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What does it mean to be a secularist?

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Words have this sneaky habit of changing their meaning. Take, for example, our use of the word secular.

It used to be that the term secular was meant to distinguish something from that which was religious. Especially in my boyhood context, it seemed to help us sort folks out by their occupation. Somehow, we came to know that pastors, many teachers, and especially foreign missionaries were religious while their counterparts were secular. There were, of course, many exceptions to these juvenile rules, but the grid seemed to work often enough.

The point in bringing that discussion now to this particular page is that those of us on the WORLD staff so frequently find ourselves queried by young, aspiring, budding journalists: “Which path should I take—secular journalism or religious?”

The answer may seem simple. But that question and its answer were probably never as easy as we once made them. Yet in this deceptive age, they are almost certainly full of nuance and error.

Secularism, by definition, just doesn’t make room for God in the whole equation of things.

For example, it’s been more than 10 years since I found myself in a conversation with a handful of Christian students pursuing journalism careers. At issue was a question raised by a WORLD columnist: “Do secularists like us?” What startled me was the difficulty a dozen bright young Christians had in agreeing on the definition of a secularist.

For me, as a working journalist for the last half century, I’m happy to operate on some terminology I used back then with that group: “A secularist is someone who rejects supernatural explanations for human events, and instead bases his own arguments on purely natural explanations.”

To make things even more obvious, let’s see how things stand if we suggest replacing the word secular with the word godless. That’s not an inappropriately arbitrary step—for I’m not forcing the meaning in a pejorative manner. I’m not using it as a put-down, not in the sense that for a couple of generations we would have referred to “godless communism” or to “the godless Soviet Union,” or even to some individual as a “godless criminal.”

No, I mean it more in a consciously even-handed analytic or descriptive way. Since almost everyone agrees that secularism means quite directly to exclude the supernatural, we’re not being mean-spirited when we refer to secularism as “godless.” We’re just agreeing with the secularists that that’s the way it is. Secularism, by definition, just doesn’t make room for God in the whole equation of things. Secularism doesn’t think He’s all that significant or important.

So it was my high priority with these young people to warn them that the world and the context they were soon to inherit was increasingly godless. In the past, it may not have been so deliberately or viciously so—but the past is past. In its view of origins, its understanding of where everything that’s here originally came from, the world now just assumes that the evolutionary explanation is correct. There’s just simply no place for God in the greater scheme of things.

And when you ask what has gone wrong with the world’s order of things, it’s not a question of the world being in rebellion against that creator God. After all, He’s not really part of the picture, you see.

And when you ask what the best answer might be for putting all these broken pieces back together again—well, even to allude to the redeeming work of Jesus is to change the subject.

One of the big differences between the America I grew up in and the America these journalism students have inherited is that 40 to 50 years ago—that’s half of my lifetime—there was room at least to pretend that the God of the Bible was part of the whole scheme of things.

But these days we don’t need to waste time trying to decide if it was real or pretense. These days, secular means godless. That’s the kind of world we all have inherited.

Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.


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