectively good or right. Without an ultimate purpose for history, their can be no individual purpose. As the late evolutionist William Provine put it:
There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either. What an unintelligible idea.8
In such a world, the only hope for purpose—the only way to get yourself out the door—is to invent proximate meanings. That is, we can create goals for ourselves—I will get a well-paying job, have a family, move up the corporate ladder, etc.—but they will only ever be products of our own invention and are ultimately meaningless. For many of us, such goals are not sufficient to get us out the door, to motivate anything. However, this is all Secularism can expect of its adherents, for it has removed every foundation for purpose in life.
These are three areas of contemporary society where Secularism has been found wanting; they are exemplary of many more. What, you may ask, is the blessing or good in this bleak situation? If Secularism is the lived-out results of an atheistic worldview, then the failures of Secularism ultimately demonstrate the failures of atheism. More significantly, in each of these areas—and in every area—where Secularism falls short, the Bible provides an answer to the problem.
The Bible gives an answer to the hole in Secularism. At the centre, it is missing an answer to the heart of man, an answer provided in Jesus Christ. That is, behind the aimlessness and corruption of our society lies the need for submission to the God who created us. According to Paul, at the root of human sin is the rejection of the Creator for the created world. It is an act of rebellion, worshipping and giving honour to the creature rather than the Creator. By seizing for itself the authority to manage life, secular society has left itself with nothing but mute idols (Romans 1:18-32). The created world is insufficient to give us the truth, purpose, and guidance necessary to live the meaningful, joyous life to which God has called humanity.
However, we cannot simply remedy the problem by submitting ourselves in worship to the true God. We are separated from Him by the sin of our rebellion against Him. Thus, to turn from Secularism and find what the human heart needs, we are in need of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice. With the full assurance of the forgiveness of sins and a New Covenant forged in His blood, we can draw near to God the Creator in humble worship. From this posture, of submission to God, we find a remedy to these three problems Secularism faces. In God we find an external ground for knowledge and truth. We can know anything because God has revealed Himself and made knowledge possible. Truth is measured with reference to Him. We can educate because we know that knowledge comes from outside of ourselves, ultimately from God, so we need to be taught His ways. Finally, we find purpose because we are part of His story, His all-encompassing purpose to redeem a fallen world and present to His Son a bride, the Church clothed in glory. This story is sufficient to encompass every thought and every action, so that all we do may be given purpose; to do all we do in the name of Jesus Christ and for His glory (1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:17).
What then is the blessing of Secularism? By showing the utter inadequacy of life apart from God, it leaves the door wide open for showing the dire necessity of God and our deep need for redemption through Jesus Christ. The problems of our society are real, but they are caused by rebellion against God. This rebellion deserves us of God’s wrath, yet God has acted to offer reconciliation through Jesus Christ to all who would cast themselves on His mercy. In turn, we receive the promises of life, of hope, of the knowledge of God and His world, and wisdom to live for His glory in the present age. If Christians are to take advantage of this blessing hidden within secularism, we must be diligent to be openly non-secular; we must live our private and public lives by the same standard, love for and submission to Jesus Christ our Lord. In doing this, we will be a light shining in the darkness that is secular Western society.
1 Consider Nietzsche’s description of the death of God: “What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” spoke the madman, “Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing?” From Kaufmann’s translation of The Gay Science.
2 This was seen clearly in the Logical Positivists of the early 20th century, but consider as a more recent testimony the latest Humanist Manifesto, https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/.
3 This is evident among those who adhere to “Scientism,” the belief that only science yields true knowledge—or at least that it has the highest authority among methods for knowing. J. P. Moreland’s Scientism and Secularism addresses this. However, it implicit in modernism, the worldview that accompanied the rise of science. Though philosophy has moved past modernism, many scientists function on the presupposition of modernism.
4 Several works throughout the 20th century drew attention to this, preeminent among them being Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy.
5 See further J.P. Moreland’s Science and Secularism for a helpful recent book on this matter. The book is semi-technical, helpful for the student or pastor.
6 I unpack this to a much greater extent in my forthcoming book The Gift of Knowing: A Biblical Perspective on Knowing and Truth.
7 Many resources illustrate this point, but the popular work of the Parker J. Palmer is clear on this point, see To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.
8 Taken from a Debate with Philip E. Johnson titled, “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?” On youtube at, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7dG9U1vQ_U. Transcript on http://www.arn.org/docs/orpages/or161/161main.htm.