A College Major in Secularism?

May 21st, 2011 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Pitzer College, a small liberal arts college in Southern California, will inaugurate this fall a department in secular studies.  Classes taught by professors from the other departments of the college will include, ?God, Darwin and Design in America,? ?Anxiety in the Age of Reason,? and ?Bible as Literature.?  This new department is based on the premise that studying nonbelief is as valid as studying belief.  Among other things, this department will also study the growing waves of secularization in Western Europe and in Canada.  The head of the department is Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, who describes himself as ?culturally Jewish, but agnostic-atheist on questions of deep mystery.?  In his book, Culture Wars [Basic Books, 1991], sociologist James Davison Hunter argues that American culture is experiencing a crisis of moral authority.  One side of the cultural cleavage, ?the progressive,? claims that the individual self is the source of moral authority, while the other side, ?the orthodox,? claims that something transcendent is the source of moral authority.  This struggle to define America?s cultural center informs the debate over abortion, euthanasia, sexuality issues, education, law and the role of government in our lives.  It is a battle for the future.  The ?progressive? side of this cleavage argues from a naturalistic perspective.  There is an inherent antisupernaturalism in this position.  For most people committed to modern thinking, physical matter is all that there is.  God does not exist and religion is irrelevant.  As religion fades, the ?progressive? hopes peace and harmony will reign.  This sentiment is perhaps best captured in John Lennon?s song Imagine:

Imagine there?s no Heaven

Its easy if you try

No Hell below

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today

Imagine there?s no countries

It isn?t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You may say I?m a dreamer

But I?m not the only one

I hope someday you?ll join us

And the world will live as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

You may say I?m a dreamer

But I?m not the only one

I hope someday you?ll join us

And the world will live as one.

IMAGINE [Quoted in Ian S. Markham, ed., A World Religious Reader, 2nd edition.  Blackwell: 2000, pp. 18-19.]


As Christians, how should we respond to such a curriculum that focuses on secularism as an academic major?  What could we offer? What bridges could we build?

Bridge #1. Secularism affirms the value of human life and sees human happiness as its core value.  This meshes with biblical Christianity, which also affirms the value of human life.  However, secularism has no basis for its claim for the value of human life, for helping people, or for showing comparison.  Why engage in such things if humans are simply the product of chance?  Christianity affirms the value of life because humans bear God?s image (Genesis 1:26ff).  It provides the reason for compassion, care and concern that is missing in humanism.  Secularism is most vulnerable on this point and we must lovingly press it.

Bridge #2. Secularism claims that in terms of religious beliefs and ethical standards it is impossible to have absolutes.  In other words, there are absolutely no absolutes.  In making such a claim, it affirms something absolute.  That is a glaring inconsistency and as Christians we can point this out.  Christians can press secularism to seriously reflect on the inadequacy of standards for truth and ethics.  Are secularists willing to bank everything on there not being a God?  What if there is?  What if there is accountability?  The Holy Spirit of God can use this inconsistency within secularism to bring conviction.

Bridge #3. Secularism teaches that at death there is extinction.  Therefore, there is no hope of ever seeing loved ones again.  Ultimately, there is no hope, for secularism provides no real incentives for living or for dying.  This physical world is all there is, they argue, and we must live that way–for the moment.  If there is no death, then there is no accountability and no motivation for virtue or goodness.  Most people cannot live with this kind of teaching.  Here is where Christianity is so compelling.  It offers hope because there is life after death; there is hope of seeing loved ones and friends.  Christianity also offers the certainty of salvation, which guarantees heaven and eternal life with God.  Secularism offers no counsel to a family who has lost an infant in death, or to someone with a terminal illness, or to a wife who lost her husband in an automobile accident.  The secularist can offer nothing; Christianity offers everything.  It is in the real world of life that secularism?s bankruptcy becomes evident.  Naturalism/secularism pervade western civilization and are currently institutionalized in the academic centers of the West.  It remains powerful, influential and informs so much of modern education.  It will retain its position of importance only as long as the West seeks its purpose and its meaning from technology, science and reason.  Its antisupernaturalism is difficult for most people, however, because the average persons cannot live without some sense that there is a transcendent realm, that there is something beyond death, that the physical is not all there is.  Only genuine, biblical Christianity answers that quest for meaning and purpose.

5See Laurie Goodstein in The New York Times (7 May 2011) and James P. Eckman, The Truth About Worldviews, pp. 11-19. PRINT PDF

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