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Karl Giberson, Ph.D

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Why Christians Need a Secular World

Posted: 10/28/11 04:05 PM ET

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times titled "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason," my colleague Randall Stephens and I argued that most of the GOP candidates, reflecting widespread evangelical sensibilities, were effectively rejecting secular knowledge. The argument was essentially an abstract of our new book, "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age."

The response from leading evangelicals has been very encouraging. It appears that there is widespread concern about rampant anti-intellectualism and many important leaders added their voices to ours. Evangelicals from the fundamentalist end of the spectrum, however, are upset. After all we did suggest that they embraced "simplistic theology, cultural isolationism, and stubborn anti-intellectualism." Their response has been to accuse us of capitulating to secularism and forfeiting any claim to being genuine Christians. Al Mohler was especially critical in his piece "Total Capitulation: The Evangelical Surrender of Truth." In particular he excoriated me a second time for my earlier claim that "I am happy to concede that science does indeed trump religious truth about the natural world."

The common and perhaps too casual juxtaposition of "evangelicalism" and "secularism" -- or even "science" and "religious truth" -- creates the impression that these two worldviews, for lack of a better term, are at odds with each other. Certainly the subtitle to our book suggests this and many of our critics are framing the discussion in those terms. But subtitles and op-eds are rather tight quarters to maneuver complicated arguments about the nature of knowledge claims.

We should reject the idea that knowledge can be divided into two (or any number) of separate realms. "Religious knowledge" and "secular knowledge" are particularly inadequate and even dangerous categories to start with. Such divisions are practical constructions that help us organize the world, but they don't reflect the way the world actually is. An alien anthropologist might conclude that physics and biology are somehow "different and separate" because of the way they function in our universities and laboratories. But we know that the world is not adorned with little flags labeled "biological phenomena" and "physical phenomena" to help us assign the problems to the right department. The arrangement in our great universities where these disciplines are housed in separate buildings, reflects the practical reality that the problems of those disciplines are sufficiently different that people tend to be drawn to one or the other. But we know that there can be no discrete separation, for those disciplines meet constantly to engage problems of optics, joint mechanics, blood pressure and so on. And we know that it would be meaningless to dispute about whether the study of blood pressure or near-sightedness properly belonged to physics or biology.

In the same way -- but far more importantly -- we cannot divide the world on a large scale into "secular" and "religious." A slightly less flawed, but still too simple, knowledge map would be a continuum stretching from "religious knowledge claims" at one end to "anti-religious knowledge claims" at the other with "secular knowledge claims" somewhere in the middle.

Such a continuum, limited because of its one-dimensionality, would better reflect the messy reality of the world as we actually encounter it, rather than the more tidy way we construct it. Such a continuum would also remind us that there are no natural boundaries to types of knowledge and that we should expect to be puzzled as we try to make sense of the world.
The great achievement of modern science has been to move knowledge about the natural world from the religious end of the spectrum to a middle ground that we call, for lack of a better term, secular. But I don't think we should view this as taking knowledge claims from one "side" and giving it to the "enemy," like the Red Sox did when they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

To be secular is to be "non-religious" not "anti-religious." Science requires the acknowledgment of simple facts without regard for their "value" in supporting any grand system. The separation of fact and value is what has empowered the great engine of knowledge-creation we call science. It is another of the important changes wrought by science as it matured. We must be able to pursue simple facts about the world -- the mass of the proton, the mechanism of cell division, the age of the earth, the origin of life, the relationship between humans and other life -- without an a priori assumption that these facts will necessarily support any particular religious worldview.

I see no reason why a religious believer should regard a simple fact as somehow hostile, just because it is a so-called secular claim. The discussion of the planetary status of Pluto, or the veracity of recent claims that neutrinos are exceeding the speed of light are secular discussions, with no obvious religious significance -- and certainly no anti-religious aspect.

This is what secular should mean to religious believers: finding facts without worrying about how they fit into their value system. Such facts can then be analyzed to see whether or not they support a religious worldview but as simple facts they should not be perceived as threatening.
The division of knowledge claims into religious and secular is a simplification that works well for culture warriors eager to demolish one side or the other. Ken Ham's Museum displays are set up to contrast "God's Word" with "Human Reason." But Ham knows this is too simple. Where in this organizational scheme, for example, would we put the claim that protons are heavier than electrons? It doesn't come from "God's Word" so it must be the product of "Human Reason." Does this mean it is the enemy of God's Word?

Hardly.

 
 
 

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