Brief Reflections on Secularism

Posted by

Jeffrey Thayne

There are many different uses of the term secular. Gawain Wells and Wesley Burr, for example, explain that “secularism is the belief that the answers to life are found through rational means—through the concrete, observable, and practical world of people and things.”1

This definition of secularism sounds like a natural, viable position in our modern world. Of course we want to be rational, down-to-earth, practical people. It is hard to see how this definition would necessarily lead us away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, strictly adhering to this position requires us to dismiss any reference or appeal to divine or spiritual entities. The Oxford Pocket Dictionary reflects this dimension of secularism in its definition of the word: “Denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.”2

There are many examples of secular ideas in our society. Here, I would like to discuss just two of the ideas that Wells and Burr discuss in their article, in order to demonstrate the way secularists would arrive at conclusions that differ from the teachings of the Jesus Christ:

1. “Marriage is created by societies or cultures.”1

As Latter-day Saints, we believe that marriage was instituted by God for His eternal purposes. Thus, we do not believe it was a human invention. However, someone who held a strictly secular worldview would not look beyond the human realm for an explanation of marriage, and thus would not reference God when discussing the subject (or any subject, for that matter). He would develop a narrative that describes the formation of marriage by human beings to serve some local, societal purpose. This would certainly make a difference in how he approaches marriage; because he sees marriage as a human invention, a secularist would probably see the institution of marriage as more malleable and adjustable, according to the wishes and needs of society.

In a recent conversation with another blogger, I said, “I believe that we should support a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as being strictly between men and women, because I believe that is what God has instructed us to do through His prophet.” He replied, “That’s fine, however, in the realm of law, you should provide secular justifications for your position.” What he meant by this was that I should not appeal to a divine being to justify my opinion—he was asking me to base my opinion solely on practical and observable evidence. I should not reference my moral or religious beliefs (or, at least, my moral beliefs should not have any religious basis). He meant more than that such arguments are unpersuasive to those who do not share my religious beliefs; he believed that such arguments have no place in a legal or political settings. I believe that it is certainly possible to justify both positions on the issue in a secular way—that is, to use secular arguments from both perspectives; I only use this example to illustrate how any religious dimension to the subject is negated in a secular worldview.

2. “Gods are ‘created’ by humans to explain unexplainable phenomena.”1

We as Latter-day Saints believe that God Himself is responsible for first establishing religion in the world. For example, Alma was using a clearly non-secular narrative to describe the origin of religious belief when he said, “[God] sent angels to converse with [men], who caused men to behold of his glory. … Therefore God conversed with men, and made known unto them the plan of redemption” (Alma 12:29–30). A secularist, however, would deny any reference to God when accounting for or explaining religion—he would try to explain religion in terms of human affairs; he would probably develop a narrative that described human beings who invented an imaginary being in order to explain things that were beyond their understanding. A secularist might not even think this is a bad idea; he might believe that a belief in the divine is beneficial to society. He would, however, explain its origins by appealing only to the “concrete, observable, and practical world of people and things.”1


These two examples illustrate how a secular worldview will lead us to conclusions that differ from the restored Gospel. There are many others; for example, secular theories of government affect what we see as the proper role of government. Secular theories of biology affect how we understand disease and healing. We live in a society that is growing increasingly secular, and this is why we face a temptation to compartmentalize our lives (as I explained in a previous post). We often adopt a secular stance in our professional lives, and maintain a religious stance in our sabbath activities. While this theological schizophrenia allows us to live amiably with our secular friends and neighbors, I do not believe it is what Alma meant when he invited his congregation (and, by proxy, us) to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in” (Mosiah 18:9). I believe we should rock the boat and make waves (in a kind and humble way, of course), because I believe the Restoration was intended to counter falsehoods in every arena of life, not just in Church doctrine.

1. Gawain Wells and Wesley Burr, “The Proclamation and the Philosophies of the World.”
2. The Oxford Pocket Dictionary


  1. Theological schizophrenia—awesome term. I may borrow it in the future. 🙂

    At the Constitution Day celebration in Provo this week, Jim Noorlander suggested an interesting distinction between liberty and freedom. He said that liberty is God’s will for us and what He allows us to do, and freedom (or agency) is our ability to either comply or disobey.

    Thus, according to his argument, the proper role of government is to implement the liberties we have been granted by divine providence (natural law).

    Kind of an interesting twist on the “separation of church and state” farce that secularists love to promote.

  2. I definitely agree with this post. I have one interesting, possibly valid point, though. Not a correction, but a musing you’ve heard before of which I’ve discovered a new wrinkle:

    Marriage itself (the eternal union between man and woman) was created by God, and the pen-and-paper side of things was created by man. A union sanctified between God and man does not need to be verified by any secular authority, meaning the marriage license itself is mainly just tradition; it’s something we do because everybody does it and to forgo it would be unnecessary and cause problems.

    Those who are married only secularly are not “married” in any real spiritual sense. There’s essentially no difference between a couple married by a civil authority and a couple merely living together, provided that their level of devotion is the same. I say this not to justify a “live-in” situation but to emphasize the importance of “real” marriage. When we equate civil marriage with an LDS-style “sealing” we run into trouble because our concept of marriage is so different from the secular. Your post didn’t fail to draw the distinction – I’ve just found it interesting of late to draw it out further and muse on what it means.

  3. Clumpy, I agree that there are some problems created by the government being involved in marriage. The problem of same-sex “marriage” is only the most recent of a series of problems. As soon as we create a legal entity called “marriage,” many will naturally begin to see it as a contractual relationship instead of a covenant one, for one thing.

    My brother, who knows a lot more history than I do, told me once (if I remember right) that the American government had no involvement in marriage until the income tax was created. Ever since then, as with all legal entities, it has been further modified and adjusted until it’s gotten tangled up in a lot of laws, like tax law. Then, once people see marriage as no more than a tax incentive, no wonder it’s becoming devalued.

  4. Hi!

    Here’s a link to a new book (“What’s the Harm? Does Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage Really Harm Individuals, Families, or Society?”) that has just been published by University Press of America, edited by Lynn Wardle:^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0761843167

    It is relevant, I think, to this topic and may be of interest to you Nathan (and others). In the spirit of full-disclosure, I have a chapter in there but I don’t get any royalties on the book so I’m not here trying to “hawk my wares” (as it were).

  5. Jeffrey,

    I really like this post. Yes, scholarly-minded latter-day saints need to “rock the boat”. In Truth & Science I discuss the effects that secular humanism in science is having on our society. If we haven’t done so yet, we need to wake up and smell the Postum. Secular humanism is sweeping into our schools, colleges, and political and public institutions. Believers need to take a stand.

    One of the biggest secular hoaxes that has been perpetuated in the psychological community is the sanctioning of gay marriage by the APA and CPA (Canadian Psychological Association) in 2001. What is particularly irksome is that these two organization sanctioned gay marriage in the name of science! They supposedly have lots of scientific evidence showing that it is acceptable for gay couples to marry. Go figure. Since when was science capable of making moral decisions such as this?

  6. The following, David, is just food for thought.

    Consider: people say that we cannot make a law based upon our moral beliefs. They say we have to demonstrate scientifically that an act is harmful to others before we can legally condemn it. What does this do? It takes the government out of the hands of the people, and puts it into the hands of the scientists. We end up with an oligarchy of scientists, where we look to them to tell us what is a good or bad law.

    Now, I don’t really believe we live in a democracy, but for those who claim that we do, forcing us to appeal to science before passing a law isn’t democratic. We all know that scientists are people with their own biases and perspectives.

  7. Jeff: They say we have to demonstrate scientifically that an act is harmful to others before we can legally condemn it.

    Yes, that’s a HUGE problem I see in modern politics. Many good people allow their hands to be tied by this idea. If that were true, then democratic government wasn’t possible until that last hundred years or so, when science was advanced enough to confirm common beliefs. That’s just silly.

    I don’t like the fact that many good people feel strongly that they ought to vote against something (e.g., same-sex marriage), but they don’t do it because they feel like it’s not constitutional to vote based just on your convictions.

  8. I do believe that we are morally obligated to vote against laws that are unconstitutional; however, it is far from unconstitutional to reference your religious and moral beliefs at the voting booth. In fact, it is because of my religious beliefs that I believe we should vote against unconstitutional laws. If it were unconstitutional to base my vote on my religious beliefs, wow what do I do?

  9. I would add a bit of temperance to that statement. One’s morals shouldn’t be the basis of law but of personal behavior. (After all, profanity is not and should not be illegal, but we are free to avoid it as we wish and teach others to do the same.) However, certain values were designed by the framers of the Constitution to be universal. After all, the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights were so apparent to them that they almost didn’t include it!

    I believe that one would have to demonstrate that there is a constitutionally-compatible imperative for banning gay marriage before it would evolve beyond a moral issue. To attempt to introduce a law that merely makes the country better without any Constitutional imperative is wrong (and Jeff, I know you agree with that statement).

    Of course, I don’t believe in civil marriage anyway so I think the problem is one of commission rather than omission. Get the government out of marriage and turn marriages into civil contracts and the problem goes away without us doing anything that violates the Constitution.

  10. Clumpy: To attempt to introduce a law that merely makes the country better without any Constitutional imperative is wrong (and Jeff, I know you agree with that statement).

    On the level of the federal government, yes.

  11. Clumpy: Get the government out of marriage and turn marriages into civil contracts and the problem goes away.

    Wait, how is turning marriage into a civil contract a way of removing government from it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *