"I was puzzled by Charles Larmore's review of Charles Taylor's new book, A Secular Age, in the current New Republic. The book is sprawling and often maddening, but it is very important (I've tried to do it justice in my own review in the forthcoming issue of First Things), and I give Larmore high marks for his accurate (if prickly) summaries of the...
"God is dead."
Nietzsche's famous words came from the mouth of the "Madman" in The Gay Science. He obviously did not mean that men and women had literally killed God. Rather, he was referring to the fact that the traditional Christian understanding of God had become less believable in a late nineteenth-century world living in the aftermath of the Enlightenment.
Nietzsche's phrase has served as the banner of the phenomenon in the West known as "secularism." The word secularism comes from the Latin word saeculum, meaning "age" or "world." Thus, secularism is commonly used to refer to a more "worldly"-centered existence as opposed to a religiously-centered one.
From a Christian perspective, evaluating secularism involves evaluating what kind of relationship Christianity should have with the world. There's no easy answer to this question.
For Christians, the idea that they are to maintain some separation from the world has biblical roots. Especially in the writings of the Apostle John, one finds a distinction between Christians and the "world." In John 17, Jesus says of Christians that "they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." This and other biblical passages gave rise to the maxim that Christians are "in the world, but not of the world." This maxim is most commonly interpreted to mean that Christians now dwell in the world, but that they should be more focused on the world they believe will come about at the "Last Judgment" with the "Second Coming" of Jesus.
At the same time, the Bible also makes clear that Christians are to have some sort of active engagement with the world. Jesus tells his followers in the Sermon on the Mount that they are to be a "light to the nations" (Mt 5:14), implying that they are supposed to be a visible example of the world. Before his Ascension into heaven, Jesus also gives the disciples the mandate to "baptize all nations" (Mt 28:19), which Christians have traditionally understood as a mandate to convert people all over the world to Christianity.
This tension between Christians' obligation to remain separate but engaged with the world has resulted in disagreements among them about the exact role Christianity should play in the larger culture and society.
Some Christians believe they are called to transform all aspects of culture and society—government, education, the arts, etc. They look at the Roman Empire's official recognition and adoption of Christianity in 381 A.D.as a positive development. Many Catholics and Orthodox look at the establishment of Holy Roman Empire ("Christendom") and the Byzantine Empire during the Middle Ages as the height of the Church's life in history.
Other Christians, however, believe they should keep a greater distance from worldly matters than they have in the past. They have a tendency to view Christianity as in its purest form in its simple beginnings, when it was being persecuted by the larger, secular culture. They tend to view Rome's endorsement of Christianity as the official religion of the empire as compromising the Christian message. They regard the age of Christendom as the "Dark Ages," when ignorance reigned among the people, and corruption infected the Church due to its worldly power.
But the fact is that Christianity played a much more central role in Western culture and society throughout history than they do now. Secularism is more of a modern anomaly.
An interesting question is when exactly the West began its turn toward secularism. Former Harvard historian Christopher Dawson locates its historical beginnings in the Protestant Reformation, which represented the breaking up of the Christian unity that had previously held the West together. The Reformers desired to return Christianity to its supposed original purity by freeing it from its ties with the modern culture. This desire, Dawson believes, led to an increased separation between Christianity and culture, and thus, the increased secularization of the West. Ironically, then, the desire to purify Christianity may have led to the marginalization of Christianity.
Dawson argues that religion has historically been the foundation of cultures. Now, in the West, religion has become merely one part of culture among others. Indeed, this might be a more accurate understanding of secularism than simply a "worldly"-centered existence. According to this understanding, secularism is not necessarily anti-religious, but represents a view that religion is merely one aspect or compartment of life.
Without religious unity, Western man was forced to look for another source of unity to maintain civil order. He was forced to create a more strict separation between church and state than previously existed in the West. Thus came the birth of political liberalism in Europe and America, which established order on the basis of shared values such as equality, prosperity, and above all, liberty (hence the term "liberalism"). But there remains the question of whether a secular political order based solely on values separated from religion can be maintained.
In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor offers a different thesis about the origins of secularism in the West. Interestingly he locates it in Christianity itself, which he portrays as having a greater focus on free, individual identity than religions of the past. That emphasis on free individuality (which Taylor regards as a good thing!) created the grounds for an age in which one can choose between belief and unbelief, which is Taylor's primary marker of a secular age.
But many think the secularism of the West is exaggerated. Go to any Barnes & Noble and you will find a rather large section of books devoted to the subject of religion. Four out of five Americans still identify themselves as members of a particular religion, and 39% report that they attend church every week. (The numbers are less in Europe.) While less people may be participating in organized religion than in the past, many in the West still have a great interest in religious themes and profess to be "spiritual."
The greater exposure of the Christian West to Islam in recent years has brought greater exposure to the question of secularism. Muslim countries still have a very religiously-centered culture. The legal codes in most Muslim countries are influenced by Sharia—the religious law derived by the Qur'an and the Sunnah (life of Mohammed). In the more secular United States and Europe, there is concern about how increasing Muslim populations will affect the principle of separation of church and state.
This topic presents data on the prevalence of secularism in the world today, while providing a variety of research, commentary, and primary sources on the pros and cons of this issue.
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