The Haunted World of Secularism

I’m reading a fascinating book by James K. A. Smith called How (Not) To Be Secular, where Smith takes the brilliant but difficult work of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and makes it understandable for people like me. The book is both disturbing and encouraging, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

Smith argues that the divine transcendent plausibility structure of the West is officially no more, and in its place the secular has emerged—not just a secular worldview, but a secular instinct. In other words, we’re not talking about what people think; we’re talking about what people take for granted. Exclusive humanism (“a social imaginary that is able to account for meaning and significance without any appeal to the divine or transcendence”) has become the default assumption of our society.

Whether the Church wants to acknowledge it or not, this is indeed the world we live in. Whereas atheism used to be unthinkable in the West, in just a few hundred years, belief in God, outside the ever-shrinking subcultures of religious fundamentalism, is now contested at best and wholly absurd at worst. Our world is now secular, but is it a sustainable world?

Secularism unequivocally says yes. There is an arrogant triumphalism to the New Atheists, as if we have reached humanity’s truest destiny. They say the developed West has finally figured it out, and because of globalization, it is only a matter of time before the entire world is fully disenchanted of religious superstition, and we will flourish in our fully secular society with technology and progress as our god.

Is this the case? Are we living in the beginning of the end of transcendence? Will the Church be able to endure this new, subtler, more insidious form of persecution? Of course we know the Sunday School answer, but when we imagine the world of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is there not a lingering angst that disturbs our imaginations?

Well what I love about Smith’s book is that it reveals the ever-increasing cracks of secularism. Despite its admittedly firm hold on media, policy, and education, it is not the unstoppable force the secularists would have you believe. In fact, it may just be nearing its final hour as a failed experiment.

Smith argues the secular dream is a haunted dream. In the same way people of faith living in a secular world are haunted by doubts, people of unbelief living in a secular world are haunted by transcendence. And I think he is right.

We are being told the only knowledge we can trust is testable knowledge, discernable to the physical senses. And yet the very things that compel us are these transcendent realities that cannot be placed under a microscope, things like love, morality, and purpose.

We are being told that Natural Selection is the new sovereign, the explanation to all existence and the motivation of all living matter, but this isn’t how our world works. The strong should exploit the weak, and yet we call this unjust. Selfishness should compel us, and yet nothing is more beautiful than altruism. Greed should be our ambition, and yet the greedy are miserable. The laws of natural selection are laws that humanity just can’t seem to keep.

We are being told that we are entirely made of meaningless physical matter, nothing but the dust of extinct stars heading for our own meaningless extinction, and yet we cannot swallow down this existential nightmare. We know what lovers share is more than synapses in our brain; we know that what we experience in the presence of beautiful art is more than an illusion to help us survive; we know that the stories we tell in film and novel, stories that protest the depression of the secular, speak to deep down realities that are as true to us as the laws of science; simply put, we know there is more.

The cracks are beginning to show. It is not the ironclad doctrine many would have us believe.  Secularism has tried to purge this world of all transcendence, but we are becoming disenchanted with the disenchantment. Faith is the new doubt, and people are doubting.

As James Smith says, “The secularist’s dark night of the soul is the jarring experience of a sleepless night where he finds himself inexplicably asking, ‘What if I have a soul?’”

Rev. Robert Cunningham