During most of human history, divine creation was the only paradigm for understanding our place in the universe. It was the grand context, the social ocean in which we lived out our lives. Human beings were divinely created in a special way that set us apart from the rest of God's creatures. We were born, we lived and died in God's world. There were no alternative perspectives. Our frame of reference, world view, and the society in which we lived were profoundly influenced by this inescapable constant. There were always questions and great disputes about nature, especially with the rise of science, but nobody seriously doubted our divine creation. Religion, and therefore religious leaders, held sway over every aspect of our social and intellectual development... that is until one reluctant scientist came to see that human beings arrived here by natural evolution and not a single act of divine creation. Charles Darwin glimpsed the profound impact his discovery would have on the world. He knew there would be unintended consequences and a contemporary backlash that would make his life difficult. He waited as long as possible before publishing "On the Origin of Species."
Charles Darwin by Commons - Wikimedia
At that moment a new paradigm for human understanding became inevitable. It spawned a natural view of creation and the universe that would successfully compete with mystical beliefs in a god-centered universe. It eventually opened up a vast new social space that could be occupied by those seeking an alternative to a religious view.
Today we call this vast social space a secular society, but nothing like it ever existed before. It was (and can still be) liberating and wide open with possibilities that were unimaginable under the divine paradigm. It is a space where science and technology thrive. A new sense of objectivity is a direct outcome. Ethics and morality can be studied from perspectives that are independent from religious texts. New philosophies continue to emerge and take root. It has allowed us to create secular institutions of learning, medicine, and other scholarly disciplines. We created secular governments, secular economies, secular business corporations, and all manner of social organizations not immediately related to religion. It has allowed for the creation of truly pluralistic societies and more religious tolerance than the world had ever known. But it also challenges and diminishes the power of religions across the globe.
The secular paradigm that has emerged is not antithetical to God or a rejection of religion or spirituality. It is just a social framework that is religion neutral. People today are free to explore spirituality, question their beliefs, or challenge tenants of their faith traditions without fear of social reprisals. It also allows citizens to accept or reject a creator god. In these ways it undermines priestly traditions and the central authority of many world religions. Religious fundamentalists who tend to view the world as either good or evil are prone to see secularism as evil.
It is almost unimaginable today to conceive of a world without a secular alternative to a totally faith-based society, especially when the fault lines separating the secular and religious worlds are still so active. In my view, the growing religious fundamentalist movements around the globe are just the most recent reactions to the declining power of organized religions to effect social change. Darwin's theory of evolution still remains at the epicenter of these competing paradigms, especially with respect to the belief systems to which children are exposed. So much of the polarity and disconnect found in our current politics derives from underlying tensions between the religious and the secular. In fact, many of the global conflicts today share these same roots. The denial of climate change and the mistrust of science by conservative or fundamentalist constituents are a further manifestation of this divide.
The 19th Century saw the rise of civil secularism and the 20th Century was its flowering period. In fact, secular societies today refer to themselves as the "modern world." They are associated with the rise of free markets, powerful business corporations, and the technological revolution that has transformed every aspect of modern life. The global rise of religious fundamentalism is a rejection of modernity and secularism. It is easy to see this play out in the Middle East, where some Muslim fundamentalists have resorted to violence in efforts to regain control over their people and establish Shari law. Radical Islamist groups openly reject modernity and refer to the United States, that great exporter of secular culture, as "the Great Satan."
Here at home these same underlying tensions are hidden in plain view because our fundamentalists happen to share America's dominant religion. The rise of politically active religious conservatism could also be seen here as a rejection of modernity and secularism. In some evangelical Christian communities there is strong peer pressure to conform to social norms that most resemble 18th-Century America. There is also a strong distrust of secular media, secular science, and especially secular government. Christian fundamentalists sometimes view the government as corrupt because it is non-theistic. They seek to undo our secular institutions and re-establish the centrality of God in government and all other aspects of American life. A theocracy would suit them just fine. Their rise to power in politics is a threat to our constitutional government as it was originally intended. Yet, the majority of Christians living at ease within the fabric of our secular society continue to tolerate the increasingly intolerant Christian right.
Ironically, most Christian fundamentalists have no problem embracing godless corporations and the free-market economy. Secular society has allowed capitalism to slip the bonds of religious morality. This launched a corporate movement that is currently challenging and overpowering civil control of government. Part of the reason for its success is this alliance with the Christian right. The dynamics between secular society, fundamentalist religious society, and the corporate, free-market elite account for most of the forces driving today's social changes.
This conceptual outline of underlying social forces has helped me make sense of current events and today's social movements. I find myself returning to these themes whenever I need to place new developments into context. I hope that other readers might find this framework as useful.