The Myth of the Secular Society

Big_Ben_and_Houses_of_Parliament_-_geograph.org.uk_-_479320In The Gospel In A Pluralist Society Lesslie Newbigin has a wonderfully insightful and, we might dare say, prophetic chapter entitled ‘The Myth of the Secular Society.’ Writing in the late 80s he cites the work of Oxford economist Denis Munby who was himself writing in the 60s. Munby desired people to embrace the secular society which, according to him, had six essential marks:

  1. It is uncommitted to any particular view of the universe and man’s place in it.
  2. It is a pluralist society in principle, not just fact.
  3. It is a tolerant society, its tolerance limited only by the need to resist activities which are directed against the accepted policies of society.
  4. It will have common aims. Judges and magistrates will represent these agreed aims. Therefore relics of the sacred which hang around the role of the judge will be eliminated.
  5. It will solve its problems by eliminating emotion and irrational impulses; it will ascertain facts and enable citizens to achieve their aims.
  6. Finally, it will be without official images, ideal types, or models held up for imitation. It will provide a framework within which people of different allegiances can work together.

Newbigin then examines these six elements in turn to demonstrate the ‘illusions and self-contradictions.’ [I’ve paraphrased and expanded on Newbigin for the sake of clarity (hopefully)]:

  1. Munby’s view is committed to a very particular view of society – one which excludes the belief (shared by Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) that all human society is under the sovereign rule of God.
  2. Pluralism is itself an exclusive position – excluding those who don’t believe in pluralism. The invalidation of any claim to exclusive truth, though it appears humble, claims for itself a superior and equally exclusive knowledge.
  3. The secular society does not have an accepted view of man’s place in the universe (#1), but it does have accepted policies of behaviour, presumably decided by the majority. What are those policies and how are they decided? Munby’s goal is tolerance for a wide variety of private life styles. But there are some accepted policies, which means there are some behaviours (maybe also words/thoughts/beliefs) which will not be tolerated. These accepted policies presumably come from the will of the majority. If your behaviour/attitude/belief falls within that majority then fine, well and good. Just so long as you remain within the majority.
  4. Courts exist to carry out the will of the people. At this point any talk of ‘justice’ becomes arbitrary. ‘Justice’ is defined by the majority in any given society. It is no good complaining a decision is ‘unjust’ as this would be an implicit appeal to an authority higher than the state (at which point you’re not a secularist). Justice is a wax nose shaped by the populace of a particular time and place.
  5. Apart from the problem of establishing raw ‘facts’ we have a state which does not pass judgement on aims. You are free to pursue whatever course of action you desire, judgement free, so long as you don’t transgress any of the accepted policies of the masses. And (here’s the kicker) if the state doesn’t pass judgement on you, you are to extend the same courtesy to the state. They are just enacting the will of the majority. And hey presto! Given what we know about human nature in history, we pretty quickly have a tyranny of the state where she is no longer a moral subject which can be held responsible.
  6. The absence of images and models is an impossibility. Hour after hour we are presented with images of the good life as conceived by society, and the presentation is fuelled by the most powerful commercial interests of society.

At the end of his critique Newbigin revisits his previously given definition of myth – ‘an unproved collective belief that is accepted uncritically to justify a social institution.’ Newbigin’s point is that we all operate under some fundamental belief commitments; secularism is illusory. Society is built on questions of truth and morality and providing an answer to those requires a half-decent epistemology. If governments were more aware of the contradictions and unintended consequences of a secularist agenda we might be able to lay some foundations for real justice, tolerance, and progress.

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