Columnists > Voices

Everything in its place

The triumph of secularism is its ability to tell society what goes where

Issue: "Public-school reform," July 26, 2003

G. K. Chesterton's novel The Ball and the Cross tells the story of a devout Christian and a committed atheist who attempt to settle their differences by fighting a duel. The earnest combatants find themselves continually thwarted in their purpose by the civil authorities, who eventually judge them both to be insane. The two are finally locked away as a danger to the social order, because they dare to take seriously the question of God's existence.

Written as a deliberately exaggerated satire, Chesterton's story line doesn't seem so outlandish today. In the current climate, it is not difficult to imagine remarks endorsing or denouncing any particular religion being outlawed as "hate speech." Strong feelings on the subject of religion are a sign of fanaticism, which, as everyone knows, is the first step on the slippery slope toward terrorism.

As Chesterton foresaw in 1905, in Western societies today the secularist has triumphed over both the Christian and the atheist. The secularist neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. He simply dismisses the issue by insisting that it doesn't matter. It is only a religious dispute after all; it doesn't affect real life. Stock prices and soccer practices are more important, more real to him, than sacred precepts or speculative philosophy.

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The persistence of religious conflict in today's world is a mystery to the secularist, an irrational anachronism from a less enlightened age. He cannot imagine why anyone would consider religion to be something worth fighting over.

Religion? Why, that's just hymns and incense and heaven and stuff. On Sunday morning, some people go to a Protestant church, some go to a Catholic church, some sleep in. Others go to a mosque or a temple or a support group or whatever. There are all kinds of ways to fulfill your religious needs, if you have them. To each his own, so everybody chill out. What's the big deal?

The secularist takes church-state separation as a prescription for all of life. He places religion in an isolated compartment, quarantined away from the school, the workplace, and the halls of government. To allow religion to infect these other areas is obviously illegitimate, presumably unconstitutional, unquestionably fanatical, and probably pathological. If everyone would just learn to keep his religion to himself, we could all get along and move on to "the important issues," without divisive distractions.

To the secularist, freedom of religion means the liberty to put whatever you want in the box labeled "religion." Just be sure to keep your boxes in order. No religious stuff in the boxes labeled "government," "science," or "public education." Got it? A place for everything, and everything in its place.

Serious Christians can find dealing with the secular mind a frustrating experience. When they engage in apologetics, their arguments are not refuted as invalid, but disdained as irrelevant. When they apply biblical principles in the fields of politics or education or journalism, they are viewed with suspicion. Evangelists are considered ill-mannered for opening their religious boxes in public, while politically active believers are considered underhanded for trying to sneak religious ideas and practices into the wrong boxes.

The secularist portrays himself as more tolerant than those involved in religious disputes, because he has no desire to dictate what others put into their religious boxes. Why should he care? What is the point in quibbling over the contents of one little box?

In a brilliant strategic maneuver, the secularist has found a way to neutralize the influence of Christians without directly opposing them. Proudly wearing the badge of tolerance, he sneaks behind the scenes to label the boxes in a way that keeps religion confined to a narrowly defined private sphere. But his tolerance quickly runs out if he is challenged on the right to set the rules for what goes where.

Yet challenge we must. It is not enough for Christians to build beautiful containers for faith, and to strive to keep their contents pure. Doctrine may be orthodox and worship fervent, but if Christianity remains confined within the four walls of the church building, then the secularist has won.

"Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel?" (Mark 4:21). Secularism has fashioned a religious box to cover and contain the light of Christian witness. It will take determination, courage, and persistence to cast it off.

-Russell Board is a missionary in Saitama City, Japan

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