Religion? Or not a religion? When doesn’t it matter?

In 1980, Phyllis Schlafly wrote, “Secular Humanism has become the established religion of the US public school system.”[1] Tom Flynn, author of “Secular Humanism Defined” uses this and other quotations to point out what he calls a misconception by Christians about secular humanism. This situation is an example of the sort of argument Christians often fall into as they attempt to talk with secular thinkers. Schlafly and Flynn do not really disagree on the principles which separate them. They only disagree about the meaning of the term religion.

Phyllis Schlafly, and many other Christian leaders, teachers and pastors, use the term religion for any way of thinking or worldview in which human beings value something more than they value God. Secular thinkers only use the term religion for a mindset that includes supernatural or transcendent beings. It is easy enough to end this argument if someone recognizes that the point of the conversation is not the label but rather the very real differences in worldviews that set Mrs. Schlafly and Mr. Flynn in opposite corners.

Christians who have listened closely to their pastors for years will remember the sermons in which they were admonished that whatever stands between them and God becomes a false god. Secular thinkers readily concede that they exclude from their worldview anything supernatural, and they will not dispute it if they are accused of not serving God. They limit their worldview to time and space. This outlook prevents them from even acknowledging the existence of God. In that stance, there is no possibility that they will worship him. Christian teaching asserts that the secular worldview, which prevents secular thinkers from serving God, is the god that secular thinkers worship.

Secular thinkers consider this attitude to be preposterous. They assert firmly that they do not worship anything. They do not engage in worship. They believe that by avoiding the nebulous supernatural notion of any god whatsoever they set people free to become all that they can be. They strenuously do not want to be connected with a religion, and they do not want anyone to confuse the secular worldview with a religion.

Given this state of affairs, to argue whether secular humanism is or is not a religion is pointless. Yet many Christians, engaged in conversations about political and social issues persist in arguing that humanists worship something other than God. This argument sounds so ridiculous to the secular thinker that anything else the Christian may say will be dismissed without consideration.

What if it doesn’t matter whether we call secularism a religion or not? What if that label is not the point of the conversation? For example, if the school curriculum is the real issue, why not stay focused on the curriculum issues that separate Christians and secular thinkers? Most people agree that the education of children is crucial to the health of any nation. If any group of adults is asked simply to answer yes or no to the question, “Is good education important to our country?” it would be shocking if anyone in any group answered, “No.” However, the content of that education is a truly divisive issue. Whether the subject is American History, physical science, biology, or even English grammar, there will be a vast universe of different viewpoints, and most of those viewpoints will originate in divergent worldviews. It might be very good for participants in the conversation to recognize that problem before they engage in fisticuffs over sex education or evolutionary theory. Christians who want to be good citizens will certainly participate in such conversations, but it won’t be helpful if the discussion devolves into a religious war.

Christians must be well prepared when they engage in civic disagreements. Inevitably, communities include people of various religious persuasions as well as people who fervently reject any religion at all. There is no value in pointless arguments over whose definition will triumph. In order to participate effectively in government and social issues, Christians must learn to focus on the real issues and avoid verbiage that will be perceived as name-calling.

When Christians are at prayer about community problems, they are at liberty to name the supernatural enemy they face when someone proposes to teach kindergartners how to experiment with same-gender sexuality. In prayer they can ask God for his power to protect them and the children from Satan’s assaults in the voices of people who would vehemently deny his very existence, but in the conversation with other citizens, they must recognize that the community is not served by religious strife.

The solution is to pray before such conversations. Christians always say that they believe in prayer, but very often they forget to pray about the toughest problems. A school board meeting is a really difficult challenge when people of faith and people who reject the whole idea of faith try to talk about the important question, “What do we teach the children?” When Christians pray about these problems, they need to remember that in James 1:5 is a wonderful promise every Christian can claim in time of need. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” (James 1:5) Christians also recognize that the people who most fervently reject the idea of supernatural power are the ones least able to resist its working. Christians need to prepare for such conversations with the armor Paul describes in Ephesians 6:10-17. They must study and prepare their minds for the conversation, but they must not forget that they live at the intersection of time and eternity. Christian lives are points where God’s infinite power enters into the time/space continuum. This post provides some intellectual grist for the mental challenge of living in a world dominated by secular thinking, but no Christian should attempt that task without taking full advantage of the power promised to those who have received the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is a challenge to talk with secular thinkers, but it is a challenge God is ready for. In his power, Christians can be ready for it, too.

 


[1] Phyllis Schlafly, “What is Humanism?,” a 1980 syndicated newspaper column quoted by Tom Flynn in an article entitled, “Secular Humanism Defined at http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=main&page=sh_defined4

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