One of the most influential theological books published in 1965 was Harvey Cox’s “The Secular City.”
Through the years, I have thought much about that immensely popular book, which sold over 1 million copies.
Cox’s first chapter is “Biblical Sources of Secularization.” The first subsection is “Secularization vs. Secularism” – and that distinction is one I have considered highly important from the time I first read it while still in graduate school.
According to Cox, secularization is the historical process by which one dominant religion no longer has control over a particular society or culture. But secularization is much different from secularism.
So, what is secularism? Cox contends that it is “an ideology, a new closed worldview. … It menaces the openness and freedom secularization has produced.”
Among other things, it especially menaces religious faith (and this is my contention, not explicitly expressed by Cox).
Cox wrote in the introduction to the 1983 edition of his book that the “sharp difference” between secularization and secularism was central to the entire argument of his book.
Why should we affirm secularization?
“Secularization,” according to Cox, “represents an authentic consequence of biblical faith.”
Thus, “Rather than oppose it, the task of Christians should be to support and nourish it” (see page 22 of the 2013 edition).
For those of us who place a high priority on religious freedom – and Cox, born in 1929, is an ordained Baptist minister, and true Baptists have always been advocates of religious freedom – secularization is good partly because as Cox says early in the introduction of his book, “Pluralism and tolerance are the children of secularization. They represent a society’s unwillingness to enforce any particular world-view on its citizens.”
Thus, secularization is consistent with the principle of the separation of church and state, which I have often written about (for example, see here).
In his book, “Postcards from Babylon,” Brian Zahnd points out, “In the American experiment, the United States deliberately broke with the Christendom practice of claiming to be a Christian nation with a state church. It was America that pioneered the experiment of secular governance.”
In February 2010, I mentioned Cox in my blog article (see here) about the late Lesslie Newbigin, the outstanding British missionary who spent nearly 40 years in India.
In 1966, Newbigin wrote “Honest Religion for Secular Man” – and that was the most influential book (for me) that I read in 1967, my first full year in Japan.
As I wrote in that blog posting, Newbigin averred that Indian society changed, largely for the better, through the process of secularization.
He gave these examples: “the abolition of untouchability of the dowry system, of temple prostitution, the spread of education and medical service and so on.”
And, like Cox, he contended secularization, which must be clearly distinguished from secularism, has roots in the Judeo-Christian faith.
Why should we oppose secularism?
The distinction between secularization and secularism, such as made by Cox and Newbigin (and me), is not widely recognized now.
“Secularism” is the general term used for both – and Andrew Copson’s informative little book, “Secularism: A Very Short Introduction,” describes secularism in words very similar to how Cox explains secularization.
As an ideology, though, secularism is confined to “temporal” or “this-worldly” things, with emphasis on nature, reason and science. For the most part, there is rejection of transcendence or anything not obviously a part of the visible world.
When secularism is truly an “-ism,” it is a worldview that has no room for God, by whatever name God might be understood – or for the transcendent qualities of truth, beauty and goodness.
While, certainly, I affirm the right of people to be secularists if that is their free choice, still, I firmly, and sadly, believe that true secularists are missing much of great significance.
Recognizing the difference between secularization in the public square and secularism in one’s personal worldview, I staunchly affirm the former and oppose the latter – as I generally oppose all “-isms,” including Christianism.
A missionary to Japan from 1966-2004, he is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.