Columnists > Voices

Spirits of the age

The decline of secularism brings a new set of challenges

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

If you think that secular humanism has become biblical Christianity's most threatening opponent in contemporary society, Peter Jones wants you to think again. He will tell you-politely but emphatically-that you're at least a decade or two behind the curve.

Secular humanism boasts that it is void of explicit spiritual content-and in a way, Jones says, it has lived up to that promise. But in featuring such emptiness, it has left a globe full of people with vacant hearts and minds craving even a little spiritual substance. And that hunger, in turn, has turned its victims into prime candidates for what Jones calls "neo-pagan spirituality." It is all the rage.

Secular humanism deliberately steers you away from thinking "religiously" or "spiritually." But neo-paganism wears spirituality on its sleeve. And the evidence suggests that people-in all times and in all places-prefer a form of godliness to no godliness at all.

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To understand that phenomenon better, Jones a couple of weeks ago assembled a quiet gathering of about 50 folks from all walks of life for a three-day discussion near San Diego, Calif. Right up front, the former Westminster Seminary professor acknowledged that for a long time serious social observers and philosophers have been claiming the final victory of secularism and the disappearance of religion. But they are wrong. Even the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jones pointed out, carried an article last year titled "Secularism in the Elimination Round."

Sadly, Jones stresses, it's not the success of biblical Christianity that gets credit for the waning of secularism. Taking secularism's place instead is a fascination with religions old and new-and usually altogether false. A typical example is the wild allure of Dan Brown's best-selling The Da Vinci Code.

Affecting far more people than Brown's 2003 work of fiction and the movie that followed the book are historic but pagan religions in places like China, India, Africa, and many parts of the new world as well. At the California conference, for example, China observer Sam Ling stressed that while the growth of Christianity in China is a fact-and that this huge nation once given up to Marxist atheism is now home to tens of millions of Christians-the fastest-growing religions in China right now are Buddhism and Taoism, whose adherents are numbered in the hundreds of millions.

Indian lecturer Vishal Mangalwadi, on the other hand-fresh off a recent two-week discussion with the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi-stepped conferees through the dark netherworld of the Hindu involvement with tantric sex. In such a worldview, which Mangalwadi says has taken Hindu themes around the globe, sexual experience is portrayed as an ultimate means of salvation. The main goal of sex is "gnosis," or knowing in the way God knows.

From Islam came frightening themes. That religion's emphasis on "subjugating the enemy"-whether a foreign power or your own wife-seems strangely to be attracting the interest even of non-Muslims around the world. From Africa comes word of reversion to witchcraft and darkly pagan practices. If these packages come wrapped with superstition and even violence, so be it. Conferees heard from a former practicing astrologer who described some of the inroads that field is making even into evangelical churches. And they heard how pagan spirituality has wormed its way into both modern feminism and the ecological movement.

Jones calls it neo-paganism. Around the world, in dozens of shapes, names, and forms, it is winning the allegiance and hearts especially of young people who are already disillusioned with the empty promises of secularism and materialism. The idea of the supernatural no longer bothers or embarrasses them. They want to know there is something more "out there," and they are willing to explore bizarre realities to find whatever it might be.

In an age when Christians have too often busied themselves providing good answers to all the wrong questions, a lesson from Peter Jones just might be an efficient use of everybody's time.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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