Secularism and Modernism | Christian Platonism
Greetings, friends! In this February issue of The Worldview Bulletin, Paul Copan continues his series on worldviews and unpacks the meaning of secularism and modernity. Paul Gould begins a two-part series on C. S. Lewis’s Christian Platonism, explaining in part one how it illuminates our understanding of reality. David Baggett responds to two recent objections to divine command theory, and Melissa Cain Travis explains how J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis used stories to communicate Christian truth while stealing past the “watchful dragons” of modernity. We conclude, as always, with a roundup of news of note and exceptional deals on books and resources.
Soli Deo gloria,
- Questioning Worldviews: Part 5Secularism and Modernity (1)
by Paul Copan
- The Christian Platonism of C. S. Lewis, Part 1by Paul M. Gould
Please see the second email for Part Two of the newsletter.
Questioning Worldviews 5
Secularism and Modernity (1)
By Paul Copan
Although we have been talking about various worldviews, I want to talk briefly about two overlapping characteristics of contemporary Western culture. These have shaped our worldview thinking and attitudes toward life and reality. These are secularism and modernity.
In June 2021, each of our WB team wrote on one of the “transcendentals.” I wrote on the transcendental of truth and discussed it in that context; so I won’t discuss it here, although it overlaps with some of the themes I touch on below.
Here I address some key features of secularism and modernity. Next month I’ll offer a few responses to these trends.
What is “secularism”? Traditionally, it has been understood to refer to an existence independent of God or “religion.” (Think of the “sacred-secular” dichotomy to which Christian thinkers often refer.) Others maintain that it’s the phenomenon of God’s being expelled from culture because many features of culture—film, media, academia, for example—are hostile towards belief in God.
This isn’t quite right. If we think about it, more mainstream liberal Protestantism, say, refers to “God” but accommodates itself to culture quite readily: as long as the “correct” cultural boxes are ticked—regarding sexuality, politics, race, and so on—then this liberal God can fit it just fine. This is, of course, not the case when it comes to traditional forms of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy.
Many of us have become familiar with the monumental work on secularism by the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. According to him, “the nature of this modern secular society is that it’s deeply plural. We have to accept that the ultimate grounding of the civilization we share in common is up for grabs. . . . To say we live in a secular civilization is to say that God is no longer inescapable.”
Our civilization once used to live under the “sacred canopy” of Christianity, which provided a plausible explanation for how the world worked and how we should interpret human experience. During the Middle Ages, whether you were at the University of Oxford or the University of Paris, the Christian faith provided the worldview context and the intellectual firepower to understand reality. In Christ, all things made sense.
This world was enchanted by the supernatural, the transcendent, the miraculous, and the mysterious. But, as sociologist Max Weber observed, a certain disenchantment (Entzauberung) overtook Western culture. Eventually, a significant number of philosophers, scientists, and other culture-shapers came to believe that “science” could explain religion and morality. And God—if he existed at all—came to be viewed as a detached, distinct deity.
Eventually, a decline would set in. Personal religious practice and commitment waned; individuals would gradually withdraw from traditional communities, and they came to find meaning in other sources besides religion. This would lead to a fragmentation, in which belief in God/Jesus was considered just one option among many.
According to the secular-minded, the believer in Christ has a particular burden of proof. Pluralism is taken as the default position, and God turns out to be just one of many options or belief-alternatives.
According to Peter Berger, modernity is basically “the institutional and cultural concomitants of economic growth under the conditions of sophisticated technology.” Let’s briefly unpack this.
Consider the effects of technology and economic growth: these are control and convenience (technology) and material comforts (economic growth). Add to this diversity of belief (pluralism) as well as the distraction of entertainment and amusement. These end up leaving very little room for God. Social and cultural life tend toward practical atheism; it’s easy to live as though God doesn’t exist.
Kyle Beshears notes that this admixture lends itself to an attitude of not caring if God exists—that is, apatheism. When it comes to belief in God, (a) the contestability of belief and (b) the diversity of belief, it seems we lack sufficient reason to take commitment to God seriously. When it comes to status of life, that is, (a) comfortability and (b) distractability, this lends itself to a lack of motivation.
This configuration is, in part, what the Scriptures have in mind about the concept of worldliness or worldly desires (Titus 2:12; 1 John 2:15-17). And what is worldliness? According to Craig Gay, worldliness is essentially an interpretation or approach to reality that excludes the reality of God from the business of life. “Practical atheism” is built into contemporary political, technological, economic, and cultural institutions in modern societies. We can easily go throughout our day without giving God much thought.
Gay observes that at no other time in history has the structural coherence of a social order depended less on religious/theological understanding than it does today in modern societies. As we saw earlier, this mindset isn’t necessarily hostile as it is indifferent.
According to Gay, modernity is characterized by at least four things, including what he calls “secularity”:
Control: The crucial theme running through this list of modernity’s pursuits—especially economic growth and sophisticated technology—is that of a particular kind of control; it is the desire to have control over reality by rational-technical means.
Secularity: Once the range of controlling the world has been adequately reached, there appears to be very little (or no) room for God. Social and cultural life is for the most part both theoretically and practically atheistic.
Anxiety: Despite the apparent “liberation” that humans allegedly find in their scientific and technological potential, this has proven to be a heavy burden. Without the reality of God moving within the lives of people and the belief that God has revealed himself, Gay notes, humans face the terrifying necessity of having to create their own meanings and purpose to make sense of life. This “freedom” is very unsettling.
Depersonalization: A common association with modernity is the depersonalization of life. Personal agency in the world and depth of relationship and community are increasingly diminished. Removing God from one’s worldview is hard on the human person. After all, without God, there is no human person either.
This is a bit of a sketch of secularism (belief in God is no longer incontestable) and modernity (involving sophisticated technology and economic growth that tend toward control). Stay tuned next month for a biblical response to these tendencies.
 Charles Taylor, interview with Bruce Ellis Benson, “What It Means To Be Secular: A Conversation with Charles Taylor,” Books and Culture (July/August 2002): 36. Available at: https://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2002/julaug/14.36.html. I follow some themes in this article. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
 Peter Berger, Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change (New York: Anchor, 1976), 34.
 Kyle Beshears, Apatheism (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2021).
 Craig Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 12-14.
— Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Learn more about Paul and his work at paulcopan.com.
Subscribe to The Worldview Bulletin Newsletter to read the rest.
Become a paying subscriber of The Worldview Bulletin Newsletter to get access to this post and other subscriber-only content.
A subscription gets you:
Subscriber-only posts and full archive Post comments and join the community Support our work of equipping believers to understand and defend the Christian worldview
Insights in Your Inbox
Want fresh, insightful content delivered weekly by email? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!