The Joy of Secularism?
by Dr. Benjamin Wiker

Reference: Index

The Joy of Secularism tries to answer the most important question facing those who have rejected God. Can there indeed be joy for the secularist? In trying to answer that question, the authors are inadvertently opening themselves up to God. They just might (to quote C. S. Lewis) end up being "surprised by joy," for true joy can never remain merely secular.

This is an article from To The Source, Wednesday April 13, 2011:
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The goal of The Joy of Secularism is, in one sense, entirely commendable from a religious point of view. The authors wish to explore whether there is any such thing as natural goodness, natural wonder, natural joy. Moreover, rather than attacking religion, as the more vociferous of today's atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al, the atheists included in The Joy of Secularism tip their collective hats to the good that they acknowledge religion provides. They want to ask the question: "can the world perceived as entirely secular, explicable exclusively in naturalist terms ... provide the kind of 'fullness,' the kinds of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual satisfactions that have traditionally been linked exclusively to religion?"

In other words, The Joy of Secularism attempts to shift the Secularist argument from the negative to the positive. In doing so, it marks a significant step forward in the great debate between Christianity and its self-avowed antithesis, Secularism.

Over the last decade or so, Secularists have focused exclusively on painting both religion and the world itself in black. Religion, Dawkins and his ilk rail, is the cause of all the world's miseries, and it must be eliminated as a cancer or a virus. But in order to counteract the Judeo-Christian understanding of the cosmos as a good, harmonious, intricately and purposely designed creation, the international atheist club has seen fit to cast the cosmos itself in the bleakest terms as a meaningless, cold, indifferent purposeless swirl - the great opposite of the Christian cosmos. In Dawkins' famous words, "nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous - indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose." Or to quote atheist Steven Weinberg's nihilistic sigh about the essential meaninglessness of the cosmos, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

Against the usual tack, the various authors in The Joy of Secularism hope to make the case for what they call Secular Enchantment, a view that sees nature as overflowing with a "superabundance of meaning," and hence a source of natural joy and wonder, and affirms that religion has indeed provided things that are necessary and good and so offers a commendable template for what a positive Secularism must also provide.

That, my friends, is a BIG shift. But why is it, as I hint above, a welcome shift for Christians in the Religion-Secularism debate? That's a bit complicated, so I beg the reader's careful attention.

Here's the most important point, and the one that is least understood. Secularism ended up with a meaningless, cold, disenchanted cosmos precisely because modern Secularism's originators in the 17th century purposely designed it that way to eliminate God. They understood a fundamental Christian principle that grace builds upon nature, the supernatural on the natural, so they set about kicking the natural foundation out from under the supernatural.

They argued for a thoroughgoing materialism, where everything was the result of the purposeless swirl of brute atomic matter. That eliminated the need for a Creator. Further, in the materialist cosmos, matter is the only reality. That eliminated the existence of God, angels, and immaterial human souls. That bleak materialism also defines nature as a great, grey mechanism, governed by blind laws, clanking along endlessly. That eliminated both free will and the possibility of the miraculous. Finally, for materialism, no matter how noble, wonderful, beautiful, or good anything appears to be, it must be reduced to brute, dead, purposeless matter. That eliminated any notion of real beauty, moral or intellectual purpose, goodness, and intrinsic meaning. These came to be understood as merely subjective projections of foolish human beings upon an indifferent, meaningless cosmos.

That is the disenchanted cosmos of materialism. Disenchantment wasn't caused by science; it was caused by a deformed materialistic view of science. The authors of The Joy of Secularism wish to re-enchant nature, to recover all that was lost by modern Secular materialism's disenchantment - but without the God part.

And that is good news for religion. First of all, it will bring like-minded Secularists to stop blinding themselves through materialist disenchantment. Materialist reductionism systematically distorts reality; it blocks our natural recognition of the intrinsic beauty and goodness of creation; it blunts our natural wonder at what is naturally wonderful. To take off the dark glasses of anti-theistic materialism, and open oneself up to the full glory and superabundant meaningfulness of nature as real, means to open oneself up to God. In St. Paul's words, "what can be known about God" is actually plain to all who have eyes to see (i.e., those who have eyes that are not distorted by ideological spectacles). "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." The only way to avoid this clear and natural perception was to distort one's perception of reality through a materialist world-view. The way back to sight-fullness is to rip off the ideological spectacles and open oneself up to the full splendor of creation. But that is to shed the defensive materialist stance, and open oneself up to God. Know it or not the authors of The Joy of Secularism will end up accepting at least some kind of natural theism. Better that, than Dawkin's acidic and militant atheism.

Second, in accepting the positive aspects of religion as positive, instead of portraying religion as entirely negative, Secularists will be forced to explore religion on far friendlier terms. And then something even more surprising might happen. If Christianity does in fact do all these good things that they, even as Secularists, can recognize and want to incorporate - for example, providing a solid foundation for ethics, giving a sense of real community, fostering help of the downtrodden, creating great art and music, offering a larger purpose than mere self-interest - then perhaps, just perhaps, there are good things that Christianity has that are yet to be discovered by the honest Secularist. At what point will that Secularist be forced to say to himself, "Well, if Christianity has all these good things I want to imitate, and I've found even more as I keep exploring it, then why am I spending my time merely imitating something. What keeps me from simply being the thing I'm imitating?"

Third and related, once the positive aspects of religion are more fully embraced, the negative aspects of Secularism will be more honestly admitted. If Secularism is the cause of disenchantment, of a blackened cosmos, then why is it a good thing? Part of this honest self-assessment already appears in The Joy of Secularism. Militant atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, in their desire to portray Christianity as the source of all evil, have been stupidly adamant about denying the evil caused by militant Secularists. But hear these refreshing words from the editor, George Levine: "Nobody can sanely assume that secular societies are, in contrast [to religious societies], always cozy and harmonious (a little Stalinism, a little Hitlerism, a little Maoism will blast that absurd notion out of the water)..." That is a big admission, one that strikes at the heart of the ideological Secularists' view that religion is the sole source of historical evil, and that Secularism will lead us unambiguously to a shining utopia.

So we return to their question: "Can the world perceived as entirely secular, explicable exclusively in naturalist terms ... provide the kind of 'fullness,' the kinds of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual satisfactions that have traditionally been linked exclusively to religion?" The answer is: "Yes, but not without secularism being transformed into religion."

C. S. Lewis and the (Dangerous) Joy of Secularism

When Secularists open themselves up to wonder at nature and true joy, they have (as C. S. Lewis found out) wandered onto God's territory. Lewis started out as a Secularist. At the age of fifteen he had become a self-professed atheist, and turned his attention entirely to the natural world and its enjoyments. But far from providing a refuge from God, he found that God was pursuing him through his very means of escape - a rejection of Christianity and an immersion in paganism, especially pagan literature.

So it was that one day Lewis's eyes fell upon a picture from Arthur Rackham's illustration of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. "Pure 'Northerness' engulfed me; a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer. . ." Lewis recognized it was the same feeling that had engulfed him years ago, when he was quite young. It was one of those sudden and inexplicable "stabs of joy."

And with that plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss. . . .And at once I knew. . .that to "have it again" was the supreme and only important object of desire.

This stab of entirely natural joy eventually led him to the supernatural source of all joy, God Himself. "And what, in conclusion of Joy?" Lewis later asked. "It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer" - the most important something one could ever know.

Befriending Charles Taylor - More Danger for Secularists!

Charles Taylor is certainly one of our most important living philosophers, a man respected by all, believers and non-believers alike, for his patient, careful, and deep analysis of the history of philosophy and our present intellectual, social, and moral landscape. And he is a believing Christian.

Taylor is the author of A Secular Age, which set the standard for contemporary reflection on what it means to define ourselves on entirely secular terms, and what are the real prospects for our secular age. Every one of the atheists in The Joy of Secularism treats Taylor's work with the greatest respect, and, of course, we are not surprised that he was asked to contribute an essay to the volume, "Disenchantment - Reenchantment."

To befriend someone like Taylor is, however, a dangerous thing, at least for Secularists attempting to remain secular. It sweeps away the cherished notion that people who "still" believe in God must be (to put it politely) intellectually challenged (or, to put it bluntly, stupid, redneck boneheads), or that they simply must be uneducated in the latest science and philosophy. Taylor knows that latest science quite well, and he is one of the chief contributors to the latest philosophy. Furthermore, Taylor gives Secularism every benefit of the doubt, exploring all its positive points, even while humbly admitting the mistakes and sins committed by believers. Yet, for all this, he finds Secularism wanting, deeply flawed, and ultimately lacking the kind of richness and truth available to the believer.

If Secularists want to make their case, then they will have to make it against Taylor. Since at least these Secularists have chosen to do it on respectful, even admiring terms, one can reasonably predict success (for Taylor, that is).

Wilifred McClay traces the major themes of Charles Taylor's tome, The Secular Age in his review: "Uncomfortable Unbelief"

"Secular Age is not primarily interested in examining what might be called political or legal secularism: the role of laïcité in France, for instance, or the constitutional separation of church and state in America. Neither is it much concerned with what might be called philosophical or theological secularism, the gradual recession of religious practices and beliefs in modern countries.

Instead, Taylor invites us to consider a third meaning of secularism, based on the texture of the world as we actually experience it. This third way derives from the conditions under which we moderns approach the problem of belief and unbelief. A society is secular, he explains, when it arrives at a settled moral order in which belief in God is no longer regarded as something automatic, axiomatic, and socially obligatory. Instead it is regarded as a choice that one makes for oneself - something freely chosen in a way that would have been unthinkable in an earlier time.

This conception of secularity is closely related to the other two, for it exists alongside the political institutions and intellectual freedoms that make such choices possible. But the inner life of secularism is what interests Taylor, the 'whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual, or religious experience and search take place.' That context is chiefly 'the conditions of experience,' including the deep structuring of the yearnings, expectations, and assumptions in our prelogical and prelinguistic mental apparatus. For Taylor, our commitment to secularism has come about largely as a product of an unfolding inner development: less a revolution of ideas than an evolution of sensibility."

First Things

The incisive analysis of German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, continues to ring true in: How to Think About Secularism

"Under the influence of thinkers such as Max Weber, the dominant assumption of modernity has been that secularization will continue to pervade all aspects of social and individual behavior, with religion increasingly pushed to the margins. In the last two or three decades, however, it has become evident that secularization (or, as some prefer, progressive modernization) faces severe problems.

The thoroughly secularized social order gives rise to a feeling of meaninglessness: there is a vacuum in the public square of political and cultural life, and this invites violent outbreaks of dissatisfaction. As a consequence, it is hard to predict the future of the secularist society. It depends in part on how long most people will be willing to pay the price of meaninglessness in exchange for the license to do what they want. So long as people feel sure of the comforts of affluence, they may be willing to tolerate these tensions indefinitely.

On the other hand, irrational reactions are unpredictable, especially when there is a sense that the institutions of society are not legitimate. The circumstance of modern secular society is more precarious than we may want to recognize. Those who recognize the danger call for a reaffirmation of the traditions by which the culture is defined, and most specifically for the reaffirmation of the religious roots of those traditions."

First Things

Benjamin Wiker Author and speaker Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University (OH). He is a Senior Fellow of the Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College, a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute, and a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

Dr. Wiker has written nine books, including Ten Books that Screwed Up the World, Ten Books that Every Conservative Must Read, and his newest, The Catholic Church & Science: Answering the Questions, Exposing the Myths. His website is Send your letter to the editor to

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Copyright © 13 April 2011 Dr. Benjamin Wiker was last updated 13 November 2011
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