The Roots of Tolerance

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The End of Secularism
Author: Hunter Baker
Publisher: Crossway (2009)
Reviewer: Graham Veale

In 2002 Susan Pace Hamill, a former tax attorney and Professor of Law at the University of Alabama, decided to attack her state’s tax code in the Alabama Law Review. The article was remarkable for three reasons. First, it started a campaign for tax reform in Alabama; the tax code taxed the poor too heavily and the rich too lightly.  Second, the campaign was led by fiscally conservative Republicans and members of the Religious Right. Finally, Hamill’s argument was based on Scripture and Christian theology. She reasoned that 90% of Alabamians practised Christianity; therefore 90% of Alabamians should agree with her that rulers should actively seek justice for the poor and, with Christ, love those in need.

The campaign, unfortunately, failed. So Professor Hamill is unlikely to be played by Julia Roberts anytime soon. Still Hunter Baker uses this episode as a useful example of how Christian belief can have a profound impact in the public square. Hamill used specifically Christian arguments; this is precisely why she was able to win Reaganite tax-cutters to her cause. She appealed to their consciences through an authority that they both recognised. No atheist objected to her use of theology in a debate about tax reform, or worried about the Church’s influence on the state. When the guardians of secularism agree with your conclusion, they seem to ignore your premises.

This was inconsistent practice on the part of secularists, who believe that religious belief has no place in policy making. According to secularists, religion is too irrational, too subjective, and therefore too unpredictable and divisive, to be given a public voice. The doctrine of secularism teaches that political decisions must be made without reference to, or input from, religious doctrines. One need not be an atheist or an agnostic to subscribe to secularism; one must simply reason like an atheist when considering public policy.

Yet the case of Susan Pace Hamill reminds us that politics is the art of the possible. Religious arguments can take their place alongside secular reasons without the threat of fatwas or the emergence of theocracies. So Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism, a persuasive and informative tract, argues that secularists are wrong to exclude religious ideas from public debates. Baker contends that

When we talk about politics, we don’t engage in a debate that revolves around pure scientific and mathematical certainties. There is more discussion to be had. What is justice? What is love? What is equality? What kinds of things should we do for people? What kinds of laws shall we make? Right and wrong will enter into the picture and there is no compelling reason to rule secularism in and religion out…Secularism is neither necessarily fair, nor clearly superior to other alternatives. Secularism is supposed to provide a new way forward for humankind. It is in actuality a dead end.

Baker is convinced that Christians are wrong to play the secularist game, because secularism implies a worldview: a set of commitments about the nature of reality, the proper sources of knowledge and the nature of ethics. The “real world” is the world described by science; therefore science is the only reliable source of knowledge. Appeals to revelation or other sources of “spiritual” knowledge are inherently irrational, and therefore dangerous. Because religions cannot use reason to persuade others of their faith, they tend to resort to force to coerce the unfaithful. For this reason alone, religion must be kept out of political dialogue in the public square. Free citizens may practise their faith in private, but must not express their superstitions in public.

Secularism also appeals to a “meta-narrative”. Religion was once the “social glue” that held society together. The gods were a personalisation of human social values, a necessary force for social order. Over time, however, the world was disenchanted. Scientific explanations replaced myths and fables; managerial techniques and bureaucracy removed the need for religious authority. Given this narrative, and secularisms core beliefs, we would expect certain groups to be attracted to this worldview. Public servants and scientists, for example, emerge from secularist history with a substantial amount of authority. These are the very groups that pushed the secularist agenda.

Drawing on the work of a range of historians and social scientists, Baker argues that the advent of secularism was a “purposeful revolution” carried out and defended by determined interest groups. After facing clerical opposition at Cornell University, Andrew Dixon White successfully rewrote history; his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom created the myth of a “conflict” between Christianity and science. When Henry Smith Pritchett administered a grant of ten million dollars for professor’s pensions in 1905, he insisted that schools with religious ties be excluded from the program. Within four years twenty colleges ended their relationships with their sponsoring Churches.

In Victorian England, self-proclaimed spokespersons for science attacked the influence of Christianity as an impediment to scientific progress. But the Church was not impeding scientific progress so much as it was impeding their career prospects. Science was the preserve of the “gentleman amateur” in English society; those who had the wealth and time would study science at their leisure. Naturally, many of these amateurs were clergymen; the Church was a respectable career choice, and the Universities were clerically dominated. This tradition stood in the way of professionalization; it also created a generation of angry young men in the Middle Classes, who desperately wanted to pursue research but could see little opportunity to do so.

So secularism and scientific positivism were attractive creeds for a “young guard” who needed to isolate clerically minded scientists. The older clerical scientists were inclined to see their work as an extension of theology; the young guard needed an ideology that valued scientific advance for its own sake.  It suited this group to believe in something like the “conflict” thesis; there could be no room for harmony between religion and rationality if the clergy was to be removed its influential position in the University. The triumph of secularism was not the inevitable result of progress; rather, two interest groups came into conflict, and the one side lost.

In fact, Baker argues that the demise of Christianity in the English speaking world has less to do with Darwin (who had evangelical admirers and secularist critics) and more to do with the forms that Christianity took in the 19th Century. The Oxford movement and the revivalists wanted the Church to take less interest in “extra-ecclesiastical” affairs. Conservative Protestants tended to view the Bible as a storehouse of facts; at its worst they took the Bible as a collection of proof-texts, a “how-to” guide to Church and morality. When the Civil War struck America, each side could cite a handful verses to justify or condemn slavery. The Bible seemed to have no clear answer to the most important public policy issue of the day.

Secularism’s ascendancy results from non-rational social forces and the vagaries of history. In short, secularism is not “the end of history”; it does not represent the inevitable triumph of progress.  But surely secular thought brought an end to the wars of religion, and is responsible for political stability? The situation is more complicated than that. Baker’s key argument is that the fact of pluralism, rather than secular ideology, forced compromise and peace on the West. Eventually all the competing parties realised that they had nothing to lose, and much to gain, from religious toleration.

The classical separation of Church and State simply meant that the State should not collect fees to support the Church, and that the State should not mandate membership of a Church. This separation is as much an achievement of Christian theology as it is of Enlightenment rationalism. In On Secular Authority Martin Luther advanced arguments for religious toleration that would later be developed by John Locke. Luther argued that true Christian faith could only develop where the State allowed religious freedom.

[Rulers] must confess that they have no power over souls….the thoughts and intents of the heart can be known to no one but God; therefore it is useless and impossible to command or compel any one by force to believe thing or another….Furthermore, every man is responsible for his own faith, and he must see to it himself that he believes rightly. (On Secular Authority).


Eventually Locke would draw on this theology, not empiricism or scepticism, in A Letter Concerning Toleration:

…the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.

But Luther might not be the best witness for the Christian defence. Eventually, he changed position, and endorsed the idea that Princes should settle matters of religion in their territory – a politically expedient idea, when some Princes were committed to the Reformation, and could offer Protestant churches political protection .Baker could have made more of the fact that Luther was drawing on patristic writers in On Secular Authority. J Budzisewski has pointed out that ancient Christian theologians argued for religious tolerance on the basis of natural law. Lactantius argues that

For religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith: for the former belong to evils, but the latter to goods; and it is necessary for that which is good to have place in religion, and not that which is evil. For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist. The right method therefore is, that you defend religion by patient endurance or by death; in which the preservation of the faith is both pleasing to God Himself, and adds authority to religion.

Tertullian argued that freedom of religion is a natural right, based on the nature of the divine. In his open letter to Scapula, the Proconsul of Carthage, Tertullian argued

However, it is a privilege of nature that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion— to which free-will and not force should lead us— the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice. For they can have no desire of offerings from the unwilling, unless they are animated by a spirit of contention, which is a thing altogether undivine.

Ambrose warned the Emperor Valentinian that “human laws cannot teach us… They usually extort a change from the fearful, but they cannot inspire faith.” Hilary of Poitiers cautioned Constantius that “God does not want unwilling worship, nor does he require a forced repentance.” Isidore of Pelusium’s third epistle advises “since it seems not good to forcibly draw over to the faith those who are gifted with a free will, employ at the proper time conviction and by your life enlighten those who are in darkness”. (3.363)

All of these arguments for religious toleration are based on the metaphysical assumption that human beings have free-will, and the theological assumption that divinity is not honoured through forced homage. In fact, Christian theology provides the strongest foundation for human rights; we are all in God’s Image. Christ died for everyone without exception; we all carry the mark of original sin. There is no room for boasting or for elitism. Baker follows philosopher Louis Pojman, noting that empirical facts should incline us to believe in the inequality of all people. We all have different aptitudes and potentials, and what we can offer society varies. The doctrine of equal human worth needs metaphysical or religious grounds.

Secularism has produced its share of political and moral dangers. Stalin and Mao spring to mind; if the secularist wants to argue that they were insufficiently enlightened, then the Christian can reply that Torquemada was insufficiently sanctified. Sauce for the goose. And Baker reminds us that an aggressive Revolutionary movement grew out of the  Enlightenment; while moderates like Locke emphasised a reasonable compromise between Christian confessions, a Revolutionary wing, exemplified in the French Revolution, insisted that both throne and altar would need to be torn down to initiate a Golden Age of Reason.  Stalinists and Maoists had enlightened forbears as their example.

The question of tolerance leads us to ask who is tolerating whom, and for what end. The secularist tolerates religious belief insofar as it does not interfere with his vision of a just and rational society. Unfortunately, it is merely an accident of history that secularism dominates the academic and cultured elites; it is not at all obvious that Christian faith is less rational than materialism and atheism. The emergence of the “New Theism” in the Anglo-American academy, the rebirth of Catholicism and evangelical Church growth in South America, and the consolidation of Christianity in the Pacific Rim nations, all suggest that religious views will once more ask for a fair hearing in the public square. Baker is quite persuasive; secularists should no longer pretend that they can act as non-partisan referees. Rather the arguments offered by each group, religious or non-religious, should be heard by all, and evaluated by all.

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