The Bewitching Influence of Secularism

Secularism is a religion. Make no mistake about it. Though many seek to advance it as a neutralizing alternative to a religiously structured society, it is, in its own right, a religion. A secular worldview is not content until it has permeated every fabric of society–civics, ethics, media, and education. Just as the Christian worldview is meant to permeate all human activity, so secularism seeks to stand in the gap and block a truly consistent application of Christianity to every aspect of life. There is a bewitching element of secularism to which many–even many Christians–are blind. 

Prior to considering one important measure to counter the permeating influence of secularism, a brief history of secularism as an ideological movement is in order. In the chapter, “Atheism and Secularism,” in the Ligonier Field Guide on False Teaching, we read, 

“The Enlightenment in France particularly fueled atheism and secularism in the Western world. Baron Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach—an atheist intellectual—taught a form of mechanistic metaphysics that served as a catalyst for the modern atheism movement. D’Holbach devoted two works to the defense and propagation of atheism: Système de la Nature and Le Bon Sens. His contemporary Denis Diderot is believed to have assisted him in the production of the strongly atheistic and materialistic book Système de la Nature. Diderot was the first to give a modern definition of atheism, including it in his Encyclopédie.

With the rise of the scientific revolution, materialistic understandings of the origins of the universe became more widely accepted in the West. Accordingly, the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in 1859 was seized upon by atheists as providing a scientific justification for their view. Darwin’s work fostered secularist agendas in Western countries, primarily through Karl Marx’s application of Darwin’s principles to his economic and political theories. In Das Kapital, Marx appealed to Darwin’s contributions. Although Darwin was not supportive of Marx’s use of his philosophy for the propagation of political and economic socialism, the rise of secularsm can be directly tied to the influence of Darwin on Marx.

After Marx, the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche further advanced anti-theistic philosophy throughout the Western world. On numerous occasions, Nietzsche used the phrase ‘God is dead’ to explain the effects of the Enlightenment in producing an increasing disbelief in God and subsequent secularization in Western society.
In 1927, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell gave a talk at the National Secular Society in London that was later published in 1969 under the title Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. This book had a significant effect on readers in Britain and America, further popularizing atheism and secularism. Russell helped pave the way for the “new atheist” movement—a contemporary form of atheist apologetics popularized by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins’ The God Delusion, released in 2006, was a New York Times best seller and the second-best-selling book on Amazon that year. New atheism distinguishes itself from older forms of atheism in that it does not simply reject belief in God but also is hostile to those who hold religious views.

The term “secularism” was first coined by George Holyoake in the mid-nineteenth century in his work Principles of Secularism. Holyoake defined secularism in this way:

‘Secularism is a series of principles intended for the guidance of those who find theology indefinite, or inadequate, or deem it unreliable. It replaces theology, which mainly regards life as a sinful necessity, as a scene of tribulation through which we pass to a better world.’

While secularism spread through Europe in the eighteenth century, it took longer to take root in the United States, arriving in force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington School District v. Schempp that school-sponsored Bible reading and prayer were unconstitutional. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists and the woman who brought a companion case, Murray v. Curlett, was an infamous leader in the push for the secularization of public schools in America.” 

With this history in mind, we have dire need at present to resist the bewitching influence of secularism in the education of our children. Though God has not mandated a specific form of education (i.e., homeschooling, private schooling, or public school), He does command us to diligently instruct our children with a  consistent and all-permeating Christian theism. This means more than simply taking our children to church and to a youth group. It means training them to think about all subjects in light of the triune God who gives shape and meaning to all that He has established in the world He has made and which He upholds. In 1923, J. Gresham Machen articulated the essence of this principle when he wrote, 

“A Christian boy or girl can learn mathematics, for example, from a teacher who is not a Christian; and truth is truth however learned. But while truth is truth however learned, the bearings of truth, the meaning of truth, the purpose of truth, even in the sphere of mathematics, seem entirely different to the Christian from that which they seem to the non-Christian; and that is why a truly Christian education is possible only when Christian conviction underlies not a part, but all, of the curriculum of the school. True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life.”1

This call for a consideration of the blessing and benefit of Christian schools and distinctively Christian education falls sqaurely within the realm of spiritual warfare. In his essay, “The Christian School Today (Part 2),” Cornelius Van Til explained, 

“The reason why we are willing as Christian believers in general, and as Christian parents in particular, to sacrifice so largely for the sake of having Christian schools is that we want our children with us to see the vision of the all-conquering Christ as he wrests the culture of mankind away from Satan and brings it to its consummation when the new heavens and the new earth on which righteousness shall dwell, at last appears. We would have our young men and women become true soldiers under Christ as with him they go conquering and to conquer every domain of life for Christ. When they thus become good soldiers of Christ, they will be free and be truly themselves. They will share in the trophies which Christ wrests from Satan’s power.”2

Regarding the importance of Christian schooling to help advance a consistent Christian theism, Machen again explained, 

“I believe that the Christian school deserves to have a good report from those who are without; I believe that even those of our fellow citizens who are not Christians may, if they really love human freedom and the noble traditions of our people, be induced to defend the Christian school against the assaults of its adversaries and to cherish it as a true bulwark of the State. But for Christian people its appeal is far deeper. I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism. If, indeed, the Christian school were in any sort of competition with the Christian family, if it were trying to do what the home ought to do, then I could never favor it. But one of its marked characteristics, in sharp distinction from the secular education of today, is that it exalts the family as a blessed divine institution and treats the scholars in its classes as children of the covenant to be brought up above all things in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”3

Minimally, all of this means that Christian parents are responsible to resist the myth of neutrality regarding what our children are taught in secular schools, on television, on the internet, and under the influence of friends. If we decide to send our children to secular institutions, we had better do so with our eyes wide open to the worldview their minds will be filled with on a daily basis. If we send our children to public schools, we must be aware that the bewitching influence of secularism runs swift and strong. Maximally, this is a call for Christians to seriously consider the need for Christian schooling. What a blessing it is for believers to commit together for the Christian education of their children. While I am painfully aware that Christian schools do not, de facto, ensure that our covenant children will have regenerate hearts, and that many have sent their children to Christian schools only to see them abandon the faith, it is my sincere conviction that a consistent Christian theistic education is honoring to God and most formatively beneficial to our children, as we seek to help them escape the bewitching influence of secularism in the realm of education. 

1. An excerpt from Machen’s 1933 lecture, “The Necessity of the Christian School.” 

2. Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), 27.

3. Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School.”

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