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The Secularist’s New Clothes

As a Christian, I am often told that religious points of view are ideological opinions and therefore inappropriate for public policy. In a previous post, I explained that evangelicals have a right and responsibility to be engaged in political dialogue. Now I want to address the claim that secular viewpoints are somehow intellectually superior or more politically valid than religious ones. Moreover, I want to show that secularism is itself an ideology that is fighting for public policy favors. We are taught as children to separate facts from opinions. A fact is something that is true, while an opinion is something that a person simply believes. Then we are taught about science. Science is based on facts, so science is true because it is not based on opinions and beliefs. Hence, belief in God is frequently lumped in with belief in Santa Claus or unicorns—into the realm of superstition and folklore. Even many Christians stumble into this fallacy, undermining their confidence. However, this conclusion unfairly assumes that the burden of proof should be on the believer rather than the unbeliever, even though irrefutable proof is not actually possible. In effect, Christians are asked to demonstrate the existence of God using the empirical rules of natural science, but atheists are not expected to disprove God’s existence on the same grounds. The secularist draws a box and demands that Christianity color within the lines. The tools available to scientists in the determination of knowledge cannot provide an answer about the nature or existence of God. But while many theological claims are not falsifiable and therefore unscientific, this does not mean they are untrue. We are left without certainty on either side. This ought not become a barrier to living in peaceful coexistence, however. An increasingly common approach says that people should have an open mind and never judge the opinions of others. “Tolerance” has become the civil religion of modernity, and “equality” is its mantra. This is reflected in America’s obsession with political correctness, often to a disturbing level. The idea of toleration is noble on its face, but problems emerge when society attempts to establish a legal code, as laws are themselves judgments about good and bad. Whose version of “good” and what definition of “bad” are we to use? Should the majority decide? If so, what will protect the minority? In our attempts to avoid oppressive moral judgments we are brought back to the fact/opinion dichotomy I began with. Our post-Enlightenment worldview insists that a just society bases its laws on objective facts rather than subjective opinions. Libertarians like this argument, modern liberals selectively apply it to social issues, and conservatives insist that it is unrealistic to think that any society can survive without essential moral foundations supported by law. Conservatives have a point. To illustrate the problem, consider how each of these statements might be classified as fact or opinion:
The color blue is pretty. Fact or opinion? Chocolate is better than vanilla. Fact or opinion? It is wrong to steal. Fact or opinion?
One of these is not like the others. Most people would agree that stealing is wrong, but is it wrong because we agree, or because it is truly wrong? Or perhaps it is wrong given certain conditions, but not others. Even murder might be justified if taking one life saves a thousand lives. My point is that moral judgments cannot easily be categorized as facts or opinions. In the absence of irrefutable scientific support, moral claims of both a secular or religious nature suddenly look like ideological opinions. But can a legal system function without them? Or, put another way, must political aims be justified by what is proven and practical? The secularist might be surprised to find that such an evidence-based measure of good policy overwhelmingly supports traditional views of social institutions. There are no easy answers here. It is much simpler to speak in the comfortable and quantifiable terms of economics, rather than face challenging moral questions. Yet, as Charles Murray discussed in “Coming Apart,” and as many other studies have confirmed, social norms have serious consequences. As long as interest groups push for social policy, Christians should be equipped for the debate. First, we must recognize that our beliefs and values need not cede intellectual ground to secular beliefs and values. The validity of a policy viewpoint does not depend on its religiosity, but its wisdom. Still, wise policies can be a hard sell. Advocates will be much more effective if they frame their arguments less in theological terms and more in terms amenable to the broad population. This does not mean they should be watered down, but supported by reason and research. This is complicated by a general dearth of research available from Christians at top-tier universities. Fortunately, a black market of sorts has emerged among policy centers and think tanks. In an age when traditional views are so quickly branded as bigotry, defending such views can be frustrating and intimidating. Far too often, we assume the defensive position. It is vital that Christians speak with love and respect, but also with reason and force. Secular claims must be put under the spotlight and their hollow frames revealed. We would all be better served if we could see that ideology and bigotry go both ways.