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Will Secularism Survive?

By Gerd Lüdemann

Free Inquiry 25 (2005/6), p. 35

Symposium on "Secularism – Will It Survive?"

Secularism not only teaches us to base our lives and thinking on the findings of critical scholarship in both the sciences and the humanities, but also persuades us to apply critical investigative tools in every field of academic endeavor. My lifelong study of the Christian religion illustrates both of these principles.

Theology is a scholarly discipline when it observes the intellectual protocols of the modern university and bids farewell to deductive epistemological principles of any kind - including revealed truth and any privileged knowledge God. Theology becomes a valid academic discipline insofar as it employs the historical-critical method's three presuppositions of causality, the potential validity of analogies, and the reciprocal relationship between historical phenomena. But this adoption of the atheistic methodology of secularism demands that traditional religion undergo a Copernican revolution.

However it may disenchant the world, true objectivity means relinquishing the canonicity or sacredness of particular writings, any claims to a revelation, and all distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy except those found in historical discourse. This same even-handedness outlaws dogmatic and theological judgments unsupported by empirical evidence, and refuses to deal with questions of religious truth except to compare different truth claims. The scholar of religion must steer clear of ideologies, but it is obliged to use the methods and insights of the sciences and humanities, including those derived from such neighboring disciplines as sociology, psychology and ethnology, for their illumination of historical phenomena is often decisive. Its assumptions and conclusions must remain open to peer review and revision on the sole basis of best evidence.

Therefore petitionary prayer by academic theologians amounts to self-betrayal. As Huck Finn says, "You can't pray a lie." Still, though excluded from the ranks of true believers, we can be religious spirits without religion, hoping by critical secularism to make the world a better place.

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