Book Review: The End of Secularism

The End of Secularism, Hunter Baker, Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.  Soft cover, 224 pages, $21.99.

Secularism has been a Christian boogeyman for many years.  Reformed Christians in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century were already concerned about it.  In the 1960s and 1970s, worries about secularism provided part of the rationale behind the drive towards a new confession in the Christian Reformed Church.  This would result in “The Contemporary Testimony: Our World Belongs to God.”

In this book, Hunter Baker takes on this difficult subject from historical, political and philosophical perspectives.  The subject is difficult partly because of the way that it eludes easy definition.  On the one hand, secularization is a sociological theory hypothesizing that, as humanity evolves, it will inevitably become increasingly irreligious.  On the other hand, secularism can also refer to theoretical and practical irreligiosity or to a determined effort to isolate religion from other spheres of human activity, especially from politics.  However one defines it, there is a growing realization that secularism is dead and dying, and probably never was all that vital to begin with.  Human beings are incontrovertibly religious, even if seldom Christian.

The first part of The End of Secularism is historical, outlining the development of the relationship between religion and the state.  In the subsequent chapters, Baker gives special attention to the American context.  Baker then investigates postmodern critiques of secularism and finds something of value in these.  In the concluding chapters, we find a case made for pluralism as a viable alternative to secularism.  According to Baker, pluralism works because it keeps the public square open to all, is more realistic, and has been proven historically to bring religious peace.

Being a Canadian, I find it difficult to evaluate the large swaths of this book that deal with the American situation.  For instance, when Baker deals with the fourteenth amendment, I have no idea what he is talking about.  This book is geared to an American audience.  However, I do think that his critique of secularism and secularization theory may be found helpful by people on both sides of the border.  As far as political theory goes, secularization is obviously defective and pluralism appears to be a better alternative.  However, with regards to what exists in our culture, it would seem better to refer to a world of unbelief and wrong belief than it would be to a secular society – unless by “secular” one means non-Christian.  He portrays the Reformation “as a reaction by some Christians against what they viewed as an unacceptable accommodation of the church to worldliness” and John Calvin and Martin Luther as “protesting against secularization” (104).  This is short-sighted.  The protests of the Reformers were not merely geared towards moral vices (“worldliness”), but towards theology gone adrift from God’s Word.  The Reformation context was not irreligious, but religious in the wrong ways.  Would Baker agree that this is the situation we find ourselves in today too?

The End of Secularism is not written for a popular audience.  I would say that it’s aimed towards those with a college or university education.  It’s pedantic at points and takes some patience to engage.  One final criticism:  in chapter 14, the author rightly discards the warfare model for the relationship between science and religion.  However, he seems to be comfortable with the idea of an earth that is millions of years old (88) and states that Darwin’s evolutionary findings are innocuous when it comes to the foundations of the Christian faith, such as the resurrection (88-89).  This is unpersuasive.  The same hermeneutics which say we should focus on the message of Genesis 1 and 2 have also led scholars to say that one should focus on the message of the resurrection rather than its historicity.  Of course, the Apostle Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15) would have something to say about that.  Historicity still matters.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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