Modern Secularism Makes No Sense Without Christianity

A new book argues that early Protestant thinking helped fuel an anti-supernatural worldview. But that worldview retains more Protestantism than it cares to admit.

Where did our modern secular age come from? What was the source of the Western idea that belief in God is optional or irrelevant?

A decade ago, Notre Dame history professor Brad Gregory argued that it came from the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin certainly didn’t intend this result, as Gregory argued in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, but their rejection of ecclesiastical authority led to an individualism that ultimately undermined the entire Christian project. If people could interpret Scripture on their own, maybe they could rely on their own reason to understand everything. And if that was the case, should it be surprising that many contemporary people would come to disavow any need for God at all?

Peter Harrison’s Some New World: Myths of Supernatural Belief in a Secular Age accepts some of Gregory’s findings but pushes them in a new direction. Yes, he concedes, modern Western secularization was the product of Protestant thinking. But even if Protestantism led people to reject the supernatural, it’s worth asking how much of the Protestant worldview modern secular people have unwittingly retained.

Quite a bit, argues Harrison, an emeritus professor of the history of science at the University of Queensland in Australia. In fact, the modern secular worldview is so strongly dependent on unspoken Christian assumptions that it’s incoherent without them.

Justifying belief

To take one example from the book, scientific methods of investigation depend on assumptions about the regularity and comprehensibility of nature. No one in the ancient pre-Christian pagan world held these beliefs. Christian faith, however, led believers to expect that …

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