Two Kinds of Secularism, and Social Peace

April 2016 Feature Article

Christians are severely persecuted in many places, including the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia.  Meanwhile, in the West, Christians are also subjected to increasing slander, vilification, and legal assault in all areas of life, both public and private.  Growing legal persecution and hostility to Christianity in the US is amply documented.[1]  Many of the cases represent tactical assaults in the larger cultural revolution in support of same-sex “marriage,” in which Christian individuals, businesses, schools, or ministries that refused to publicly affirm this position were targeted, even before the 2015 US Supreme Court decision that made it the law of the land.

It seems counterintuitive that such a thing could occur in a secular country like the US, because secularism is supposed to result in religious tolerance and harmony.  But sometimes it does not.  Arguably, this is because there are two kinds of secularism, and each tends to produce very different social dynamics in the public square.

Recognizing this distinction is very pertinent for Singaporean Christians as well as adherents of other worldviews who also regard religious questions to be meaningful, and who care about social harmony.

One kind of secularism advocates a non-sectarian state that neither promotes nor penalizes religious adherence, and governs a society in which individuals and religious communities are free to practice and propagate their religion within the bounds of public order and respect for others to do the same.  One’s choice of religion results in no governmentally-conferred advantage or disadvantage. Public servants employed by the state have no less religious freedom than others, but are not be free to abuse their office by propagating their faith on the public’s time or the public’s dime.  The religious identity and place of each individual and community in the public square is regarded as legitimate, yet without that conferring any kind of public advantage over another.  This is the kind of secularism that many in the modern world find it desirable to live under, regardless of their particular worldview or faith.

However, there is another brand of secularism that insists on what Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square,” in which religious identity, practice, and speech is purged from the public square.  Religion is thoroughly privatized and tolerated only as a private hobby.  It is rooted in an epistemological belief about what counts as knowledge that is variously known as scientism or empiricism: the empirical sciences are either (a) the only, or (b), the best source we have of the knowledge of reality. Questions that cannot be addressed in this way are therefore of minimal epistemic status at best, or at worst, are not questions of truth and fact at all, but of mere personal belief and opinion.  The inconvenient fact that scientism itself cannot be established scientifically may be why it is most persuasive when it is not examined closely but remains a hidden assumption.

The corrupt root of this form of secularism leads to rotten fruit in the public square.  For if life’s most important questions (e.g., “Is there a God?  If so, what is he, she, they, or it like?  How ought we to live?”) cannot be addressed rationally as matters of truth, then they will be settled by means of power by the group that is able to most effectively marginalize and silence competitors.  As Saul Alinsky said, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”  This is usually accomplished through a campaign of caricature, slander, and delegitimization that progresses to the point that an entire community is systematically blocked from full participation in society.  This process is currently underway in the US, where Christian persons and institutions who refuse to accommodate same-sex marriage are being subjected to punitive legal harassment and the effective nullification of their first amendment rights. The secularist promise of tolerance for Christianity as long as it is practiced in private and not “imposed” on others is not kept, for the zealous activists demand to know one’s views and wage a campaign of destruction against them if they fail to affirm pro-gay position.  Therefore, Jewish social critic Dennis Prager has frequently observed that under this regime, religion is treated like pornography, and pornography like religion.  There is no possibility of social peace under this form of secularism, unless everyone else surrenders the public square to an essentially atheistic worldview.

One hopes that Singaporeans of all beliefs would prefer the first kind of secularism over the second.  Unfortunately, a survey of some of the more vocal secularist Singaporean websites suggests the same Alinskyite tendencies toward slander, caricature, and delegitimization practiced by their Western counterparts.  Who needs a thoughtful analysis of a rival worldview when ridicule is so easy and persuasive to the already-convinced?  As Christian, I confess that I do not recognize anything resembling my faith in the cartoonish distortions presented there.  It seems as if the contributors lack sufficient imagination to conceive how anyone could possibly have a rational reason for believing differently, or to imagine what it is like to do so.  As such, it is hard to imagine them having any kind of meaningful discussion with an intelligent, well-informed proponent of another religion.  Perhaps they should stick with the caricatures and straw men by which they are so comfortably entertained.

Singapore has often fared well as a pragmatic city-state that crafts effective policies.  In this case, Singapore has the benefit of observing the outcome of cultural conflict and disharmony in other nations that has been wrought by ideological secularism and the culture war it has helped to stimulate.  I am thankful that the secularism of Singaporean society in general more closely resembles the first type, and pray that it endures.


Dr. Brian Thomas- SBC photo, cropped

Dr. Brian H. Thomas is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Singapore Bible College (School of Theology English). He received a DTh in New Testament Theology from Trinity Theological College (Singapore), a MA in Christian Apologetics and a MA in New Testament from Biola University (USA), and a BA in History from Christopher Newport University (USA). He has lived in Singapore since 2005 with his wife, teaching and ministering with various Christian ministries and seminaries here and in the surrounding region. They have one son.


[1]Kelly Shackelford, et al., Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America, 2014 ed. (Plano, TX: Liberty Institute, 2014); Family Research Council, Hostility to Religion: The Growing Threat to Religious Liberty in the United States, July 30, 2014 ed. (Washington DC: Family Research Council, 2014).