Where did “secularism” come from? Are secular values at war with Christianity?
The late venerable statesman for Protestant evangelical Christianity, J. I. Packer, remarked that the greatest threat to evangelical faith today comes not from the so-called “religious” world, such as the revival of a resurgent Roman Catholicism, bent on undercutting the principles of the Reformation. Neither does it come from an amalgamation of Eastern religiosity, as in the New Age Movement, and perhaps not even from Islam, despite its rapid growth. Rather, the “Great Tradition” of Christianity, the triad of evangelical Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, share a common adversary: a relentless and pervasive secularism. The various strands of Christianity have their profound differences, but they all face together a common challenge: Secularism is the acid that corrodes Christian belief.
Originally, the English word “secularize” came into use during the period of the Protestant Reformation, when lands owned by the church were confiscated and placed in the hands of the state. To make something secular in the 16th century was not an attack on Christianity, but rather, a means of empowering the state to limit the influence and power of the Roman Catholic Church.
But what drives the ethical and worldview imperatives of a secular view of reality in the 21st century? Today, many contend that secularism owes its origins to classical, ancient Greece, only to be pushed aside by the rise of the Christian church, in the Roman empire. Centuries later, by at least the 18th century, secularism was revived through the narrative of Enlightenment, with the triumph of a scientific approach to the world, over and against the superstitious outlook of Christianity, whereby slavery was eventually eradicated, human rights celebrated, and the shackles of repressive sexual restrictions removed…. so the story goes.
Tom Holland, a leading popular historian from the U.K., who has written top-notch histories of the ancient world, once embraced this dominant, contemporary secular perspective (this Tom Holland is not to be confused with the Spiderman actor!). Holland had grown up in the Church of England, but his fascination with dinosaurs as a child triggered his eventual move away from the Christian faith towards atheism. Sunday School depictions of Adam and Eve running around with dinosaurs, merely a few thousand years ago, effectively caused this young boy to doubt his tender faith in the God of the Bible. The glamorous romanticism of the ancient Greeks caught his imagination instead, which has inspired his writing career.
Yet years later, Holland’s latest book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, dismantled his own earlier thesis, of a secular view of the world superseding Christianity. Now Holland believes, despite the loud appeals otherwise, that it is Christianity that has made the modern world what it is. Christians should take notice of Tom Holland’s revisionist perspective of history, as he has given us a helpful framework for understanding where the Christian church is, in this current cultural moment, resulting from decades of social change.
The Christian roots of our growing secular world has created a crisis, that few secular intellectual elites have been willing to accept, up until recently. A liberal secularism embraces human rights, the equal dignity of all persons (except, apparently, in the case of the unborn), a desire to rid the world of poverty, and the responsibility to care for the weak and the sick. But as Holland makes his case in Dominion, these are all essentially Christian values, an embarrassment for those who wish to see orthodox Christian faith cast upon the dung heap of forgotten human history.
Dominion is equally a fascinating, entertaining read, as well as being a deeply and intellectually stimulating read, that fills the mind with challenges. The thesis being proposed in Dominion, that of a self-confessed secularist critiquing secularism, deserves a careful in-depth review, which I will currently explore.