Harold Kildow Reviews Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism
Science is a method masquerading as a metaphysics. E.A. Burtt long ago captured the hubris and spirit of religious antipathy inherent in the secularist temptation in this memorable aphorism. The pretension of scientific knowledge to a larger place than is warranted has been there from its modern rebirth in sixteenth century Europe, and, like the worrisome tendencies one sometimes sees in a toddler, has grown to be its defining character. This pretension to set itself up as an all encompassing and totalizing form of knowledge did not take long to express itself socially and politically. The gain in confidence for philosophy from the stunning early (and continuous) progress in what we now call the hard sciences came almost completely—at least among the educated—at the cost of Christian and biblical belief in a creating and sustaining God whose providential ordering included the moral and political world. As scientific investigations proved increasingly accurate and profitable in their own proper fields, a longing for equal progress in morals and politics promoted the slow motion catastrophe of modernity’s self delusion as mankind’s maturity. Religion and superstition belong to mankind’s childhood; Reason and Science mark the beginning of man’s taking responsibility for himself, and the putting away of childish things. The rationalization of the world, including the human life world, seemed to modernity and its adherents the obvious path forward, the darkness and violence of religion left behind.
The branch office of Science spearheading social and political operations is Secularism, and is the focus of Hunter Baker’s admirable The End of Secularism (Crossway Books, $17.99). Secularism has taken the brilliant results of scientific rationalism as the superior basis for extending the social peace and toleration that were the lauded benefits of the settlement coming out of the Reformation, beginning with the 1555 formulation cuius regio, eius religio. The later work of such as John Locke in formulating the political liberalism that perhaps marked a climax run in the history of liberty, had as one of its pillars religious toleration. A corollary is that government is not in the business of caring for souls—and thus a salutary separation of church and state is called for. It is but a short rhetorical step from there to the default understanding regnant to this day, to wit: toleration, liberty, and all the good things of our Western political patrimony depend upon a strict neutrality in government when it comes to religion. Thus secularism is the sine qua non of a well-ordered, and peaceful, democratic nation. Of course, Baker’s title announces the end of secularism, not its ascendancy; his brief but thorough treatment (194 pages not including notes and a very valuable bibliography) belongs in the hands of students and their professors, parishioners and their pastors, and everyone concerned that the referee has entered the game as a contestant.
Elite opinion, at least since the French Enlightenment, has tended to secularism and outright atheism. But the baleful effects of elite belief are less pronounced in societies or eras where government does not imagine itself to have authority over all or most of the public’s life. The era of Big Government is, sadly, still with us; and as its power and authority have increased, the number of perches for self styled elites has increased, and like the branches of a well watered tree, offers refuge and sustenance for many an obnoxious bird. What makes secularism especially obnoxious in Baker’s telling is its deceptive posture as morally neutral—and its concomitant assertion that the threat to social comity is solely from religion. Remove religion and its entirely unwarranted moral certainty from the public square, and, voilà!, problem solved, the era of life and light can begin in earnest.
But secularism, to bring another metaphor, has its hand on the scale while selling us the goods. Baker surveys the various settlements between Church and States and the theories underpinning them, beginning with Constantine and Augustine, the medieval church fathers, the English revolutions, the French Revolution, and on to the American Founding, to establish in fine fashion the predicate for the problem. The historical and social science background given in the early chapters perfectly unfolds into the dissection of the philosophical fraud of scientism that gives secularism its current, but waning, street cred.
The overlap of the Christian and postmodern critiques of the totalizing knowledge structures of modernity are reaffirmed in this volume, as the increasingly interesting (because honest) Stanley Fish makes an appearance to call out secularism on its rigged game. Always good when one can enlist an opponent as an authority for one’s argument.
The End of Secularism is a tightly reasoned, well presented primer on a hugely important topic of interest to every Christian and every open minded skeptic, and will reward close attention; the highlights, underlines, and marginalia throughout my review copy each would form the basis of an essay. Go and get this book, and absorb its lessons.
Harold Kildow earned his Ph.D. from Fordham University. He partners with EPSA member David Innes to discuss current events on their joint blog, Principalities and Powers.