Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Presuppositions & Patterns of Thought Common to Both Protestantism & Secularism

(A Sociological and Philosophical Analysis of the Success and Popularity of Evangelical Protestantism, by an Anonymous Observer)

I have often asked myself a question: what is it about the Evangelical Protestant churches that makes them so popular with contemporary people, including many Catholics? And why was it that when I first started intellectually exploring my own Catholic faith (having spent my youth unquestioningly accepting the secular world-view around me) that it was the Protestant positions which had immediate appeal and familiarity? Why did Protestant views of the Bible, church, sacraments, authority, etc. elicit spontaneous sympathies (even though I had no interest in becoming Protestant) while Catholic viewpoints seemed more foreign? For the Protestant the answer would be very simple --- because their beliefs are true. I, of course, hold a somewhat different position.

It is my contention that the underlying epistemological presuppositions (i.e. how one habitually evaluates ideas, events and things) inherent in Protestantism have permeated our cultural milieu -- albeit in secularized form. This has happened so profoundly that when one starts exploring Christianity, bringing one's mental faculties to bear on arguments and beliefs, the underlying intellectual premises one is working from are already concordant with Protestantism.

What am I getting at? I am saying that every person intellectually approaches truth claims and ideas with his own habitual presuppositions. These assumptions form a kind of cognitive filter through which claims and ideas must initially pass. They help determine one's understanding and response to them. Many of these intellectual presuppositions come from one's cultural milieu. Constant exposure and habitual use of them makes their influence nearly imperceptible. Yet they have a profound influence on our judgments and understanding.

For example, in our society the idea that all persons are somehow 'equal' is culturally normative. It needs no demonstration, is rarely clarified and never challenged. Its influence can be seen in people's hesitancy to recognize or consider relevant any differences between sexes, religions, ethnic groups, cultures, or persons. When new ideas or issues come to the fore that are perceived as having a bearing on equality, only those views intuited as favourable to it are evaluated positively. All others are either spontaneously dismissed or held in doubt, suspicion or disbelief. The presupposition about equality is not questioned; what is questioned is anything that is perceived to challenge or contravene it. In a sense these assumptions are as much individual and cultural moods as philosophical postulates.

Many of our secular culture's intellectual presuppositions have affinities with Protestant thought. How this historically came about is not of interest here. One must first see it as true before one wonders why it is true. I will try to demonstrate that it is so by articulating in propositional form common Protestant presuppositions and then correlate them with the equivalent secular ones. Where possible I will also try to name the type of philosophical view inherent in such a proposition. This is no mean task since most of these assumptions are used in almost an unconscious manner.

Also, Protestantism comes in various forms. Attempts to call any viewpoint 'Protestant' per se will therefore provoke accusations of being 'simplistic' or a 'caricature'. Notwithstanding this it must be recognized that while there is variation of belief and expression in Protestantism it is still an identifiable movement. It has fundamental differences that distinguish it from Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Otherwise the designation 'Protestant' would have no meaning because it would have no reference.

Before I correlate some intellectual assumptions common to both Protestant and secular thought I will first explore some sociological reasons for the appeal of Evangelical Protestantism. While underlying intellectual presuppositions might help explain the general appeal of Protestantism, the phenomenal growth today is in its Evangelical/Pentecostal form. In fact mainline Protestant denominations in the West are stagnating or in decline. While intellectual affinities may tend to lead one towards Protestantism, it is psychological and sociological factors that will tend to lead seekers towards its evangelical expression. Therefore, I shall first give psychological and sociological reasons for why Evangelicalism is so popular, before I give philosophical reasons for why Protestantism is popular, over against Catholicism.

In evaluating the success of evangelical churches (and by implication related movements) I will make no reference to actions of the Holy Spirit since such claims are beyond the nature of this essay and of dubious value. From a sociological and psychological perspective the attractiveness of Evangelical/Pentecostal Protestant churches today can be attributable to a number of factors. They include (in no particular order) the following:

1. Their corporate emphasis on fellowship that gives to members and prospective members Christian support, encouragement, and friendship. This is very appealing in our often impersonal and fragmented society. The congregations impress one as warm, inviting and sincerely interested in you. Congregations not accustomed to offering such fellowship (i.e. older mainline churches) appear cold or indifferent to newcomers and even long-time members. Pope John XXIII once said that there are seven sacraments in the Church that can only be given to Christians but that there is an eighth sacrament that can and should be given to everyone: The Christian himself. Evangelical churches have developed an attitude and method that attempts to do just that.

2. Their zeal and apparent unity, which give positive motivation and a sense of common purpose. Division and dissent in the Catholic Church enervates and demoralizes more than it enthuses.

3. Their emphasis on individual conversions and personal witness. Older churches have developed a missiology that is often too daunting and abstract (e.g., "working for more just and equitable social structures") or associated with a special vocation. Evangelical churches have an approach that is more popular, personal and practical (i.e. "converting people to Christ"). This
appeals by giving every individual a sense of being able to do God's work and without having to change vocations. One's present circumstances and surroundings can become a mission field. Whether you are a student, small businessman, or biker you can concretely evangelize through what you already enjoy doing or are familiar with. This can harness creativity and disperse energy.

4. Their nature as largely lay-run movements. This appeals to egalitarian sentiments and personal ambitions. It removes subtle barriers that often inhibit lay people from taking initiatives in churches with hierarchical or rigidly established structures of approbation. Catholic laity are often
passive, confused or frustrated as to their role and purpose in the church.

5. They have a simple, direct message which is easily understood and can be quite compelling. Its simplicity makes it readily translated into catchy slogans and shibboleths ("Bible-believing," "saving-faith" "born-again," etc.). Its simplicity also makes measuring one's success at "spreading the Gospel" more tangible and therefore encouraging. "Confess your sinfulness and admit Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Saviour and you're saved!" "Are you saved?" "How many others have you brought to the Lord?"

6. Their straightforward recognition of sin and need for repentance. They do not nuance sin out of existence. This may turn off many but for those who are disappointed or damaged by hedonism or materialism it is often just what they are ready to hear. It challenges them to change what they know needs to change. We have the papacy but often preach pap-acy.

7. Personal testimonials are encouraging, entertaining, and build comeradery. They help others overcome fear of admitting failure and prejudices that Christians think themselves better than other human beings. Stories about people are always popular. People telling their own 'Cross and the
Switchblade' stories can captivate an audience. Such testimonials make God seem more concretely present and active and encourages one to anticipate personal transformation.

8. Promises of assured forgiveness and salvation makes everything seem easier and more certain. Jesus has already done it all for you. No penances, no Purgatories, no need to fret about the Judgment Day.

9. Their emphasis on God's healing and transforming power. Many public 'miracles' and confessions give seeming proof to the reality of God, the validity of belief, the possibility of radical change, and of God's special favour being upon them. Such 'miracles' (some real, some not) help confidence and sustain hope.

10. Their seemingly informal and malleable way of worshiping which can be easily adjusted for the particular audience. Contemporary people associate spontaneity and informality with authenticity and freedom. Set rituals and formality appear artificial, stifling and tediously conventional.

11. The use of contemporary music forms by evangelical Christians for private pleasure and public worship and prayer. Since its inception as a mass industry music has come to play an exaggerated role in people's lives; especially in that of young people. It has become a powerful venue for self and peer identification, mood enhancement, and imaginative escape. As long ago as Plato it was recognized that visceral or sentimental forms of music bypass the intellect and directly appeal to the passions and emotions. The music industry understands this and caters to it.

People who have grown up under its influence have come to expect such a response. If a musical
style does not elicit the expected emotional reaction then people generally perceive it as dull and uninspiring. Classical hymns and traditional sacred music receives this appellation. Christian music that emulates contemporary forms, however, causes the expected emotional response. When used in a worship setting the sentiments evoked are then interpreted spiritually, as when used in
a romantic setting the emotions are interpreted amorously.

In evangelical churches choirs are often replaced by bands. Congregational singing then becomes analogous to a participatory concert. This can attract musically talented youth and their peers, as well as the baby-boomers who grew up with rock 'n roll. It is all very modern and Western but can also have universal appeal insofar as visceral music and 'American pop' have universal appeal. In traditional tribal societies (e.g., African and Native American) and in the lower social stratas of more sophisticated societies music was often more passionate and participatory. In the higher social stratas of sophisticated cultures (eg. Chinese and Indian) music was frequently composed with a more cognitive appeal. Traditional mainline church music also tended to be relatively cognitive and staid. Today popular/contemporary music has become a dominant cultural force. Churches that tend to accommodate themselves and their worship to this reality tend to be the more successful.

12. Their encouragement of strong emotional expressiveness in faith and worship. Human beings are emotional as well as intellectual creatures. In fact, in convincing or attracting people, engaging the emotions is usually more effective than trying to engage the intellect. Advertisers know this well. Evangelical churches intentionally give play to the affective side of man, sometimes even in extravagant forms. Emotional expression is even given divine approbation. This has proven successful around the world.

13. Their newness and youthfulness. As new churches they have short and less significant histories that make them look more ideal and less tainted by the past (e.g., the Inquisition, Crusades, bad popes, Thirty Years War, slavery, etc.). Being also new movements that originated and developed in response to their times, they have a contemporary feel about them that seems more relevant to modern man. And the dynamics of successful religious movements, past and present, is that youth attracts youth, enthusiasm stimulates enthusiasm, and success breeds success.

14. Their implementing of many programs and ministries in their churches. Today people comparison-shop, even for churches, and a one-stop church that addresses a wide range of individual and family needs is consumer friendly. In religion, as in everything else today, marketability depends on discovering what your target audience wants or needs then designing a package that addresses those expectations. When people come to discover the value and need of a Christian moral and spiritual life they also discover just how counterproductive the world is to it. So they turn to the church for guidance and support. This is a large order. Just offering a Sunday worship service doesn't fill the bill. They want a church that meets a wide spectrum of personal and family needs. Evangelical churches do a commendable job at recognizing and trying to address these needs.

15. Often their leadership have qualities or skills that are practical and proven successful (e.g., enthralling preaching style; marketing savvy; youth appeal; organizational skills; dynamic personality; etc.). The number and quality of candidates available makes for greater prospects in selection. So does the freedom available to start one's own church. If one has the requisite qualities or abilities the church might survive and prosper. If not it will fail. The market decides. Catholic leadership (i.e. priesthood) is selected in a more onerous manner. Also, the priesthood presently has little appeal. This means less candidates to select from and less prospects of acquiring those with the most advantageous qualities or skills. This is not said out of cruelty or cynical disregard of divine calling. It is simply stated as a sociological observation.

16. Their appeal to the Bible. This is not uniquely Evangelical. All Protestant churches appeal to the Bible and many expect one to bring a copy to church on Sunday to look up references during sermons. But once one is introduced to other attractive aspects of Evangelicalism this gives it a further feel of validity. One's beliefs are being presented as evident in Scripture.

17. Their strategic moral flexibility. This seems a rather unusual observation since Evangelical Protestant churches usually teach a high moral standard. However, there are three key issues in our society where even Evangelical churches fear to tread: They are the indissolubility of marriage and divorce; conjugal love and contraception; the call to Gospel poverty and admonitions about seeking after material prosperity. In the first two areas Protestant churches have formally compromised or capitulated to their host culture. In the area of material wealth many even claim material prosperity can be a sign of God's favour. The Catholic Church commends one's free choice of material poverty for the sake of the Gospel. It is considered an evangelical perfection. Likewise it warns of the inherent risks in pursuing wealth. Of course, as in the other two areas, many priests and prelates are timid about preaching an unpopular message.

While compromise may be bad for the full Gospel message and ultimately for the health of the soul and society, it does make a church more appealing to the general population. Catholic Church teaching in these areas (especially the first two, which are better known) causes a great deal of
resentment, hostility, and dissent even among Catholics. A lot of Catholics may even be expressing passive-aggressive behaviour (inert parish involvement, tepid practice, lack of financial support, etc.) partially as a response to these teachings. I suspect the attempt of many Catholic hierarchies and their administrations to soften the teachings with ready annulments or silence on contraception only aggravates the situation. They make it look like even the Church doesn't believe its own teachings.

Suspicions may arise that the clergy use these teachings to try to control people's lives and when that fails engage in a kind of hypocritical casuistry to keep support and the appearances of infallibility. In any case these teachings make it easier for many Catholics or potential converts to feel more comfortable in another church.

18. Evangelical Protestantism seems to offer protection from the present state of confusion in the world. It seems so certain and self-confident. Other Christian churches often do not give that impression. In fact the incessant theological controversy and indecisiveness in mainline denominations, exacerbated as it is by the catechetical ignorance of members, weakens their
credibility. Because Catholics and mainline Protestants often do not know or understand their faith very well it appears irrelevant to their lived experience. This leaves them intellectually unsatisfied and vulnerable. Mormons, Secular Humanists, as well as Evangelical Protestants all seem more clear and certain about what they believe. When someone begins the search for some deeper meaning and purpose to their lives these other belief systems all seem to offer something more substantial, stable and secure than present-day Catholicism.

19. Evangelical churches and their members give mutual support to each other, have a welcoming spirit, and openly and aggressively seek new members. In changing one's lifestyle support and encouragement are needed since it is a difficult adjustment and can often cause family tensions
and loss of friends. New friends are needed who understand, care, and encourage one. Conversion can be a lonely prospect without them. In the Catholic Church it often is. In the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches support and friendship can be found but is not readily offered and generally has to be sought out. In the evangelical churches it is automatically given. This support can even be financial. Such kindness and generosity does not go unnoticed.

In the old mainline churches the environment is not geared toward being a support network. Many older mainline church members grew up in an era when this was not generally perceived as needed. Society at large was regarded as Christian. The family and neighbourhood were relatively strong and took care of their own. Also, evangelization had largely ceased in these churches. Most people were 'born' into a particular church and strongly identified themselves with it (even if they did not practice). Aggressive evangelization was seen as disrespectful and confrontational. History had taught the churches to get along by avoiding such things.

With the post-war prosperity, mobility, and moral revolution the strength and protection of family and neighbourhood waned, leaving individuals in the lurch. Mainstream churches did not develop the necessary support networks. Their members were not prepared or accustomed to such an approach. Neither did they yet perceive the necessity for it. It would take decades before the full implication of what was happening would be realized. It still hasn't been. Likewise, the importance of re-evangelizing was not recognized early enough, nor did members and leadership know how to go about it. Their own churches were also plagued with dissent and confusion caused by the same forces affecting society. It was enough sometimes just to keep their heads above water.

In the Catholic Church a further complication was added in some quarters by the existence of a parochial school system. This gave a false hope that the re-evangelization would somehow be there met. It wasn't and yet the running of the schools absorbed much financial cost and human energy. Also, priests were accustomed more to sacramentalizing than evangelizing and found the shifting expectations both unfamiliar and intimidating. Catholic laypeople tended to look upon evangelization as 'missionary work' belonging to the clergy and religious congregations.

Meanwhile, new churches and religions had been developing on the fringes of society that would now come to the fore. These churches and groups (such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Pentecostals) already had internal support systems. They also possessed a strong evangelizing attitude and had developed techniques for gaining new members. Because of their different beliefs or practices they had been seen by mainstream churches and society as outsiders since their inceptions. Joining them was, to a degree, a stepping out of mainstream society. Membership growth was largely by conversion.

As a convert to a new and outside group one had to seek support and friendship within its fold. This was known, understood and offered. Established members were expected to be open, friendly, and supportive. Thus when the social revolution hit in the 1960s, with the loneliness, pain and confusion that followed in its wake, these churches and groups were ready with support structures and outreach techniques. For them, the revolution became a source of unprecedented growth while for the mainline churches a cause of radical decline.

Even today, within the older mainline churches, the only substantial growth appears to be among those groups (i.e. the charismatics) who have imitated the fellowship approach, the evangelizing attitudes and techniques --- as well as the other sociological factors mentioned above --- of the most successful of the Christian fringe groups: the Pentecostal churches.


While Evangelical Christianity's current ascendancy may be understood in psychological and sociological terms, we must still address the intellectual attraction of Protestantism. And I believe much of the intellectual appeal of Protestantism is rooted in a philosophical shift in Western civilization that began before the Reformation, but gained a firm hold through it. I contend that this shift has become so pervasive and profound that the culture at large, even in its secular form, works with many of the same philosophical presuppositions as Protestantism, minus any reference to God, the Bible, or the supernatural. In their stead is usually put the self or another human authority (science, culture, etc).

I will try to illustrate this observation. If I am correct it also helps explain what makes Protestantism intellectually more familiar and appealing than Catholicism. At the cognitive level to become Protestant is simply to factor God back into the underlying epistemological assumptions one already holds. Since our culture operates largely on the same philosophical premises as Protestantism, but in their secular form, these assumptions have more or less influenced everyone in our society. Even nominal or practicing Catholics can have a sense an intellectual affinity with Protestantism.

What I will present in propositional form are at times actual Protestant doctrines. What I am trying to get at, however, are the philosophical underpinnings that influence them and their secular equivalents as well. While certain Protestant beliefs or practices may officially contradict some of these assumptions, I would (brashly) contend that such positions are maintained more out of formal obedience or unavoidable necessity than any intrinsic congruence with Protestant thought. This is not a gratuitous contention. The vague and malleable way these doctrines are defined makes the teaching difficult for a Catholic apologist to pin down and refute them.

A good example of this problem is Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Biblically they are unavoidable practices. That is why virtually all Protestant denominations maintain them as they have not maintained the other sacraments. But they are defined and practiced in widely variant ways. This illustrates the immiscibility of the sacramental nature of Baptism and Eucharist with a purely Protestant theology. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are kept only because they are in the Bible. But one gets the impression that, on the whole, Protestantism would suffer no identity crisis without them. Could Catholicism or Orthodoxy say the same?

When contradiction or tension exists between an explicit belief or practice and an implicit philosophical leaning eventually what is implicit will triumph over what is explicit. In regards to the sacraments, for example, the Anglican and Lutheran churches have tended to maintain a relatively 'high' sacramental theology. Both claim something changes in the bread and wine during the eucharistic service, and something changes in the believer at baptism. Methodist and Baptist churches do not teach this. The Lord's Supper and baptism are strictly symbolic. Nothing changes. The believer's faith and the community's obedience are only publicly manifested.

Protestantism's implicit anti-physicalist spirituality favours the Baptist and Methodist approach. Thus the older churches may hang onto a sacramental theology but their membership will increasingly interpret them in purely symbolic ways. More recent Protestant denominations will tend to be overtly non-sacramental. Anglican and Lutheran sacramentalism is more rooted in their historical proximity to Catholicism than in strictly Protestant theology.

To reiterate and clarify a point: I am not saying all the assumptions listed below have their origins uniquely in Protestantism. Many were floating around Europe long before the Reformation. Some of these presuppositions may even be latent within the human psyche, surfacing around the world and throughout history in various religious and philosophical movements. Catholicism has struggled with them before under other guises. What Protestantism did was give them lasting voice, validity, and venue. And secularism simply adopted them. I think it will be readily seen how each paired premise listed contains an analogous presupposition. The difference between them is that the one formulates the presupposition within a supernatural referent while the other does not.

The following premises suggest presuppositional sympathies which exist between Protestant and Secular thought:

1. Authority

Protestantism: 'Human authorities' (i.e. Church hierarchy and Tradition) denied in favour of the Divine Authority of the Bible. [Human Skepticism]

Secularism: Divine or religious authority denied in favour of the human authority of science, reason, or one's own opinion. [Religious Skepticism]

2. Subjectivism

Protestantism: God is found in the Bible. By reading it He will reveal Himself to you. [Unmediated/Direct, Simplified, and semi-Subjective revelation]

Secularism: Higher consciousness/God is found in oneself. By 'looking' inside you will find God. [Unmediated/Direct, Simplified, and completely Subjective revelation]

3. Radical Individualism

Protestantism: Each individual is guided by the Holy Spirit in interpreting the (literal) meaning of the Bible. [semi-Subjectivism]

Secularism: Each individual is guided by his own values in interpreting what things --- like family, sex, religion, career --- (presently) mean to him. [Subjectivism]

4. Psychological Assurance

Protestantism: The atoning worth of Christ's death and resurrection gives assurance of one's salvation. Past, present or future personal sins cannot eliminate what Jesus has done for me. I am still saved so long as I keep faith in Him. [Subjective Soteriological Assurance; Gnosticism]

Secularism: One's personal motives in acting determine whether one is basically a good person or not. Past, present or future mistakes cannot eliminate one's personal integrity so long as you acted with good intentions. [Subjective Psychological Assurance; Gnosticism]

5. Aversion to Community and Ritual in Worship and Religion

Protestantism: Worship that is pleasing to God is not found in some formal, repetitious human ritual but "in spirit and in truth." Honest and true prayer is from the heart (i.e. subjective) and biblically based (i.e. anti-ritualistic). [Subjectivism, Gnosticism]

Secularism: Each person who prays to "God" does so in his own way. Honest and true prayer expresses one's own experience and understanding of God. Church rituals are seen as unnecessary, cramped and artificial. [Subjectivism, Gnosticism]

6. Emotionalism

Protestantism: Import is given to a positive emotional response in substantiating one's decisions in faith. [Emotivism]

Secularism: Import is given to a positive emotional response in substantiating one's personal decisions. [Emotivism]

7. Personal Relationships

Protestantism: The primacy of one's personal relationship with Jesus. [Individualism]

Secularism: The primacy of one's own needs (i.e. oneself) in all personal relationships. [Individualism]

8. Moral and Psychological Determinism

Protestantism: Man is totally depraved and so everything he does is tainted by sin. The important thing is repenting and accepting what Jesus has done for you. Christ then covers your sins with His atoning sacrifice. Your sins are then forgiven and all penalty due to them is removed. Temporal penance is seen as an inappropriate response. Man cannot rectify his depravity but can respond to it with faith in Christ. [Moral Determinism]

Secularism: Man is impelled by sexual drives and egoistic impulses. The important thing is to recognize and accept them as a natural. One then needs to find healthy ways of expressing them. Feelings of guilt are an inappropriate moralistic response. Man cannot rectify his unconscious, instinctual drives only learn to express/externalize them in appropriate ways. [Psychological Determinism]

9. Radical Autonomy and Anti-Institutionalism

Protestantism: Denial of any divinely established ecclesiastical structure with like authority. Denial of any sacramental mediation of one's relationship with God. Christ's Church is not a visible structure. It is in the heart of all true believers who then gather together to manifest its presence and give mutual support. Grace is not dependent on any sacrament. Such belief puts human works before grace and makes God dependent on them. God gives His grace directly to the believer. 'Sacraments' are merely visible, public symbols performed in obedience to Christ that make visible what He has already invisibly done in the person's own heart. They are not a means of grace but only represent its presence. To think otherwise would be to make grace dependent on human actions. [Angelism: An overly spiritualized understanding of human nature and divine mediation]

Secularism: Denial of any social structures having natural rights over the individual. Denial of any social institutions as necessary to mediate relationships. The individual is an autonomous agent. Social structures exist as human constructs to manifest social bonds and promote the common good. They are a means of providing mutual support to individuals. The exercise of one's freedom is not dependent on state approval. Such a belief puts laws before freedom and makes freedom dependent on the law. Marriage is a publicly and legally recognized social institution. It is established by cultural convention and is performed in obedience to those conventions. As such it symbolizes bonds of love but is not a means to them. To think otherwise would be to make sexual love dependent on social conventions. [Angelism: An overly idealized understanding of human nature and society]

10. The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions

Protestantism: I am saved by faith not works. In fact my salvation is determined by God's predestining me -- not by anything I might do myself. [Religious dichotomy]

Secularism: The true person is known by their intentions more than his actions. In fact the moral nature of an action is determined more by the actor's intention than by what is done (eg. in abortion, euthanasia, pre-marital sex, lying). [Anthropological Dichotomy]
Similar to an earlier premise but highlighting a different philosophical presupposition.

11. Historical Revisionism and Subjectivism

Protestantism: One's Christian life is definitively guided by the Bible, the true meaning of which was rediscovered during the Reformation. Attitudes toward Christian beliefs between New Testament times and the Reformation range from diffident, to indifferent, to suspicious, to contemptuous. Allegiance to much of what was believed in this earlier period is not necessary. Biblical truths may be found then but were progressively corrupted by Romanized interpretations. With the advent of the Reformation the true nature of biblical Christianity was rediscovered. Reformed theology helps guide the individual in understanding what the Holy Spirit is teaching him through the Bible. [Historical Subjectivism; Historico-religious Fiction; Anti-progressivism]

Secularism: A person's life is definitively guided by his own values, within the context of one's culture. Attitudes to the West's moral heritage range from diffident, to indifferent, to suspicious, to contemptuous. Allegiance to the values of the past is not necessary. Many of one's beliefs or values may be found then but often in archaic form or biased by a religious interpretation. With the advent of a more global perspective values have been shown to be culturally relative. Contemporary cultural norms help guide the individual in choosing amongst competing values what ones are true to himself. [Historical Subjectivism; Historico-cultural Fiction; Progressivism]

12. Aversion to History, Heritage, and Tradition

Protestantism: For all practical purposes the above point can also be commonly reduced to this: The believer is guided by the Bible applied to today. The origin of his particular denomination or church and the historical and theological background of their interpretation is of little interest. It just 'came from the Bible.' The historical or cultural context of scriptural passages is of only peripheral importance (it is usually only a concern when a passage is difficult to reconcile with one's own 'biblical' views). That one has reworked or developed an idea or moral view from the Bible goes largely unacknowledged. It is as if God were speaking directly to me and my times. [A-historicism]

Secularism: For all practical purposes (and more so than in Protestantism) the present generation guides itself as if the world began with them. The historical and philosophical background of their culture or views is of little interest. It is just 'the way things are,' or 'what I believe.' It is as if the past has no bearing on the present or anything necessarily of value to teach (it is all 'Dark Ages' or 'ancient history'). It is simply myself and my life and times. [A-historicism]

13. Irrationalism and Anti-Intellectualism

Protestantism: Too much of Catholic theology is empty and vain human philosophy. God revealed Himself for salvation, not speculation. God is beyond human reason. He is known by faith not by syllogism. [anti-intellectualism]

Secularism: Too much of Christian belief is focused on narrow doctrines and right belief. Higher consciousness/God is meant to free our spirits not imprison them in dogmas. Spirituality is beyond human reason. It is grasped more by the heart than by the head. [anti-intellectualism]

14. Pragmatism

Protestantism: Living in God's righteousness can bring immediate blessings as a sign of His favour. These can include spiritual fulfillment, physical health, emotional happiness or financial success. The same is true of church growth: It too can be a sign of God's favour upon true belief. [semi-Pragmatism]

Secularism: Religion is too other-worldly. It has not proven itself beneficial to present human needs. Science and technology have proven practically beneficial. The world has grown healthier and more prosperous because of them. Science has proven itself true while religion only claims to be. [Pragmatism]

15. Legal Positivism

Protestantism: What is morally right and wrong is based on God's decrees and so is absolute. [Moral legalism]

Secularism: Religion claims there are moral absolutes. Actually, what people consider morally right or wrong is based on cultural/religious norms and so is relative. [Moral legalism]

16. Anthropological Pessimism

Protestantism: Sin has left man totally depraved. Therefore, even the good we do is tainted by it. [Anthropological Pessimism]

Secularism: Our psychological history (heredity & environment) effects our thoughts and actions. What we perceive as good to do is influenced by it. [Anthropological Pessimism]

17. Mistrust and Suspicion of Other Belief-Systems

Protestantism: Other religions are false and often under diabolical influence. They are at best human works giving a false sense of freedom from sin or security from damnation. The Bible alone gives us true belief. The battle is between false religion and true belief. Until all are brought to faith in Jesus Christ the world will remain blind and enslaved to sin. The consequence will be damnation for the unregenerated. With belief in Christ comes freedom from sin through Christ's redemptive work and the eternal security it gives us. [Mistrust of other religions and negative assessment of their value]

Note: Historically Catholics have often embraced a similar attitude. As with most of the premises presented this is not completely erroneous. It is simply too one-sided, negative and legalistic an assessment.

Secularism: Religions (and Christianity in particular) are false and often used by the religious elite to control their members. They are at best human myths and superstitious rituals that seek to explain the natural universe and give one a sense of security from harsh natural forces and the reality of death. More often they are a cause of intolerance and war. Science gives us true knowledge of the natural world and universe. Until our secular, pluralistic society came about the West was enslaved to organized religion and its incessant religious wars. Secular pluralism gives us freedom from religious control and intolerance. [Mistrust of religion/Christianity and negative assessment of its value]

18. Radical Egalitarianism

Protestantism: All are equally sinners before God. To think otherwise is Pharisaic hypocrisy. This being so, no human being can claim special status before God. Christ alone is our Mediator. Grace comes to us directly through Him. Thus, Mary and the saints have no personal merits or special intercessory power. Claims of a sacramental priesthood with mediating powers or privilege is clerical arrogance and elitism. [Egalitarianism]

Secularism: All persons, beliefs and values are equal. No religion has a corner on the truth. To claim yourself in a privileged position before God because of your beliefs is arrogant and elitist. [Egalitarianism]

19. Determinism and Fatalism

Protestantism: Our human nature is corrupt and of itself doomed to eternal Hell. We are saved only by faith. Until we recognize this we tend not to realize our predicament nor address it properly. We either don't see ourselves as sinners or, if we do, think we can save ourselves by our actions. Faith alone saves. Faith is given by means of God's grace. No one can earn it. God has to choose to give it. Divine predestination determines your eternal future. [Emphasis on humanity's enslavement to sin resulting in a tacit Denial of Free Will; Double Predestination]

Secularism: Our human nature is controlled by unconscious biological and psychological drives. Many of these drives are affected by heredity or by our upbringing and environment. We cannot control them only respond to them in appropriate ways. But because we are not always aware of this we frequently misunderstand them and respond in inappropriate ways. When we do recognize there is a problem we either deny the cause or think we can repress it. But we can only overcome the negative effects with professional help. We cannot diagnose and treat ourselves. Without it these drives will control one's future direction.

[Exaggerated emphasis on humanity's enslavement to unconscious drives resulting in a tacit denial of Free Will and a type of Double Predestination]

Note: I am using here the psychological model (ala Freud & Skinner). I could just as easily have used the economic model of Marx; the biological-evolutionist model; or the cultural anthropologist model. Each supposes an unavoidable force we are not quite aware of that is controlling much of our attitude, actions and destiny. Usually a degree of liberation is offered either through the acceptance and application of the particular ideology's prescriptive claims, or by the enlightenment it offers.

20. Religious Relativism

Protestantism: Denominations are merely different ways Christians corporately express their [Protestant] faith. No one can claim with certitude his particular denomination is the only true one, only that it is truest for him. [Egalitarianism/Nominalism]

Secularism: Religions are merely different ways humans corporately express their spiritual beliefs. No one can claim his particular religion is the only true one, only that it is true for him. [Egalitarianism/Nominalism]

21. Simplistic Epistemology

Protestantism: God's revelation is found in Scripture alone. Scriptural truths are given with clarity and certitude. The standard for interpreting Scripture rightly is Scripture itself. [Epistemological Simplicity/Certitude; semi-Subjectism]

Secularism: What is true for my life can be discerned by me alone. My heart's promptings and my personal convictions are a sure guide. Each person must judge his life by his own standard. I must be true to my own self. [Epistemological Simplicity/ Certitude; Subjectivism]

If I am correct about this premise then notice how it conflicts with earlier deterministic & pessimistic ones. Protestantism (and secularistic views) have unresolvable internal contradictions. For example claiming human reason corrupted by sin and yet using reason to understand and defend revelation; claiming faith is totally gratuitous and without human contribution yet challenging people to make a commitment in faith; saying all that we need to guide our lives by is in the Bible yet unable to verify this in the Bible; claiming we can be certain of our salvation yet doubting that those who renounce their faith or behave in a way markedly contrary to it were ever really saved; claiming to be a return to the beliefs of early Christianity yet dismissing Catholic elements in early Christian writings; escaping lack of historical evidence for Protestant beliefs in the early church by claiming the true church was always invisible (and evidently inaudible), yet having no problem tracing its historical development since the Reformation.

22. Privatization and Marginalization of Religion

Protestantism: The Church's primary concern is the spiritual and moral life of her members while the state is properly concerned with the civic life of the community. However the state, under God, should respect and reflect Christian beliefs and morals. [Compartmentalization: Between the private and civic spheres]

Secularism: One's values and religious beliefs are strictly one's private concern. Personal values and religious beliefs should not be imposed on the civic life of the whole community. However the state should respect the different values and beliefs of its diverse members. It does this by adopting an religiously neutral or secular position. [Compartmentalization: Between the private and public spheres]

23. "Either/Or" / Dichotomous Thinking

Protestantism: A tendency to radically oppose doctrines in either/or categories. Either one is saved by faith or works; either Scriptures is authoritative or the Church; either righteousness is imputed by Christ or from oneself; either Jesus is our one Mediator or He is not (if you believe in the intercession of saints then He is not); either grace is from Christ or from the sacraments. [Antithetical Approach/Oppositionalism]

Note: The Catholic tendency is often to take a both/and approach.

Secularism: A tendency to radically oppose ideas in either/or categories: Either we have freedom or censorship; either you believe in tolerance or absolutes; either you favour individual rights or state/institutional control; either you believe in science or religion; either you believe in the separation of church and state or you believe in a theocracy. [Antithetical Approach/Oppositionalism]

24. Unnatural Sexuality / Contraceptive Mentality / Hedonism

Protestantism: Christian understanding of human sexuality is dichotomized. Marital love is emphasized as the Christian ideal to the detriment of celibate love. Vows of celibacy are seen as too restrictive and inhuman. When externally imposed by the Church they lead to all kinds of hypocrisy and abuse. Celibacy is left optional and always revocable. The conjugal act is also dichotomized. Morally it can be love-giving and pleasure-seeking without necessarily being open to procreation. God's lordship here becomes a legal formality of restricting sex to within marriage, not over the integrity of the act itself. Contraception is permissible. The morality of variant sexual acts within marriage is not discussed. The moral criteria for choosing to have children or not, and how many is largely undiscussed. [Subjectivism/Gnosticism/Legalism]

Secularism: Understanding of human sexuality is dichotomized. Mutual affection and sexual pleasure are emphasized as the ideal to the detriment of marriage and chastity. Marital vows are seen as too restrictive on sexual expression. When externally imposed by social conventions they lead to all kinds of hypocrisy and abuse. Marriage is left optional and always dissoluble. The sexual act is also dichotomized. Pleasure can be separated from love and either from procreation. Each can be a separate end in itself. Marriage becomes a legal formality without any intrinsic moral relation to sexual activity. Contraception is not only permissible but often proper. Variant sexual acts are accepted and encouraged. Children are an option. [Subjectivism/Gnosticism/Hedonism]

Note: The Protestant view outlined in the last premise is largely modern but is a logical outcome of certain aspects of mainstream Protestantism's approach to marriage and sexuality which was inherently ambivalent, legalistic, and conventional.


If what I am struggling to present is true --- if Protestant philosophical presuppositions have permeated our society in their secular form --- then beyond the challenge of Protestantism's familiarity and attractiveness is possibly a greater issue. The issue is whether Protestantism can supply the needed corrective to many of the contemporary social problems it decries (individualism, subjectivism, egalitarianism, etc.). For it is a carrier of the same disease. In the end, while many Evangelicals have made heroic and admirable attempts at turning the tide of secularization, Protestantism itself is simply not radical enough to effect the needed change. In fact, it is the precursor of the present situation.

I have tried to avoid any misrepresentation. Some points probably stretch the parallels too far. My purpose is not to score points or posture superior, but rather, to discover and reflect on the nature and meaning of things, including current trends in Christianity and our secular society.

Uploaded, and very slightly edited (mostly the bolding and subject categories) by Dave Armstrong on 6 February 2002.

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