In recent times, Christian writers such as James K. A. Smith (2014) and Mary Poplin (2014) have written very helpfully about the concept of secularism. Though this present article views the issue from a different angle, those authors and others do right to draw our attention to the key concept of secularism, as it is one of the most powerful religious forces shaping contemporary western culture. Even if, as Smith suggests, cracks are beginning to appear in the secularism edifice, secularism as a belief system reigns supreme at the popular level in public life in the west. Furthermore, my last six years in Asia have shown me that secularism is also making significant inroads into non-western cultures, even in supposedly Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Confucian nations such as Korea, Hindu countries such as India, and cosmopolitan states such as Singapore, as these nations spawn a growing, westernized and consumer-oriented middle class. But perhaps secularism’s most insidious field of operations is within the contemporary classrooms of both public (“state” for a UK audience) and private schooling.
Secularism is somewhat of a conceptual chameleon – it’s an elusive concept that most people think they understand, but that has shifted in its meaning from a relatively benign 19th century understanding to the more militant and anti-Christian ideology that it is today. Though secularism may well ultimately be the self-defeating, unsustainable detour that some describe (Smith, 2014, p.3), for the meantime at least, it is often unchallenged as the dominant, forcibly inflicted (under the guise of tolerance) religion of our age. Its belligerent impositions need to be clearly understood and combatted by tolerant, peace-loving citizens of all religious persuasions who are concerned for freedom of expression and for the welfare of the nations in which they live.
The purpose of this article is to clarify the true character of contemporary secularism, indicate how it has become a key factor in producing the hopelessness of the current numb generation, and remind thinking Christians that they should contend with it since we have a dynamic, winsome, hope-filled alternative worldview to offer 21st century culture. In this way, we can refute this world’s ways of thinking, and be transformed by the renewal of our minds more into the image of Jesus Christ. We should also be able to discern what is best and unashamedly nurture our young people in this discernment as together we seek to conform to the image of Christ in all of life and thus discover God’s good and perfect and acceptable will (Romans12).
The Changing Nature of Secularism in Education
According to Maddox (2014), secularism as it was widely used in the 19th century when western governments began to take control of the provision of education, referred to the elimination of denominationalism in schools. Secularism certainly did not seek to eliminate any reference to God, but rather sought to ensure that the theistic practices of government-controlled schools did not favour any one denomination over another. A particular concern, for example was that children from Roman Catholic homes would not be proselytised into Protestant commitments through their public education. There was no sense that God should be excluded from the classroom, but that schools funded by the government should handle Christian religions in an even-handed manner without favouring any one denominational presence over any other.
In the 21st century, secularism has come to take on a very different meaning. In an educational context, the oft-heard claim is that public education be “free secular and compulsory.” In this context, more and more critics take the view that the term secular here means “free from any religious interference.” This is based upon the notions first that secularism is not religious, and second that an amoral education without theistic belief constraints will provide a neutral, contamination-free white space in which pure unfettered logic will be able to shape teaching and learning. Thus, secularism, as advocated by Marion Maddox and an army of like-minded zealots, in the apparent interests of freedom, tolerance and egalitarianism, has come to mean the determined eradication of religious belief from the standard curriculum.
Secularism as a Religion
Unfortunately for Professor Maddox and her fellow apostles, secularism is not the absence of belief. It is a faith commitment to a certain principle or view of the world in general, and education in particular. This clearly qualifies it for the status of a religion. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (2013), a religion is “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held with ardor and faith.” This is an accurate description of Christianity, Islam – and also secularism. Confusion arises when people equate religion with theism. Theism is one category of religion, atheism is another religious category. The diagram below shows the relationship.
Secularism is an ardent faith commitment in the belief that religious perspectives other than its own have no place in the public arena (“the elimination of religious impositions” (Maddox, p.203) as Maddox puts it). But secularism is a religion every bit as powerful and faith-based as any theistic religion, with its own dogma and dedicated cadre of committed evangelists and followers. Though they still use the term “religious” in a sense that excludes secularism, both Somerville (2014) with her concept of “the secular sacred, and Waldron (2014) with her recognition of the belief-based foundation of secularism, approach the definition and perspective advocated in this paper. Wilkinson (2014, p.59) reflects a supporting paradigm when she asserts that, “even this belief in a non-sectarian space is its own sort of religion.”
And here is the key point: the drive to eliminate religions other than secularism from the school or university classroom is not a drive to eliminate religion. There is no such thing as a religiously neutral white space. The secularist paradigm is a drive to replace one faith perspective with another – with the religion of secularism which demands sole and sovereign ownership of the public space. Such a claim would be intolerable if made in the name of Islam or Christianity – and it should be equally as intolerable in pluralistic societies as well when made in the name of the religion of secularism. It’s the ultimate irony which, if it were not so serious would be almost amusing: secularists are using their complaint against the supposed interference of religion in the public space, in order to attempt to unilaterally smother that same space with their own autocratic and exclusivist religion, thus violating the supposed freedom from religion argument that they claim to espouse.
Christians are offended by the monopoly of secularism not only on the grounds of religious freedom, but also because we believe that the secular curriculum, which bans God from the classroom and grounds truth and hope in personal experience and the transience of popular opinion, is generating a youth without hope or ultimate meaning in a complex and troublesome world. If the secularist religious curriculum is correct, and humanity is nothing more that the result of the chance interaction of neurons and history has not purpose, then secular education truly is generating a lost generation or as the New York Times (2011) puts it, generation limbo. For the Christian at least, education reflecting a Christian worldview occurs in the alternative context where, humanity is special, and life has wonderful, hope-filled meaning and purpose in the light of the cultural mandate and the cross of Jesus Christ (see the expansion of this concept in Edlin (2014), The Cause of Christian Education).
A Case in Point: The Gordon College Experience
Such is the power of the religion of secularism, that its intolerant demands have captivated the US presidency and now even seek to supplant the theistic religious convictions of Christian faith-based institutions. The attempts by their accrediting organisation to force Gordon College to adopt secular faith perspectives on matters of sexual orientation (Christianity Today, 2014) demonstrates the militancy and discrimination that secularism carries out against other religious perspectives. Initially, Gordon College, a Christian university in the United States, lost a city contract to provide services because it refused to accept the secularist agenda on LGBT matters. In a strange twist of logic, the city official conveying this news to Gordon authorities did so on the basis of being offended by Gordon’s LGBT stand, whilst at the same time asserting the right to inflict his own faith-based secularist commitment on the university.
However, the secularist monopolistic challenge does not stop there. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the generally-accepted regional accrediting authority for New England universities, reflecting its adherence to a secularist religious agenda and its intolerance of other religious perspectives, has challenged Gordon’s claim to accreditation status not on the ground of the college’s academic credentials (which are above reproach), but on the grounds of Gordon’s Christian religious stance on gender issues. It seems that if Gordon submits to the secular religious demands on this matter, NEASC would be mollified. This is another example of the monopolistic hegemony of the secularist religious agenda in the educational arena. When placed alongside the de-registration of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship from official student organization status on all 23 California State University campuses (USA Today, 18 September 2014), the Gordon College story highlights the dangerous militancy of the secularist agenda for all who wish to see it.
NEASC is an agency dedicated to the secularist religious worldview. As Christians living within pluralistic societies, we defend NEASC’s right to maintain its religious position as long as it acknowledges its own discriminatory faith dogmas and recognizes the parallel and equal authority of accrediting bodies such as the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) that adhere to other faith assumptions.
Secularism is a powerful and persuasive religious force that dominates contemporary culture in an exclusivist and intolerant manner. It has as its primary goal the eradication of all other religious forces from the public domain other than itself. We do not seek the replacement of hegemonic secularism with enforced Christianity. Rather, in pluralistic modern societies, and especially in our schools, we argue for the right of the organs of public life to be free from under the yoke of a secular religious ascendancy. In particular, when parents band together to provide education for their children, we argue for the right of communities, as the UN Charter of Human Rights reminds us, to be able to choose the religious direction of the schooling provided for their children.
Edlin, R. J. (2014). The cause of Christian education (4th ed.). Sioux Center, IO: Dordt University Press.
Lee, J. (August 31, 2011). Generation limbo: Waiting it out. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/01/fashion/recent-college-graduates-wait-for-their-real-careers-to-begin.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Maddox, M. (2014). Taking God to school. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Metz, B. (Sept., 18, 2014). Cal State retracts recognition for InterVarsity on all 23 campuses. USA Today. http://college.usatoday.com/2014/09/18/cal-state-retracts-recognition-for-intervarsity-on-all-23-campuses/
Moon, R. (October 2, 2014). Gordon College studies same-sex behaviour ban amid accreditation questions. Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/october/gordon-college-studies-same-sex-behavior-ban-accreditation.html.
Poplin, M. (2014). Is reality secular? Testing the assumptions of four global worldviews. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.
Smith, J. K. A. (2014). Cracks in the secular. Comment, Fall, pp.2-4.
_______________(2014a). How (not) to be secular. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Somerville, M. (2014). Building ethical bridges in a secular age. Comment, Fall, pp. 13-20.
Waldron, M. A. (2014). Sacred and secular belief: Can we have peace? Comment, Fall, pp. 21-27.
Wilkinson, A. (2014). Is religious journalism haunted? Comment, Fall,, pp.58-62.