The Secular Attack on Religion

This past week two citizens of the UK took their claims to the European Court of Human Rights after losing their appeals in Britain. What? Perhaps Muslims facing discrimination? Sikhs or Hindus suffering racist epithets?

No. Christians. One a counselor whose employer dismissed him for questioning whether he could council gay couples, the other a nurse whose employer asked her to remove her cross necklace. They are represented by Christian Concern, which says they are “the tip of the iceberg.”

And over here in Malaysia evangelical leaders provided their interpretation of why American evangelicals are engaged in the so-called “culture wars.” I was told “They fear what has happened in England and Europe, where Christianity is actively under attack.”

Under attack. Here in Southeast Asia “under attack” means firebombing churches, and killing congregation members, not telling nurses they cannot wear necklaces and employees have to offer equal services to all clients. But in a certain kind of Christian imagination, forged by millennialist doctrine and a century long conflict with modernism and secularism, its all one long slippery slope leading to the reign of the beast. First its the cross you can’t wear, next its the 666 that you must wear.

Islamic discourse in SE Asia echoes that of Christian Evangelicals. For many Muslims secularism is also attacked as an enemy of faith – one that colonialism supposedly trying to impose on innocent Muslims.

Let me suggest that instead of interpreting everything through the lens of ideological warfare we think in terms of different types of encounters and different motives for them.

Secularism as understood in the US constitutional context wasn’t an attack on religion. It was a way of opening the public space equally to all religions. Practically speaking this has come to mean removing specific religions from publicly owned spaces simply because it is unmanageable to give every religion an equal place. When business have “holiday” instead of “Christmas” sales the purpose is marketing efficiency, not a desire to do in the baby Jesus. Losing your privileged place in the pubic space, which Christians have done over last half century or more, isn’t the same as being under attack. (Muslims in SE Asia could learn the same lesson.)

What I would call scientism is a second form of attack on religion. And it is real and practiced by people like Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer. It seeks to push religions from the realm of rational discourse as irrational, superstitious, and generally anti-social forces. In the US this particular attack on religion does dominate certain institutions – most notably some university departments, magazines like Scientific American, and certain professions. In other countries scientism may also dominate state structures. One thinks of the old communist world, or possibly France or Turkey. From the broader standpoint of inter-religious dialogue scientism is a rather aggressive religious faith whose proponents still need to recognize the limits of their own worldview and learn to engage in dialogue.

The third form of apparent attack, and this seems to drive the British case, is an effort to avoid inter-religious conflict by removing it from the public sphere. Many institutions,  particularly businesses and schools,  don’t want religious conflict to interfere with the management of the business or providing instruction. Thus they demand that people strip themselves of their religious identity at work in order to avoid any possibility of religious conflict within the institution.

What Christians, Muslims, and other religious people need to realize that each of these supposed secularisms arises out of religious failure. If in Western history Christianity had been willing to share the public space with Judaism and other religions then secularism would not have been necessary. But Christians spent most of their history hounding anyone different from themselves out of the public sphere. Secularism was a natural reaction of newly forming societies that wanted room for hearts and minds to breath something other than the fetid air of Christian dogma and sectarian hatred.

Scientism is a similar reaction to religion, and not only Christian religion. Even today powerful Christian and Muslim forces maintain a steady attack on the fundamental assumption of the scientific worldview: the world we live in can be completely explained without reference to any external force. They try their best to drive it from the public sphere, keeping it out of public schools and attacking it in the halls of government. It is a largely failed attempt, and to a growing number of people simply confirms that religious people are irrational troglodytes unwilling to face the facts. In any case if Christians showed more of an inclination to let the objective study of nature and a rational weighing of evidence into the public space, scientists might not feel such a need to swing their elbows around to make that space.

And what of the businessman who forbids an employee to wear religious ornaments? Or the school principal that forbids passing out religious nick-knacks? Well they may not be opposed to religion, and indeed may be religious. But we live in an age in which Christian aggression and continued self-assertiveness have created a hyper-sensitivity on the part of non-Christians. The result is that actions that appear minor can create a major backlash. And no business, no school, no institution, wants its work to be interrupted by unnecessary conflict. As long as Christians feel it their duty to use every waking opportunity to assert their identity and cajole others to join their religion then there will be push back. Businesses and schools will find it easiest to insist that every mark of religious identity be removed.

There is a way for Christians and other religious people to encounter less apparently anti-religious aggression in public environments. That is to use the public sphere not as a opportunity for evangelism and propaganda, but dialogue. If the public sphere were less a place for us to join the cacophony of voices hawking their wares, and more a place for us to discover how to live together in a fruitful, pluralistic society we might get considerably less push-back. If we saw our public interactions less as a marketing opportunity for the Christian brand, and more as opportunities to develop friendships and partnerships we might find that secularism wore a happier face.

  • John Roxborogh

    Did you mean scientism or science here? ” . . . the fundamental assumption of the scientific worldview: the world we live in can be completely explained without reference to any external force.”
    In my understanding this is logical positivism, not science. Trouble is some of us do.

    Science is what science does, and one of things it delivers is a shared world for those whose who do and do not include other stuff as well.

    • roberthunt

      I’m using “scientism” as a shorthand for something similar to logical positivism – an understanding aggressively advanced by people like Shermer and Krauss. True, science itself is what science does, but in the world of discourse I’m discussing science is really understood as an alternative religion with its own rituals and lifeways, not merely a shared methodology for exploring those aspects of reality open to that methodology. In this view once an individual is aware that religion and philosophy are relatively primitive results of evolutionary development then it is possible to proceed to explore their neurological and social roots. Ethics is simply an agreed set of standards for advancing variously conceived personal and social goals with a minimum of destructive conflict. Because religion represents a more primitive and less reflective way of doing the same thing it will eventually be replaced, the sooner the better.Or so scientism offers.

      At the same time Christians and Muslims seem to intentionally confuse science with scientism. Instead of recognizing the value, particularly in public education, of discussing explanations that are public and testable they insist on having their personal and untestable insights being included in the models of reality taught in schools. The result has been a disaster for public discourse and public education in the US.


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