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The Puzzle of Secularism

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Posted by Peter Jensen, 4 Apr 2019

In this excerpt from his editorial in the latest edition of Churchman, Peter Jensen examines the inherent incoherence of secularism

...the funny thing is that I and all my generation could have sworn that puritanism was a church disease. With the decline of church influence, then the old stiff and bossy rectitude would collapse. And, indeed, it has, if we are talking about Christian concerns about alcohol, gambling, pornography, promiscuity and the like. But the tolerant society we were promised by secularists has not emerged—far from it. It is just that a new set of commandments, inspired by autonomy and an optimistic individualistic anthropology, has arrived with a vengeance. The new puritans are upon us. And they are even tougher than the old, for they know nothing of forgiveness and they do not value love. Twitter is a great way to put offenders in the stocks.

Moralism has grasped the minds of our contemporaries. And any number of fixed moral judgements—think of abortion and sexual liberty and euthanasia to name but three—are alien to the gospel. And the problem is not that those who hold the biblical position will be deemed odd, but they will be deemed evil, because social change is being driven by the power of conscience. In these three cases, conscience is powerfully shaped by the belief in individual autonomy and rights to one’s own body. We must condemn the biblical belief, for only then will we feel at peace with our consciences.

Poorly instructed Christians are very vulnerable. We wish to have a clean conscience. We wish to embrace the good and eschew the bad. We wish to be known as good people. Thus, when the old morality is condemned and a new one inserted, we are in danger of allowing the new to take charge of our conscience, even though its inspiration is humanistic rather than biblical. We then abandon the teaching of scripture and even vehemently condemn those who adhere to it. We do not “take captive every thought to obey Christ” but we seek to please the world. The attack on the Bible today is not rationalistic, but moral. Jiminy Cricket is king.

And that brings me to a puzzle.

For a creed which has no god and no absolutes, secularism is very quick to pass judgement. Of course, every secularist has his or her own values; I am not suggesting that secularists are unprincipled. But that is the point—how do these individual values cross the bridge and become virtues universal enough to demand obedience from others and to validate the judgement we pass on others? How is this coherent? Again and again it sounds as though there is an external law to which appeal can be made and which all good people must adhere. But who validates the appeal to autonomy, for example? Perhaps secularism is incoherent to its roots.

You can purchase this edition of Churchman here, or subscribe here. Subscriptions to Churchman are £27 a year (£19 for students) in the UK, with discounted rates for Church Society members.

Archbishop Peter Jensen is the Editor of Churchman

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