Modern Secularism Makes No Sense Without Christia…

Where did our modern secular age come from? What was the source of the Western idea that belief in God is optional or irrelevant?

A decade ago, Notre Dame history professor Brad Gregory argued that it came from the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin certainly didn’t intend this result, as Gregory argued in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, but their rejection of ecclesiastical authority led to an individualism that ultimately undermined the entire Christian project. If people could interpret Scripture on their own, maybe they could rely on their own reason to understand everything. And if that was the case, should it be surprising that many contemporary people would come to disavow any need for God at all?

Peter Harrison’s Some New World: Myths of Supernatural Belief in a Secular Age accepts some of Gregory’s findings but pushes them in a new direction. Yes, he concedes, modern Western secularization was the product of Protestant thinking. But even if Protestantism led people to reject the supernatural, it’s worth asking how much of the Protestant worldview modern secular people have unwittingly retained.

Quite a bit, argues Harrison, an emeritus professor of the history of science at the University of Queensland in Australia. In fact, the modern secular worldview is so strongly dependent on unspoken Christian assumptions that it’s incoherent without them.

Justifying belief

To take one example from the book, scientific methods of investigation depend on assumptions about the regularity and comprehensibility of nature. No one in the ancient pre-Christian pagan world held these beliefs. Christian faith, however, led believers to expect that a rational God would create a rational, predictable universe. Modern secular scientists retain this belief even while rejecting the theological assumptions that support it.

But this is only one example among many. As Harrison argues, the entire secular worldview is comprised of Christian beliefs (especially Protestant beliefs) that are retained in distorted form. Some New World is a detailed history of how the Western world adopted those beliefs in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation and then incorporated them into the secular philosophy of naturalism after stripping them of any theistic underpinnings.

When Harrison discusses the modern secular or naturalistic worldview, he seems to have in mind someone a bit like Richard Dawkins—that is, an educated Westerner who claims a commitment to rationality above all else and who is firmly convinced that belief in the supernatural is unreasonable. Such a person, Harrison argues, has unwittingly adopted an early modern Protestant approach to belief and knowledge.

Before the Reformation, Harrison says, few European Christians thought they had to justify their belief in the supernatural. Indeed, they didn’t spend much time justifying any of their beliefs about God. Most of their beliefs fell under the category of “implicit faith”—convictions they had inherited from their parents and the surrounding culture and felt no need to discard, even if they couldn’t prove their truth.

But Martin Luther argued that faith had to be personal to be genuine; it could not consist only of assumptions thoughtlessly inherited from one’s parents. And ever since Luther, many Protestants (including most American evangelicals) have similarly insisted that faith must be personal.

Luther and Calvin’s emphasis on personal faith highlighted the role of the Holy Spirit in producing such faith. But by the 17th century, some Protestants were already hedging on that idea and placing greater weight on the role of reason in producing faith. Whereas most Christians of the 16th century and earlier had seen faith primarily as a matter of trust in God, some rationally minded Christians of the 17th and 18th centuries began to define faith primarily as belief in a set of propositions. Genuine faith, from this perspective, required the support of sufficient evidence. To find this evidence, they turned to natural theology.

Some of the earliest arguments for belief in God leaned on the general consensus, across nearly every society in the world, that some kind of divine being (or beings) existed. By the late 18th century, however, Western thinkers looking for intellectual supports for faith had largely discarded this approach.

That was not because it was no longer true. Indeed, the fact that nearly all human societies believed in some sort of divinity or supernatural realm remained as valid as ever. But this was no longer seen as sufficient evidence for a truth claim. Most of humanity could be wrong, people decided. What mattered was the ability to give valid reasons for your beliefs, independent of any external authority or tradition.

Burdens of proof

This change in thinking led to another shift in how people thought about belief in God. Before the 18th century, most people in the West had assumed that since belief in God was nearly universal—and since it was highly unlikely that the universal human consensus could be wrong—the burden of proof in any argument about God’s existence was on the skeptic, not the theist.

But a growing loss of confidence in human tradition flipped that dynamic on its head. Because the beliefs of others could no longer be considered authoritative, the burden of proof shifted to the person arguing for God’s existence. (In more recent decades, in fact, skeptics have generally treated the near-universality of theistic belief not as a reason to doubt atheism but as evidence of an evolutionary trick of the brain or a vestigial remnant of human prehistory.)

If Protestant assumptions played a role in skeptics’ assumptions that tradition or community consensus could not justify holding a belief, they also played a role in diminishing the credibility of accounts of miracles. The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume famously formulated an argument against miracles based on experience. But, in fact, as Hume well knew, there were thousands of testimonies of miracles over the course of many centuries. How could Hume categorically dismiss the whole bunch without even bothering to look into them?

Harrison argues that Hume could do so only because he had a progressive understanding of history—an understanding that would become widely accepted in the late 19th century and beyond. According to this view, the past was a more ignorant age, but modern science or enlightenment has given us a much better understanding of the world. But where did this confidence in human progress—and a corresponding willingness to dismiss the past—come from? The answer, Harrison says, is a distortion of the Protestant view of history.

All Christians believe that history is more progressive than the ancient pagans imagined, because they know that God is at work within it. Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection inaugurated a new era in history. Christians also anticipate a final endpoint, with history culminating in Jesus’ second coming and the beginning of the new heavens and new earth.

But Protestants of the early modern era introduced a new element that made history even more progressive than earlier Christians had imagined. They believed that their own era was more enlightened than the medieval past and, at least for those who held to a postmillennial theology, they also looked forward to an even more enlightened future era leading up to Jesus’ return.

Skeptics of the 18th and 19th century appropriated this progressive view of history and confidence in ever-increasing enlightenment, but they failed to notice that without a divine orchestrator, it no longer made sense. There was nothing in nature to make history inherently progressive, yet skeptics took for granted that it was.

They also took for granted the idea that miracles no longer occurred, even though this too was a Protestant idea that Protestants had adopted for theological rather than empirical reasons. While Catholics believed in an unbroken line of miracles from the biblical era to the present, most Protestants of the early modern era claimed that the age of miracles had ceased shortly after the death of the apostles and the end of biblical revelation. In their view, miracle-working Catholic saints were theologically problematic. The deists of the Enlightenment era built on that foundation by applying the widespread Protestant skepticism of Catholic miracles to all claims about miracles.

But this made little sense on empirical grounds. Protestants dismissed Catholic miracle claims in principle—not, in other words, because they had firm empirical evidence that these claims were groundless, but because a Protestant theology of revelation and ecclesiology ruled out the possibility of believing them. Skeptics accepted the presupposition while abandoning the theological foundation that had given the presupposition its original credence.

“Modern naturalism,” Harrison declares, is therefore “Protestantism on steroids.” But it is Protestantism severed from its theological foundations, and as a result, it is based on a set of assumptions that no longer make sense without God.

A hopeful apologetic

By the end of this book, some Christians may be tempted to come away with a diminished respect for the Protestant project—or, at least, for Protestant rationalism or Protestant individualism.

But regardless of how we view some early modern Protestants—did they go too far in rejecting Catholic miracles or insisting on the necessity of an intellectually defensible personal faith?—Harrison’s argument gives us a hopeful apologetic for dialogue with skeptics.

This is because modern naturalism, in its contemporary Western guise, subscribes to certain truth claims made by Christians. Both the atheist scientist and the Christian believe that nature is predictable and intelligible. Both the secular college professor and the Christian believe that history is progressive rather than endlessly cyclical and meaningless. We can appeal to this common ground when conversing with each other.

But Harrison’s study also gives us the historical evidence to demonstrate that modern secularism is based on presuppositions that make no sense without God or Christian theology. That is a powerful apologetic. Although Harrison is not the first to make this argument, his book substantiates it with additional historical evidence.

Harrison’s book, at nearly 400 pages of densely written intellectual history, is not for the casual reader. Even many academic historians will probably find it a challenging read. That’s unfortunate, because I think the intellectual history of 18th-century beliefs can be presented to a nonacademic audience in an engaging manner, as recent books like Andrew Wilson’s Remaking the World have shown. But as Harrison suggests in his introduction, he was looking to model his study after something more like Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age—a book deservedly recognized as a landmark history of philosophical ideas, but by no means a light read.

For those with the fortitude to wade through the full complexity of Harrison’s arguments, there’s a lot that will give Christians greater confidence in their faith.

Harrison equips us to realize that modern secularism is neither a superior explanation of the world nor an alien philosophy that Christians need to fear. Instead, people who subscribe to atheistic naturalism are more like long-lost cousins who accept Protestant assumptions about the world but reject the God on whom those assumptions depend. And if that’s the case, maybe the evidence that Harrison presents will be a good conversation starter for Christians and skeptics discussing what they believe and why.

Daniel K. Williams teaches American history at Ashland University. He is the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.

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