Secularization and the church in Canada
by Jack Taylor
“I believe that pluralistic secularism, in the long run, is a more deadly poison than straightforward persecution.” (Francis Schaeffer)
From the beginning, secularism has divided the church – from within and from without.
Secularism – the Canadian experiment
When one is force-fed secularism in its pablum form, it is easy to keep swallowing and ignore. We easily embrace science, reason and freedom of inquiry as a basis for decision-making and order. Being force-fed secularism in its tenderized steak form, we are noticing that it is harder to swallow. Our values and our faith feel like they are at risk. The challenges will become greater.
Communism and Fascism, springing up from the void left by the philosophical thought that “God is dead,” showed the horrors of what valueless societies look like. Existentialists, like Nietzsche, fanaticized that humans will create new values, but as psychologist Jordan Petersen remarks in his book Twelve Rules for Life (Rule 7 p. 74), “we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our own souls.”
And yet, this is the great Canadian experiment underway which Christians are feeling and reacting to. The imposed, invented values are beginning to look vaguely like the shadowy values imposed on Germany to different degrees in the 1930s.
Is there a common diabolical mind behind all destructive cultural values or is this just an inevitable human pendulum swing as society blindly searches for meaning and purpose?
Lawyer Janet Epp Buckingham, Director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, in an abstract focusing on the relationship between religions and a secular state, notes that Canada’s dominant Judeo-Christian roots held sway until the rise of secularism in the 1960’s. She says that “the advent of the Charter in 1982 accelerated the secularization of Canadian Society… It is characterized by the rise of individualism, where the individual is more important than the community. Religious adherence is no longer valued in Canadian society but rather is often viewed with suspicion.”
Radio talk show host, writer and political commentator Dennis Prager notes that “Secularism breeds narcissism. There is nothing higher to live for, so you can live for you.” When there are so many individuals deciding what is right for themselves, then division is inevitable – even in the church. Is there poison in saying that Jesus loves me instead of in saying that Jesus loves us? Suddenly, we understand why denominational strength, church loyalty, and consistent Sunday service attendance have become fragile. Millennials have been noted for abandoning the organizations their parents and grandparents embraced. But so have others, needing or choosing to work on Sundays where the Lord’s Day Act has disappeared; others trying to protect family days; others involved in sports, etc. Churches have scrambled to offer services at different times; live streaming and podcasts fill in the void and give the illusion of community; even the Lord’s prayer is unknown in an age when everything can be googled and nothing needs to be memorized.
Larry Nelson and Mark Kraft run executive leadership searches for ‘Christian’ organizations and they say that they’ve noticed a change in congregational expectations for leaders due to secularization. “The desire for someone who can be a CEO with HR, counseling, financial, educational and communication skills is almost standard now, and there is less of a focus on denominationalism.” Individuals with teams who have these skills, and who focus on excellence, have “become celebrities.”
The impact goes deeper than just the roles of leaders. They see that “moral failure among leaders has jaded congregants and people – especially the millennials have lost faith in leadership.” Leaders like John Stackhouse, Matthew Vine and others are pointing to the church’s failure to engage properly with the LGBTQ issue. Creationism and eternal damnation are among some of the orthodox doctrines being rethought in many circles.
Dennis Wilkinson of Meta Communities says that secularization has left churches with a fascination for technology and efficiency. “Churches are now ruthlessly pragmatic – concerned with efficiencies and systems – they’re trying to create an event and they care about what works. We’ve become consumers, no different than anyone else.” He sees that “the metrics for church planters focus on the need for entrepreneurs, visionaries, strategic planners and technicians.” Timothy Keller states that “Secularism and religion are both all about your personal performance. The gospel is about the performance of another applied to you.”
Origins of secularism
Secularism was a term newly minted by English social reformer George Holyoake in 1846 to lobby the government of his day toward focusing on the working classes and the poor, based on their immediate needs rather than their eternal needs. It is a term given life because the church was not fulfilling any perceived social mission of value.
The foundation of secularism, however, is an idea created not by atheists, but by church leaders trying to establish peace within their own sphere of influence. Some thinkers claim that the foundation for the idea comes when Jesus commands (in Matthew 22:21) “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (NIV).
Augustine formulated his teaching on “two cities” and others built on this to try and reinforce the supremacy of papal authority over civil government authority. Eventually the term was used to distinguish clergy who worked in the world rather than choosing to become reclusive through monastic vows. This division continued to grow into the disciplines of revelation and faith seen in revealed theology contrasted with observation and thinking seen in natural theology.
The post-reformation wars across Europe pushed devout believers to widen the division between sacred and secular. Austin Cline (March 6, 2017) notes in his article on the Religious Origins of Secularism… “that earlier thinkers like Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and William of Ockham (1287-1347) adopted the position that human reason and religious faith were ultimately irreconcilable.”
It was thus the church that created and nurtured the power and potential of secularism until it was beyond our control. The child we nurtured to protect our core is now seen as a terrorist out to destroy us.
Buckingham points out that society can still embrace neutral secularity where nothing religious can be supported or considered; positive secularity where no one religion is embraced but favourable conditions for religion can be created; negative secularity where the state accepts its non-competence in religious matters but doesn’t act to inhibit “religious manifestations that do not threaten the common good”; or inclusive secularity where the state isn’t run by any religion but must act to include the widest diversity of faith groups.
In Chamberlain v. Surrey School District, appealed up to the Supreme Court, and focusing on the rights of the LGBTQ community regarding curriculum inclusion, the majority decision states that “A requirement of secularism implies that, although the Board is indeed free to address the religious concerns of parents, it must be sure to do so in a manner that gives equal recognition and respect to other members of the community.”
If we expect that our voice is the only voice that will be heard at the table, we will be disappointed. The only issue now is, will we engage society in a way so that our voice will be heard at all? Is the tool we conceived the dagger that will continue to divide us until we are irrelevant in Canada?