Origins of the Secular Age

William Cavanaugh, in the essay “The City: Beyond Secular Parodies” which can be found in the book Radical Orthodoxy: New Theology, argues that the modern state is a bad imitation of the church in that it offers salvation to its participants. He locates this promise in the writings of theorists such as Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke who all agree on a  competitive condition of nature. Therefore, in their words, the only way individuals can be saved from this inevitable social violence and protect their their person and property is to enter into social contracts with others. Furthermore, religion should be limited to private opinion and belief because if it should actually make a practical difference the result would be inter-societal discord; e.g. the “Wars of Religion” (Cavanaugh makes an important point that religious wars have actually had much more to do with money and land conflicts than beliefs). Cavanaugh concludes that while the state might at best keep individuals from interfering with the right’s of others, it does not have the ability to “enact a truly social process.” In other words, it is unable to unify people as contributing participants working together towards a common purpose like the church can.

On the other hand Jeffrey Stout in his book Democracy and Tradition argues that the “secular state” has much more humble origins. Rather than emanating from high theory, secularization was the practical result of differing theological perspectives. According to Stout, by the end of the seventeenth century Christianity was having trouble finding agreement on what biblical interpretations were authoritative so they resolved their differences by turning to grounds other than their religious beliefs to settle disputes. Simply appealing to the “Bible’s answer” or a “plain sense” to Scripture did not work because a plurality of hermeneutics existed . Hence, religious diversity – even with shared common texts – gave way to secularization and the need to dialogue with others in public over the reasonableness and persuasiveness of our practical commitments.


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