The End of Secularism | Hunter Baker

The End of Secularism is a logical miscellany of arguments that counter the belief that secularism is the best neutral ground to engage in public debate. Secularism is far from benign: it is an ideology that intentionally contradicts the public exercise of religion.

One of the best aspects of this book was its logic. You never had to guess where the author was going with an argument, or what his next step would be. Indeed, he took two and a half pages in the Introduction to lay out a precis of his case (which is helpful for readers—but especially helpful for reviewers!)

Here’s how the book unfolds:

  1. The first chapters are a history lesson on the interaction of church and state from the time of Jesus until the present. These chapters present an excellent foundation for everything that follows.
  2. As the history approached the present, Baker narrowed his focus on the founding of America. With refreshing honesty, he demonstrated how the two prevailing myths of America’s genesis (either as founded on religious principles or on secular principles) are overblown. Indeed, a fresh examination of the Constitution shows how the founding fathers, instead of enshrining the separation of church and state, used language which deliberately avoided the question.
  3. Once the history lesson was through, Baker moved to a threefold attack on secularism:
    1. Secularism is not a neutral matrix whereby every ideology can dialogue—it carries its own presuppositions. This resonates with me as a pastor. I know that when people say, “my own opinion has nothing to do with it—I’m just reading the bible literally,” they’re simply blind to their own colouring job! Secularism has its presuppositions, but for Baker, the secularists know that they’re colouring.
    2. American secularism is not a natural and inevitable development, but the strategic design of a minority of atheists. This is the weakest chapter in the book. Baker spends the whole chapter supposedly dialoguing with the similar argument of Christian Smith. I found that Baker did little more than rehash and repeat Smith’s conclusions without providing support for them. Here the book began to slide toward conspiracy theory territory!
    3. Secularists are a specific group of people whose views line up so closely with the secularist social order, “that it may as well have been set up for their own comfort” (22).
  4. Secularists believe that their view is a scientific alternative to theistic superstition. They use an exaggerated warfare model between science and religion to support their case. Baker wisely takes the middle ground here: at times religion has hindered science, but has just as often supported and led scientific endeavour. Further, rational secularism is no more scientific than theism when formulating political policy. Here Baker unfortunately diverts from his modus operandi by throwing in a couple unfounded conclusions to support an otherwise carefully formulated argument:
    1. Baker’s comments against evolution detracted from his argument. Evolution and religion is a contentions multifaceted issue that requires more careful attention.
    2. His political view that secularists are to the Democratic party what evangelicals are to the Republican party again betray Baker’s own unexamined (at least in this book) presuppositions.
  5. Baker wraps up his argument with a case study that shows how Judeo-Christian ethics can have a positive role to play in public discourse.

In the end, Baker calls for pluralism to reign in the public arena. That conclusion opens up a whole new window for study. I’ve spent enough time in inter-denominational ministerial meetings to know how difficult pluralism is to practice. I would like to see a model for pluralism fleshed out—then, I suppose, secularism would be just one of the dialogue partners in the public arena.

This book would feel cumbersome to the general public. Baker has a tendency to use larger words when smaller ones would do the job just as accurately. I would, however, recommend this book to any academic-minded person who wants to start thinking critically about the relationship between church and state.

. . .

Update: Hunter Baker commented on this review as posted on Amazon. Here’s his take on it:

Thank you for the review, Mr. Barkley. I’m very grateful for your time reading the book and your attention.

I have to challenge the proposition that some of these arguments are unsupported. The end of the book contains a huge number of tightly packed footnotes supporting my contentions. With regard to the secularist agenda, I point to specific historical events to make my case. With regard to secularists and the Democratic party, I offer the evidence provided by two social scientists which backs up the point pretty nicely, in my opinion. As far as evolution goes, I think I was careful not to comment on the scientific merits, but instead stayed with the cultural and historical significance of the issue.

Hunter Baker

I appreciate the response. I would encourage anyone interested to read the book and digest the data themselves.

[note: I won this book in LibraryThing‘s early reviewer’s program.]

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