Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Some thoughts on Secularisation

Atheist warning, this is a religious post.

One of the things that has been occupying my mind for quite a while now is the process of  Western secularisation.  Despite what the fedora-wearers say, we've gone from a culture that was highly religious to a culture where religion doesn't really matter at all. I have read a few books on the secularisation  process and there have been good insights in some, I haven't really read a book which has provided a convincing theory. I think it is a truism that  there are many factors which have  contributed to the secularisation,  there is perhaps another dimension to this problem that is missed when tackled by mainstream sociological analysis.

This traditional approach tends to see secularisation as a emergent phenomenon bought about by the application of science and reason to traditional society.  Implicit in the view is the notion that science and reason are religous solvents and are  incompatible with it.  This is the traditional Positivistic view and despite their best intentions, knucklehead Trads play into this frame, keeping it alive, every time they rally against "da Enlightenment", seeing it as toxic to Christianity.

St Thomas would not be amused.

The approach I intend to take is theological one, and where I want to start with is a little bit of scripture;

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven[ED].
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him [ED}, and I will raise him up at the last day.

John 6:44

Now, what's interesting in both of these passages Christ explicitly alludes to the notion that belief in Him--as God's son-- is contingent on some kind of operation by the Father upon the believer.  I don't want to get into the mechanics of what this operation is, the point is that belief in God is not a simple intellectual operation of the believer alone, rather something else must be added to the human person in order for there to be sincere belief. As I've said before, faith is a perceptive noetic sense and and it is only after God has passed onto the individual some kind of potency that the individual is able to "see" and "hear" the truth of the Christian claim.

Now, while it may be possible for some kind of ersatz like "faith" to be produced through social engineering or philosophical argument it is impossible for true faith to arise in this matter.  Factual instruction and logical presentation of the data is not enough. The important point to recognise is that faith is contingent upon divine agency.

But if this is indeed the case then the implications of this line of thought raises some rather disturbing questions, especially with regard to the relentless march of secularisation.

Traditional Christian understanding of the phenomenon tends to see the main culprit of secularisation being liberalism. But, maybe we've got it all wrong, maybe liberalism is not the problem, because if faith is contingent upon the agency of God, then is the phenomenon of secularisation due to a lack of divine agency. Is God holding back?

Now if that's the case, then for us who are Christians, we've got a serious problem, since any type of "managerial" solution is not going to work unless God is on board, no matter what we do.

You see, if God by his own free choice, chooses to infuse the virtue of faith into an individual, it really doesn't matter what kind of environment the person is in, they will see the truth of the Christian faith and have the capacity to believe. We actually see this stuff happen all the time.  Conversion stories are replete with individuals who were unbelievers living in Christian hostile environments who suddenly saw the light. St Paul's conversion is a case in point: from hostile persecutor to christian missionary, in a flash: He turned on a dime.

On the other hand, we all know of individuals who are absolutely stone cold on the faith yet were raised in solidly Christian environments. And disbelief is not necessarily a consequence of living a life of debauchery and sin, there are many who live quietly virtuous lives but are simply unable to convince themselves of the truth of Christian propositions.  Nor is disbelief always due hostility towards the faith. There are other individuals out there who are very sympathetic to Christianity who want to believe but simply can't. Whatever His reason, God has chosen not to give these people the gift of faith.

The disturbing line of thought here is that secularisation is, at least,  partially due to God holding back.

Like most Christians, as a result of my upbringing, I always had this conception of God as "always being there" for those who wanted to believe. That faith was somehow just a matter of chosing to believe and that God would take care of the rest. But that line of thought does imply a certain lack of agency by God. It also tends to contradict scripture which implies that it's God that does the picking and choosing of who gets to believe and not man.  I don't think I'm being heretical here in asserting that faith is a gift from God and not a right of Man.

But if this is the case, then why is God holding back?

Since I don't have a direct line to God and He doesn't consult me on these thing my thoughts on this matter are speculative, but at the moment my thinking is anlong two lines.

The first line is more "Traditional" in nature, in that God is holding back because we are so wicked and has abandoned us to our ways. Scripture clearly indicates that faith is a "two way street", in that the believer has not only to be guided by this noetic sense of faith but also has the responsibility to nurture it, as neglect will result in its loss.  For example, if you know that fornication is wrong but continue to fornicate, with time the sense of its wrongness will be lost.  The idea here is that sin progressively destroys faith.

If this is indeed the case then we're screwed. By traditional standards we're a modern Sodom with vice and sin being ascendant. Passing some critical point a while ago, we've entered a positive feedback cycle which we cannot escape. The only way to break this cycle is by some deliberate act of God and that's something we cannot assume will happen.  God's justice demands that we be damned for our sins and  and we cannot presume on His mercy. As the priest told Whittaker Chambers, who's to say that the West deserves to be saved.

The second line of thought which is increasingly occupying my mind is the notion that God is holding back because--as a loving God-- he is "protecting" the people from a distorted faith. While  he while he may not like a "Godless society" he much prefers it to one based on a "distorted" Christianity. Better let the people lapse into a healthy Paganism or Utilitarianism than Methodism, or a Catholicism that seems unable to deal with the simple issue of sexual abuse.  What I'm trying to say is perhaps a kumbayah/integralist Catholicism is more offensive to God than a honest atheism, hence--for their own good-- he keeps people atheist.

I know that this may shock some people since it implies that a lot of the secularisation that has occurred in the 20th Century may have a degree of divine input into it, but theologically, I imagine from God's perspective, that a perversion of the faith would seem to be worse than atheism, since the perversion masquerades as a truth. If this latter thought is indeed the case, then Christianity does not make a comeback until it gets reformed to God's pleasure. It's only at that point that the faith "tap" gets switched on and society becomes desecularised.

And by reform, I don't mean code for reform according to my i.e. Slumlord's pleasure. What I mean is deep examination of where it all went wrong, and correcting the mistakes. My own analysis of the problem points me in many directions, some of which I've written about in previous posts. Now, I could be wrong about some of them but the important point here is that what is attempted by the Christian community is a movement towards what God wants with a recognition that there has been error.

Now, there may be other reasons as to why God is holding back the faith, but the important point that I wish to bring across here is that any understanding of the secularisation process can't simply be done from a secular frame without any acknowledgement of an element of divine agency. I think one of the reasons why we've been so bad at fighting the secularisation process is because we act and think like secularists instead of Christians.


Hoyos said...

A personal thought?

It's because our hearts are dead. John Eldredge wrote Wild at Heart, which he is most famous for, but his first book Journey of Desire is the essential, far superior work.

He looked at his own experience in church and compared it with the Bible and found that he was not getting the joy or the strength that scripture seems to promise. It was emotional highs and lows and trying to white knuckle your way through.

He discovered a very old idea, that God is the only thing humans actually desire, and everything else we desire is a reflection of His glory. Even in sin, as GK Chesterton says "every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God".

Our wickedness isn't what we think, it's not rule following, it's works without faith and then not even the works themselves. We are not really alive and only living things can push back. The satanists perverted a saying of St. Augustine "do what thou wilt" whereas St. Augustine said "Love God and do what you will".

Our hearts are lukewarm if not cold and half dead. We haven't given a reason why for the extraordinary efforts that Christ may require of us. Our asceticism is joyless strain that we can't maintain, so we don't.

Bruce Charlton said...

Although there are times when you seem to be drifting-away from the basic Christian idea that the core is faith in God as our loving Father - and all his actions must always be understood in that light - I found this a thought-provoking post.

The fact that some people say they want to be Christian but can't, is very significant; because (from what I can gather) this almost-never used to be a problem.

I think the reason is to do with something like the texture or mode of modern thinking, which excludes (by metaphysical assumption) elements that are necessary for a strong religious faith - or for any kind of strong faith. An example is the general belief that physics is the most fundamental description of reality - because physics thinking has no space for a personal God.

As you say - modern Christians think like secular people; and secular thinking is intriniscally hostile to life-transforming Christianity. When modern people are Christian their belief often resembles a scholarly hypothesis, a set of historical assertions contingently held; or the kind of belief people have for mass media news stories.

Because the characteristic of modern societies in recent decades has been *all-round* feebleness of conviction, a deep mental laziness. It affects all secular activities as well as religion - even in my adult lifetime there has been a rapid and profound loss of personal faith in science, medicine, law, politics, education... everything.

(Such faith is now impossible to hold honestly, because the institutions have become bureaucracies, linked together in The System, which is materialist and anti-Christian - but the faith was lost before this happened, and that loss of faith allowed bureaucracy to happen.)

This then leads onto another unremarked aspect: cowardice - because there is no reason for courage when convictions are feeble and life is just distraction, suffering-avoidance and pleasure-seeking. When people do not believe in Any ideals, they become short-termist and expedient.

In the 19th century, many Scottish professors quit their University jobs on religious grounds - very courageous; nowadays the merest threat of vague reputational or funding sanctions is enough to induce pre-emptive compliance in Higher Education.

I agree that a deep personal examination is the necessary response - something tha happens at an individual level; and of course, the general atmosphere are hedonism and impatience is not conducive.

Spirit Moves Me said...

As an Outsider to Christianity - not a Christian and wasn't raised one - I'd say the second view, of God withdrawing due to skewed Christianity is probably right.

What I noticed in reading the Bible is how the entire institution of churches, the social group aspect which predominates, the female ruling and interpreting of scripture, all show how little the Word is heard.

The Bible is a radical spiritual document for spiritual radicals.

The Social Pathologist said...


It's because our hearts are dead.

I don't that's the case. The experience of God is a different thing to the knowledge of him. Let me explain: it's a lot easier to love a beautiful woman you have seen her than it is to love a description of that woman. It's a lot easier to motivate yourself for the real woman than it is for the "theoretical one". God has to reveal himself to us, in whatever way in order to ignite that ardor.


Although there are times when you seem to be drifting-away from the basic Christian idea that the core is faith in God as our loving Father

I wasn't aware I was giving that impression.

As you say - modern Christians think like secular people; and secular thinking is intriniscally hostile to life-transforming Christianity. When modern people are Christian their belief often resembles a scholarly hypothesis, a set of historical assertions contingently held

That's because I think there is a degree of secularism "front loaded" into Christianity. A while ago you put up a post on the "residual positivism of Christianity which I thought was quite insightful. When your faith is weak all you've got are the little rational arguments in your head that help your shore up your Christianity when put to the test. When your faith falls away completely all you're left with is secularism. I think the reasons that Christians think like moderns is because their faith is weak.

But here is the important point. I'm not blaming Christians for this. The strengthening of faith can't be done solely by one's own volition, a bit of it has to come from God. Trying to believe in God without faith is like trying to make yourself believe in the tooth fairy. It just isn't going to happen. You can try to convince yourself through argument but its not that same as believing through noetic conviction. I think the "secularity" of modern Christians is their attempt to maintain the faith in a world where much grace has been withdrawn. It's a consequence more than a causal factor.

It also explains the cowardice. When God is real paying the price for loyalty is worth it. When God is there maybe..... well then the price for sacrifice doesn't look so appealing. BTW, I admire those old Scots.

@Spirit Moves Me.

I don't have a problem with "Tradition" in principle as I think there are certain things which flow from biblical texts even though they are not explicitly mentioned. Extrapolation of the principles embodied in the Bible, I feel, is legitimate. But the more you extrapolate, the greater the risk of error. What I think has happened right now is that theology is interpreting the Bible in ways which don't square up with scripture. I mean the death penalty, for instance, is repeatedly affirmed yet the current position--strongly influence by Kumbayah theology--of the Catholic Church would seem to be at odds with its own Tradition and Scripture.

Hoyos said...


See I'm not so sure, Christians don't strike me as really alive and vital on a regular basis. I'm not talking emotional wildness, I'm talking about the energy level. They seem enervated as a general rule. I like the symbolism though, that's basically what I'm talking about. The beauty of God is obscured to us, but I think he wants us to move towards Him to see it and I don't think the shepherds are helping as much as they could be, perhaps.

@Bruce, can you point me to where I can read about those Scottish gentlemen you mentioned? Even a specific name to google.

MK said...

I am perplexed as to why there is any problem to be solved here. Seems obvious:

1. Man has free will.
2. Man is not a "raw individual"; morals are from family/culture.
3. God uses natural selection to "prune the herd" (sin leads to death). It's all over the bible, one cannot deny this.
4. Hence, "other" people of God will "fill the gap" left by the rebellious "chosen" to tell God to take a hike.

So we have become rich, arrogant, and sinful. Thus, cultural death. The richest people in the history of the world now have the least "life". The most sin. The most death. The least children. The most broken families. The culture of death.

Myself, I see no problem. These are the glory years. There has never been a better time to have love life, have a large family, and live in wonderful peace and prosperity, with leisure and joy. Sin, and only sin, prevents peole from living the dream today.

A great descriptive discussion of this (written by a great author btw) can be found here:

Jason said...

What you write here doctor reminds me a little bit of Bonhoeffer and his "Letters and Papers from Prison." Like you, he felt that the Church just wasn't up to the task of addressing modernity honestly. Also like you, he identified strongly with many secularists, sensing that they understood the conditions making Nazism possible much more than members of, say, the German Evangelical Church.

Finally, I believe MK above has the right attitude. For all the dilemmas of our age, it still remains a rather beautiful world. Too many Christians especially endlessly soil their nest and neglect their own agency.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Sp - Why would God (the creator, our loving Father) withdraw Grace, and make it harder for people (en masse) to believe in him? That would be to behave worse than a human father.

My answer is that he does not, it is not true - it is our doing. We really are the most evil generation ever.

@Hoyos - It was called the Great Disruption - you could look at this

Hoyos said...

@BC, awesome thanks, very cool story. Real guts, walking away from a guaranteed government income is no joke, bespeaks sincerity.

The Social Pathologist said...


but I think he wants us to move towards Him to see it and I don't think the shepherds are helping as much as they could be, perhaps.

Love is a two way street, there has to be some reciprocity. As I've said before, there are people out their who want to believe but can't. I know that there people out there who will say that those who want to believe should try harder placing the onus of doubt onto them, and there is the phenomena of those who get the faith without any effort at all or even, in some instances, of an oppositional attitude to religion.

I agree, the shepherds in this instance are making things tougher for people.

Jason said...

I'm not sure it's the case, Dr. Charlton, that hardness of heart prevents belief today (generally speaking anyway). On the contrary, there are many who would like to believe but are unable to, for reasons of conscience. And this tendency has been developing for quite a while now throughout the world, over five centuries or so. If God exists, for whatever reason He's allowed this state of affairs to play itself out. Might as well acknowledge the matter and deal with it, I'd say, rather than ascribe atheism and agnosticism so easily to malice.

The Social Pathologist said...


In terms of materialism these are indeed the glory years. And yes there is a lot to be thankful for. But I can't help but feeling the that the fruits we have now are the last returns of a capital inheritance that we have squandered.

BTW, thanks.


That would be to behave worse than a human father.

Bruce, the main thrust of my argument was that perhaps He's not activating peoples faith because the current representatives/representation of Christianity displeases him. And in his mind perhaps its better to hold the views of an honest paganism than a corrupt Christianity. Respectfully, what kind of father lets his son get killed--and tortured--for the benefit of the losers who abused him. God's ways aren't our ways.


Great comments.

Too many Christians especially endlessly soil their nest and neglect their own agency.


Might as well acknowledge the matter and deal with it, I'd say, rather than ascribe atheism and agnosticism so easily to malice.

I agree that it's wrong to ascribe malice where there is none. There is such a thing as honest atheism. I know several people personally who have expressed the desire to believe and yet can't. Why God gave me the gift of faith and not them is beyond me. I'm probably worse, morally, than they are and yet I got given it, not them. I think the important thing to emphasis is that it's God that chooses who gets the faith and who doesn't. That's the whole point of scripture.

Like you, he felt that the Church just wasn't up to the task of addressing modernity honestly

Bonhoeffer was honest enough to recognise that the Protestant Church's utterly failed against Nazism. And I think that's the central thing, honesty in analysis. I'm not sure if anyone from the Protestant camp has done an study of why this was so, which is a shame because an analysis may have strengthened it as a result.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SP - "Respectfully, what kind of father lets his son get killed--and tortured--for the benefit of the losers who abused him. God's ways aren't our ways. "

As you probably know, I disagree with the interpretation! Jesus needed to die to achieve his mission (because it is only via death that we can be born again to eternal resurrected life in heaven), but the torture and killing was not 'theologically' necessary.

If we ever suppose that some doctrine or theology paints God as morally worse than the ideal human Father (I mean, when considered in the proper eternal context) this is not because of any great mystery, but because of a mistake in our understanding.

No exceptions. This is the great rule of Christian faith, that can be understood by the simplest of Men; and that distinguishes us from Jews and Muslims - for whom God is, indeed, formally incomprehensible.

@Jason - It is not usually hardness of heart that is the modern problem (quite the reverse!), but false metaphysics (false assumptions about the nature of reality). These are often derived from 'science', or modern Leftism/ bureaucracy and the mass media - and can be summarised as materialism/ positivism/ reductionism/ scientism.

But metaphysics is a subject which most modern people refuse even to think-about, let alone revise. Indeed, many modern people refuse to acknowledge that they make any assumptions - and boast that their world view is wholly derived from 'evidence' (as if all evidence were not itself based on assumptions!).

Another common - and more superficial, but extremely powerful - factor is valuing some aspect of the sexual revolution so highly that it has become primary.

But the reason I say we are the most evil generations, is that is is not that people disbelieve Christianity so much as they would not even want Christianity if they were 100% sure it was true - they regard Christianity as evil, as probably The prime evil. They prefer Hell to Heaven; Satan to God; demons to angels.

That is the foundation stone of the edifice of the mainstream of the modern state, major institutions, bureaucracy, the mass media, global organisations etc.

Robert Brockman II said...

BC: "An example is the general belief that physics is the most fundamental description of reality - because physics thinking has no space for a personal God."

We can demonstrate that this understanding of physics is incorrect (although very common among physicists.) A proper understanding of Bell's Theorem combined with some relatively simple experiments reveals that the specific outcome of almost every quantum interaction is beyond the ability of physics to predict or explain, even in principle. Physics itself has discovered the limits to physics, beyond which there is a huge space for a personal God (or most anything else one could imagine.)

[Everyone here really owes it to themselves to go and verify that what I am saying about physics is correct. It's well within the intellectual ability of the people here to understand, with no mathematics beyond simple logic required. I can help anyone who is interested work through the steps.]

This means that rigorously adopting the "metaphysics of physics" is not a problem, because it inevitably leads to the discovery that there is a tremendous amount of important stuff that is beyond physics. One key ingredient missing from the modern implementations of science is honesty (as BC so often points out), which is why this doesn't usually happen. This means that it should be possible to mobilize honest secular scientists, what few there are, to help with the larger problems.

-- Robert Brockman II

Jason said...

Thanks for that clarification, Dr. Charlton. It seems to me that if all these edifices, as you mention, are arraigned against a metaphysical world view, then there are only two viable alternatives for the believing community. One is the much heralded Benedict Option boosted by Rod Dreher. The other, much as a democrat and liberal like myself may dislike it, appears to be the kind of state Orban is promoting in Hungary, a Christian-oriented "illiberal democracy" (although I wonder if what he's really encouraging is a liberal authoritarianism, sort of like the Austro-Hungarian Empire of old).

Anonymous said...

Brad Gregory's " The Unintended Reformation" is the best effort for a grand unified theory for why secularization occurred that I have come across. Not sure what your thoughts are if its one of the books you have read on the topic. I think for some (people like Rod Drehr) "secularization" means the drop in Church attendance and cultural revolution since the 60s--yet the intelligentsia was deist since the 18th century and atheist since the 19th, and every western European state had an anti-Christian government at one point or another by WWII (France-National Convention and later the Third Republic, Germany-Nazis, Italy had no Catholics in parliament for the first few decades of the Risorgimento, etc.) The real "secularization" was the loss of the Europe where Catholic Christianity provided a fully institutionalized worldview, where all idealogical (and other sorts of) conflicts happened within this common framework.

The Social Pathologist said...


Thanks, I haven't read it but I'll have a look at it.

yet the intelligentsia was deist since the 18th century and atheist since the 19th, and every western European state had an anti-Christian government at one point or another by WWII

Yes, you're right, the fish rots from the head first. But I'm increasingly of the opinion that secularisation is a self-inflicted wound of Christianity/Clergy. One of the things to note about the Protestant reformation is that it lead to the Council of Trent changing many of the Church practices which in effect, acknowledged that there was something wrong in the Church. The fact that it took who countries of Catholics leaving the Church to get them to institute the change. Such is the obstinacy of the clergy.