Forces of Secularity in the Modern World

Volume 1

by Stephen Strehle (Author)
©2018 Monographs VI, 280 Pages
Open Access


Stephen Strehle is a leading scholar of church/state issues. In this volume, he focuses his rigorous historical analysis and philosophical acumen upon a topic of great interest today and source of cultural wars around the globe—the process of secularization. The book starts with a discussion of early capitalism and how it saw the real world functioning well-enough on its own principles of individual struggle and self-interest, without needing religious or moral principles to meddle in its affairs and eventually dispelling the need for any intelligent design or providential orchestration of life through the work of Darwin. The book then discusses the growth of the secular point of view: how historians dismissed the impact of religion in developing modern culture, how scientists conceived of the universe running on self-sufficient or mechanistic principles, and how people no longer looked to the providential hand of God to explain their suffering. The book ends with a discussion of how the Deist concept of human autonomy became a political policy in America through Jefferson’s concept of a wall of separation between church and state and how the US Supreme Court proceeded to dismiss the importance of religion in shaping or justifying the values of the nation and its laws. The book is accessible to most upper-level and graduate students in a wide-variety of disciplines, keeping technical and foreign words to a minimum and leaving scholarly details or debates to its extensive notes.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I. The Spiritual Crisis of Early Capitalism
  • Chapter One: The Rise of Acquisitive Capitalism in France
  • Chapter Two: The Development of Acquisitive Capitalism and Social Darwinism in Britain
  • II. The Removal of Religion from Human Development and Natural Events
  • Chapter Three: Enlightened History
  • Chapter Four: The Mechanistic Universe
  • Chapter Five: Innocent Suffering
  • III. The Marginalization of Religion in American Society as a Private Matter
  • Chapter Six: Mr. Jefferson
  • Chapter Seven: The Development of the Wall
  • Postscript
  • Index
  • Series index

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Today many Christian people find the greatest threat to their existence within the growing secularity of western culture. They express less concern about the polemical differences that divided the church during the days of orthodoxy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and spend more time wondering about the prospects for basic Christianity surviving as a viable force of culture in the future. Indeed, they find Jesus expressing this same concern and warning about god-lessness in the “latter days,” where the people are living a worldly existence of “eating, drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage” (Mt 24:38), without any thought about a higher or transcendent calling in life and no fear of any imminent visitation from the heavens above (Lk 18:8). Here these Christians find Jesus expressing their same concerns over what people these days describe as “secularity.” Today sociologists use the term to describe a disposition that finds religious categories irrelevant, that interprets the world as a self-sufficient system, containing an autonomous causal nexus or immanent force, negating any need for divine intervention, let alone a cataclysmic coming of the Messiah. The process of “secularization” is described as a tendency to liberate culture from religious authority, control, and significance.1 Bryan Wilson delineates certain aspects of this process in these “latter days”:

Secularization relates to the diminuation in the social significance of religion. Its application covers such things as, the sequestration by political powers of the property ← 1 | 2 → and facilities of religious agencies; the shift from religious to secular control of various of the erstwhile activities and functions of religion; the decline in the proportion of their time, energy and resources which men devote to supra-empirical concerns; the decay of religious institutions; the supplanting, in matters of behavior, of religious precepts by demands that accord with strictly technical criteria; and the gradual replacement of a specifically religious consciousness (which might range from dependence on charms, rites, spells, or prayers, to a broadly spiritually-inspired ethical concern) by an empirical, rational, instrumental orientation; the abandonment of mythical, poetic, and artistic interpretations of nature and society in favor of matter-of-fact description and, with it, the rigorous separation of evaluative and emotive dispositions from cognitive and positivistic orientations.2

Modern sociologists spend a great deal of time debating whether the world is becoming more and more secular in its outward form. Some reject the religious concern over secularity and point to the steadfast nature of religious affections in Europe or the high rate of church attendance in the U.S. as indicating a relative stability in metaphysical beliefs within western civilization.3 They readily admit some shift in the paradigm toward non-traditional expressions of inward spirituality, or “believing without belonging” to a specific fellowship but also try to broaden their tents in defining religiosity to include the non-traditional forms of faith as serious expressions and worthy of respect.4 Other scholars are less than impressed with this turn toward other forms of faith. They look at the same data and formulate a much different interpretation. They see an inevitable decline in religious faith and practice, even if new prophetic movements might interrupt the general flow on occasion.5

There is no definitive proof on either side of the debate, but the so-called “secularization thesis” makes good sense for a number of reasons. It seems to many observers that the church is losing its former grip on society with declining rates of active participation in its denominations and the rise of agnostic, heterodox, and non-Christian expressions.6 David Voas provides a detailed analysis of British and European surveys from the last decade and finds steady growth within the secular subpopulation, the decline of religiosity across generations, and the move away from conventional Christian faith and practice. Non-conventional “Christians” possess a “fuzzy fidelity” and tend to move toward the growing secular hegemony, while those who identify with the new spirituality are not able to deflect the general trend and end up displaying the same basic movement toward unbelief.7 Some scholars counter the thesis by pointing to America as the great exception,8 but Gallup Polls do not support the counterpoint and seem to indicate a slight decline in spirituality over the last few decades when considering the downturn in weekly church attendance and specific profession of orthodox faith.9 A recent Pew Research Survey finds the number of adults identifying their faith with Christianity has dropped by a significant amount from 78.4 percent (2007) to 70.6 percent (2014), with only ← 2 | 3 → a slight uptick in non-religious faiths, a decided increase in agnosticism, and the millennial generation leading the way.10 Many scholars recognize this trend and point to the cultural revolution of the 1960s as providing a major impetus toward the general decline in religious expression. They point specifically to the mainline or “liberal” denominations, who most identified with the cultural message of the era and experienced a precipitous drop in membership during the subsequent decades.11 They also point to a general trend that goes beyond recent developments and has a long legacy and decided momentum within the history of the modern western world. One can simply walk through an art gallery and notice the shift in focus over the centuries, beginning with iconic religious figures of the Middle Ages, proceeding to the realistic portraits of the Italian Renaissance and later period in the Netherlands, and ending with the subjective abstractions of inward dispositions, characterizing the modern period.12 Direct metaphysical reference is less visible in modern times and appears to be declining when examining these works of art, as well as other works of literature, music, architecture, and so forth.

The lack of explicit reference to religion does not imply that its presuppositions have less meaning in the modern world. It might mean that its categories lie deeper underneath the surface, outside of any explicit confession of faith in those who identify with secularity. For example, Max Weber finds religious presuppositions within capitalism when analyzing the spiritual matrix out of which it arose in Europe and America.13 The same might be said of communism, in spite of its denigration of religion as the “opiate of the people” and attempt to reduce life unto a dialectical and material struggle of economic forces. The outward expression of atheism seems to be sincere enough, but it also seems constantly controverted by other aspects of communist ideology that most people associate with religious ideals or presuppositions: the Communists’ Hegelian/teleological/non-Darwinian view of history, marching toward an ultimate, ideological goal; their prophetic call to change the world into a new egalitarian image; and their righteous indignation about the brutal conditions of industry and the exploitation of workers—all emphasized within the works of Marx and Engels, even while they continued to deny any empathy for religious categories like morality or ultimate meaning.14 In fact, the fervor goes beyond simple religious ideals when the Communists embrace the work of Marx with cult-like devotion as if finding a unifying, totalitarian, and infallible vision within the final seal of prophecy.

[T]he Communist ideology constitutes a mythic framework of life, providing both a motivation for idealism and a validation of the existing social order; and the Communist party is, sociologically, a church with its own hierarchy, its sacred scriptures, its system of dogma, including doctrines of the fall (the development of capitalism) and eschatology (the eventual classless society), and having its exegetical disputes and heresies.15 ← 3 | 4 →

The difficulty of identifying communism as religious or secular represents a mere example of the problematic nature of formulating simple definitions and categories confronting all interpretations in the postmodern world. Terms tend to slip and slide between simple categories for those who follow the modern understanding of hermeneutics, making it difficult to circumscribe meaning definitively and designate a final construct once and for all. Terms like “religion” and “secularity” no longer present a specific Platonic form or eternal essence to the modern intellect and live within a community of other ambiguous terms, providing space for any interpreter to work within the ambiguity and deconstruct the material in a fresh or unique way. The range of interpretive possibilities answers to the complexity and fluidity of the real world, which remains in a cacophony of many conflicting and competing forces, entangled with each other in producing its results and causing even a Christian like Martin Luther to speak of his own life as caught between God and the devil—simul iustus et peccator.16 Religious and secular matters are difficult to separate in this world, beyond the capricious labels of those who try and limit real life to ideal forms, often for ideological considerations.

It is within this caveat that one can proceed forward with a discussion of secularity and venture to list some of its important forces. The forces ever remain ambiguous within their more complicated nature and are subject to much interpretation. One can only look at them from a certain angle, which most people seem to interpret or identify with secularity and its power to eliminate the significance and authority of religion in their lives; and one can only list some of them in providing a certain definitive form, given the vast scope of life and its numerous forces. It is not possible for any work to provide a definitive list, but it is possible to provide a representative sample of some important intellectual and social influences that have caused many people to move away from a religious perspective of the world and illuminate the process of secularization in significant ways. Within this spirit, the present study has chosen to illustrate the process in the realm of economics, science, history, and politics. It discusses modern expressions of these subjects and divides the discussion into three representative types of secularity: the first representing a disturbing intellectual reality in the realm of economics and science that caused people to doubt their faith and accommodate secular forces in understanding the world (chapters one and two); the second represents a growing cultural bias in history and science that made people look at the world through different lenses (chapters three, four, and five); and the third a more coercive political force that reduced the influence of religion and impelled society to embrace a more secular image of itself and corporate life (chapters six and seven). Of course, the types only serve as a tool in revealing the impetus toward secularity and guiding the reader ← 4 | 5 → through the maze of human experience, which always remains ambiguous or slips and slides between simple categories.

The first chapter discusses the spiritual crisis that followed the new understanding of the world in terms of acquisitive or laissez-faire capitalistic forces in the seventeenth century. The chapter starts with the Jansenists and their recognition that self-interest served the community just as well as the typical altruistic motives of Christian charity in causing people to act civil, kind, just, and honest. Self-interest served society in stimulating commerce and circulating goods in meeting the needs of others, without resorting to acts of charity or requiring the government to interfere with the process and impose typical religious values.

This concept of self-interest brought a spiritual crisis over the next two centuries in western civilization as many early capitalists saw life developing well-enough on its own terms through the happenstance of individual struggle or self-interest, without the need for the typical religious or moral categories to meddle into its affairs. Many tried to handle the spiritual crisis by creating a severe dichotomy between faith and reason. Pierre Bayle accepted the verdict of the new acquisitive capitalism in recognizing that self-interest was sometimes more useful in promoting the welfare of the state than the typical virtues of austere and strict Christian piety. While he continued to preserve a place for religion, he did so at the expense of his philosophical musings by resorting to his Reformed understanding of faith and claiming that reason cannot penetrate its mysteries; but he was troubled by the disturbing way in which the real world seemed to work.

This same problem also haunted the work of Bernard Mandeville, the great apostle of early acquisitive capitalism, a Reformed Christian, and disciple of Bayle. In the Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits, he saw the world in dark terms, following the Augustinian tradition of the Jansenists, the growing cynicism of French culture, and his own religious background as a Huguenot/Calvinist. He lamented the absence of true Christian virtues in the real world and was willing to admit in the spirit of Realpolitik that “no society can be rais’d into a rich and mighty kingdom, …, without the Vices of Man.” This social analysis presented a disturbing reality for him, even if he ended up persevering in his Reformed faith much like Bayle; He refused to take his rational analysis with utmost seriousness and continued to take refuge in the superior wisdom of divine revelation and discount his limited conception of the real world and its inner workings. Both Bayle and Mandeville continued to profess the Christian faith, while abandoning the medieval dictum of “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), finding a more autonomous role for reason in separating its concepts and analysis from the realm of faith and forwarding a different and secular view of reality. ← 5 | 6 →

The second chapter discusses one of the more disturbing applications of acquisitive capitalism in developing the pitiless world of Social Darwinism and challenging the old moral reaction to human misery as counterproductive. This new approach to social issues received an early impetus from the work of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), a Cambridge mathematician and rector of a parish. Malthus simply took a number of basic ideas from the acquisitive capitalism of Adam Smith and expanded them into a more sober and arresting view of life, as embodied in his controversial work, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)—a book that “haunted,” “overshadowed,” and “darkened all English life for seventy years,” according to its critics. His basic thesis stated that a population tends to increase in a “geometric ratio,” while “subsistence increases in only an arithmetrical ratio,” causing a “strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence,” which can hardly keep up with the growth. Malthus found it wise for the government to practice a laissez-faire policy and let nature take its course without trying to alter what works best on its own principles. Poor-laws involving public and private assistance only helped a few misfortunate souls and had no effect on the problem of starvation in the country among the general populace. Handing out money only helped those who received it, without increasing production, and made those who received nothing from the program starve by forcing them to pay more and more for less and less food according to the law of supply and demand.

This theory provided a significant impetus for Charles Darwin in developing his theory of evolution. In his writings, he clearly borrowed Mandeville’s analogy of a ship to illustrate his basic mechanism of evolutionary development and show how life can evolve in a piecemeal manner through a step-by-step process of trial and error, without an end in view or antecedent design, just like Mandeville’s concept of capitalism. He also spoke of Malthus’ significant influence upon him in developing the theory of natural selection in some passages. He spoke in these places of his fundamental agreement with Malthus concerning the geometric expansion of the species and the natural check upon the expansion, leading to starvation and selection. Malthus helped Darwin understand the importance of struggle within nature in evolving the species by showing the difficulty of supporting a large offspring in an environment and allowing the strong to triumph over the weak. Darwin even followed the Malthusian social program at times in rejecting human intervention on behalf of the weak, finding poor-laws and asylums “highly injurious to the race of man” and counterproductive to achieving the ultimate triumph of the strong.

In Social Darwinism, the dogma of non-interference was made complete in its rejection of typical religious sensibilities. For Malthus, suffering was a simple ← 6 | 7 → fact of life and worked well on its own terms in controlling the population, without the government intervening and messing things up through acts of charity. For Darwin, life was like a ship, which evolved through the everyday struggles of self-preservation and found no need for creative planning or outside orchestration; thus, exorcizing the presence of God from any meaningful role in the development of humankind.

The third chapter considers the secular bias in the modern construction of history by examining some of its seminal works: Voltaire’s Essai sur le moeurs, Raynal’s L’Histoire philosophique et politique, Michelet’s Histoire de la Révolution francaise, Hume’s History of England, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Voltaire, Raynal, and Michelet clearly developed their “philosophical history” in accordance with their own enlightened bias against the Judeo-Christian tradition, or the religious sensibilities of most people. They conceived of history as leading western civilization in a teleological manner toward the present era of enlightened culture and leaving the intolerance and bigotry of the church behind. The Middle Ages was deprecated as a time of ignorance and darkness, filled with papal intrigues and superstitious dogma, with little appreciation for the overall mission of the church or its positive impact upon culture. The Italian Renaissance helped rescue Europe from the “Dark Ages” by diminishing the role of the Judeo-Christian tradition and rediscovering the tolerant and philosophical roots of western civilization in Graeco-Roman culture. England set the standard for enlightened government in the modern world and helped inspire its ascension in France during the Third Republic. Throughout this history, the philosophes treated the church as the great enemy of the French people and expressed no real appreciation or understanding of the decisive and all-important role that Puritans, Jansenists, and other religious groups played in developing the modern concept of government and social norms.

The great English historians displayed a more complex and objective approach to their analysis than the philosophes, although the bias against the church remained and tainted the general drift of their historiography. Hume made the most concerted effort in striving to preserve objectivity and was willing to give fundamental credit to the Puritans for establishing modern liberties in England, but his praise remained grudging in failing to link the social upheaval with distinct religious ideas. He was too much of an atheist to respect the importance of Puritan theology in fueling the change and too much of a Royalist and a Tory to appreciate the Puritan Revolution as a necessary birth pang in producing the new order. He preferred to work within time-tested traditions of the country and participate in a slow, gradual evolution of existing social institutions than create a radical upheaval or a whole new world. Gibbon also was a Tory and tended to lose objectivity ← 7 | 8 → when discussing religious zealotry and its penchant for creating theological disputes and bringing unrest to social order over metaphysical ideas. He wrote his famous book on The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with the distinct enlightened agenda of deprecating the Christian religion for destroying the greatness of a superior culture and replacing it with a millennium of fanatical piety and hierarchical corruption. At times, he protested the accusation of bias from the Christian community and said that he merely wanted to explain the collapse of Rome from a horizontal perspective, pointing to “secondary causes” as the reason for the ascension of the church in society, but it was hard to disguise the underlying bias. Even this “objective” and “secular” approach had a surreptitious way of making the supernatural accounts of the past and those who believed them look fanatical in explaining the “miraculous” growth and ultimate triumph of the church.

The fourth chapter discusses the development of a secular or mechanistic view of the universe in science and the subjective nature of this interpretation. The Puritans supplied an early impetus toward the secular point of view by dividing the study of nature from ultimate questions and so provided a pretext for others to proceed further and reduce life to naturalistic explanations. René Descartes presented the classical statement of the viewpoint by filling space with a plenum or body-like extension and rejecting the free movement of objects within the machine—shutting out any room for divine presence or activity in the world. Many sons of the Enlightenment promoted this mechanistic view of the universe in the name of science, but went beyond their limited, metaphysical purview in establishing the concept, and often misused the physics of Isaac Newton to do so. Newton clearly had nothing to do with it. He explicitly rejected Descartes’ mechanistic concept of the universe and its view of God as a “retired engineer.” He thought of God as present throughout the world and acting upon bodies as a spiritual force, even performing miracles on extraordinary occasions, unconstrained by the “eternal laws” of a “cosmic machine.” Newton’s metaphysical explanation was ignored by the sons of the Enlightenment, who preferred to misuse his physics and promote a secular view of life in terms of a self-sufficient machine. Their concept only ascended to the forefront of intelligentsia as a cultural bias, rather than a strict scientific judgment or direct empirical vision of the world. The sons of the Enlightenment were unable to demonstrate their point of view in any definite way since the relation or mechanism of causality ever remained beyond observation. David Hume provided the most scintillating criticism of the viewpoint by showing how the precise relation of the causal nexus escapes our rational capacity or empirical analysis, placing a question mark on all possible metaphysical explanations in general, whether the philosophes’ or Newton’s. His analysis led to a more subjective understanding ← 8 | 9 → of human knowledge and recognition in the postmodern world that any secular interpretation of physics is little more than a metaphysical leap into the unknown, based on the subjective, non-scientific preferences of culture. This postmodern analysis runs counter to the secular bias of Quantum theory, which attempts to replace mystical forces in physics and interpret attraction and repulsion as an exchange of particles. Quantum theory seeks to replace Newton’s mystical force of “gravity” with a “graviton” in trying to explain the problem of action at a distance.

The fifth chapter addresses the age-old problem of innocent suffering and its role in exorcizing the presence of God from the modern understanding of the world. The Puritans embodied the religious perspective of the old school by interpreting horrific events as visible signs of divine displeasure in accordance with the book of Deuteronomy, bringing judgment upon the wicked and serving as a warning to God’s people about fulfilling their mission in the world. This perspective was developed out of the Puritan emphasis upon OT Scripture and its fundamental view of history, but it always lived in tension with other aspects of the Reformed tradition, consonant with the theology of John Calvin, which saw the ways of God as mysterious and beyond human scrutiny. Even the OT was unable to support a simple version of the old theory without some form of reservation or protest from those who saw certain injustices in life as Job, or the preacher of the assembly in Ecclesiastes. For many people in Europe, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 proved to be a pivotal point in questioning the basic view of life in the OT, with Voltaire wondering about the goodness of creation, John Mitchell limiting the discussion of tragic events to the phenomenological level, and much of the world wanting practical advice to avoid future catastrophes that dispensed with philosophical debates over theodicy or measures to propitiate divine wrath altogether. Even the Jewish community dispensed with the OT explanation for the most part, particularly after the Holocaust. The majority considered the Holocaust a unique event in human history, which had no rational explanation or possible basis within the sins of the Jewish people, ending all future belief in the providential dealings of God. Their faith imploded over the Epicurean triangle, finding the existence of YHWH incompatible with the magnitude of the evil. They rejected any possible solution or justification, including the emphasis of so many modern theologians in the Jewish and Christian community upon the presence of God in the midst of suffering.

Chapter six speaks of a more coercive form of secularism in the realm of politics and centers upon its development in America. This secular mentality first developed out of the early English Deists, French philosophes, and their disdain for revealed religion. They considered Christian theological tenets as offering little more than metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and containing no clear relevance to the ← 9 | 10 → practical and moral needs of society. Thomas Jefferson followed their basic understanding in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, referring to religion as a “matter which lies solely between Man & his God,” calling for a “wall of separation between church and state,” and thereby placing the church on the outskirts of political power and promoting a secular vision of life through the state that was consonant with the Deist concept of human autonomy. In his more militant moments, Jefferson thought of the church as creating turmoil in society and spilling “oceans of blood” over petty doctrinal issues and worked to eliminate its influence on society. He hoped the future would undergo a “quiet euthanasia” of Christianity and worked to this end as the father of public education in America, eliminating Christian instruction from the classroom and promoting Graeco-Roman antecedents as the real foundation of modern culture, not the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, this “darker” side of Jefferson clearly lived in tension with other views of religion that he expressed periodically throughout his career. The other side of Jefferson thought of religion in different terms as providing a moral foundation for society. He expressed this conviction most famously in his Declaration of Independence, where he found the fundamental purpose of government serving the God-given rights of natural revelation, just like John Locke. He also wanted to promote religion at times by enacting Puritan-type traditions like fasting, prayer, and Sabbatarian laws while serving as a legislator and governor in the state of Virginia. These and other illustrations demonstrate that Jefferson was not a simple monolith on the issue of church/state relations.

Chapter seven discusses the subsequent relation between church and state in America, and the eventual emergence of the strict separation concept of secularism as the fundamental paradigm. The Constitution rejected the establishment of a national church in America, but its most literal and historical reading made no explicit provision for creating a broader separation between the government and religion. It was not until 1947 that the United States Supreme Court decided to deconstruct the First Amendment in accordance with the new hermeneutical principles of the day and consecrate Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association as the authoritative interpretation of the text in calling for a “wall” of separation between church and state, which is “high” and “impregnable.” Since then, the Court experienced considerable difficulty in maintaining its wall and ended up reducing the metaphor of a “wall” to a “line,” which is “blurred, indistinct, and variable.” Lately, the Court has displayed a willingness to accommodate religious expression in public places, but it remains steadfast in forwarding the basic secular agenda of rejecting any “endorsement of religion” in the state and thinking of the government as serving a “secular purpose.” It typically uses an argumentum ex ignorantia to dismiss the importance of religion and label its own values as secular, ← 10 | 11 → without displaying any serious historical analysis or philosophical justification for doing so beyond the will to power. The argumentum ex ignorantia asks the people to forget any connection of the secular establishment with religious history or ideology in order to privilege the values of the Court as an essential part of the nation and outside the fanatical realm of religion. The Court enters the cultural war on behalf of secularity in an attempt to denude life of religious meaning.

To develop the sample of secular forces in sufficient detail, the study has chosen to neglect other significant areas of research that are worth exploring. Some of these other forces will receive a fuller analysis in the next volume of the series. They are listed below to offer a more comprehensive view of what remains undeveloped in the present volume and provide a fuller appreciation and anticipation of what is forth coming in the series on modern secularity. The first three examples speak of a new intellectual reality; the next four a growing bias or subjective way of looking at the world; and the last one a more coercive social or political force. Here is what the reader might anticipate in the next volume:

One, the modern world has witnessed the rise of skepticism in the philosophical community regarding religious matters, silencing God-talk as no longer a part of the discipline. Immanuel Kant showed the limits of reason by rejecting any definitive proof or knowledge of God and treating metaphysical or noumenal ideas as unsubstantiated presuppositions. Ludwig Wittgenstein went even further and placed anything outside the concrete world of existence as defying the logic of language and off-limits for rigorous professional philosophy. He begins his Tractatus saying, “The World is all that is the case”; He ends by dismissing all metaphysical questions as nonsensical, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”17

Two, the plausibility of former religious expressions has collapsed under the weight of scientific and historical scrutiny of the literal message.18 The story of Adam and Eve lost credibility to the Darwinian explanation of human origins; the story of Noah to the discovery of the Gilgamesh Epic as its basis in the myth-making world of the ancient Mesopotamian region. German higher criticism spoke of the non-Mosaic origins of the Pentateuch, the mythological nature of biblical miracles, and the many contradictions within the Synoptic Gospels,19 forcing the liberal side of the church to compromise its message and the conservative side to live on the fringes of respectable society and modern scholarship. Unlike many other religions, the message of Christianity was based upon events that transpired in space and time (Lk 3:1–3, 1 Cor 15) and lost credibility when its history was challenged or reduced to a myth.20

Three, the need for religion tended to dissipate as dependence upon technology increased. One notices this progression when studying religiosity in various types of societies. “For example, the proportion of the population that attends ← 11 | 12 → Church (or the equivalent) at least weekly is 44 percent for agrarian, 25 for industrial and 20 for post-industrial societies. Those who ‘pray each day’ declines from 52 percent in agrarian to 34 in industrial to 26 in post-industrial societies.”21 Voas notes that nineteen of the twenty most technological nations are “becoming increasingly secular,” with the lone exception of America.22 The increase in technological know-how leads society to search for answers within their expertise, rather than hope for some mystical or miraculous intervention from beyond. It causes them to fight HIV/AIDS within the laboratory, rather than speak of divine wrath and promote acts of penance in the hope of appeasing the heavens, like the Flagellants of the Middle Ages.23


VI, 280
ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. VI, 280 pp.

Biographical notes

Stephen Strehle (Author)

Stephen Strehle has doctoral degrees in church history and systematic theology from the Universität Basel and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Christopher Newport University, director of its program in Judeo-Christian studies, and the author of many books and articles on the Reformation and church/state issues.


Title: Forces of Secularity in the Modern World
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287 pages