Friday, 26 May 2017

Why secular culture can't deal with acts of terrorism

The Manchester attack was the latest act of terrorism to shock us in its sheer barbarity. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and everyone else caught up in the chaos caused by this pathetic act.

We do also have to try to understand and deal with what has happened, though. There is no good time to do this. Waiting a day, a month or even years will never be enough to distance whatever is written from the pain caused by such terrorism. Children have been lost, and will be missing as long as those who knew and loved them live.

A title like that is also going to get me into trouble. I'm talking about a vast number of people, of all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs and in doing so, I'm going to make broad generalisations - it is impossible not to when assessing large groups. There will be many exceptions to the points I make. And I do not judge those who fit my description. I want to hold out an alternative to the culture they are living and breathing.

So here are three problems with current western culture - specifically, atheistic, postmodern, secular culture - when it tries to respond to these sorts of events.

1. It can't account for evil

The vast majority of people in the UK are, functionally, atheists. They may be cultural Christians, they may technically be deists, or pantheists but for regular day-to-day life, they act as atheists. We've been persuaded that we are nothing but biological machines, in charge of our own lives and responsible for creating the meaning and purpose in our lives.

One critical weakness with this position is that there is no objective source for morality, for right and wrong. If we are all meant to create the meaning and value in our own lives and to pursue our dreams, those dreams will inevitably clash with other people's dreams. Your values will clash with other people's values and you will have no objective way to determine who's right. You may sign up to a particular moral code but why should anyone else?

Yet, when something horrific like this happens, we can't help but deny our moral relativism. We must say that it is wrong. We can't help using words like 'evil'. 'Misguided' or 'uneducated' or 'unfortunate' just won't do as words to describe these actions. There is no room to make excuses for the perpetrator(s) of these attacks.

The reality of objective morality - found in God's revelation (general and special) - leaks out at such moments. Terrorists are wrong - they're not merely choosing different ethical codes to us. Our culture cannot make sense of this.

2. It can't handle suffering

The suffering at such times as these is very real, and very severe. Thinking about my kids I can only imagine how horrific it would be to lose them in such circumstances. Where is God in such situations? How long, O Lord?

People think that Christians are on the back foot when it comes to suffering. Why would God allow something so terrible to happen? This is a very real question, which the Bible very much encourages Christians to grapple with. The book of Job, many Psalms, Lamentations and many other parts of the Bible work through these issues. This is why many Christians are tremendous examples of enduring through bereavement, horrible illness and other kinds of suffering.

I'm not here to give trite answers, and the way in which the Bible answers these questions is as important as the answers themselves. But, briefly, suffering is personal (it is happening to real, significant persons), purposeful (it ultimately achieves good), temporary (it will one day end), and God promises to be present in our sufferings to help. Compare that to some vague wishy-hopey spirituality or the cold determinism of consistent atheism ("you're just a bunch of cells, get over it”). 

Again, people's better instincts come out at such times as these. People who live otherwise faithless lives offer their prayers for the victims. We have compassion towards those affected, not because it benefits us but because we recognise them as God’s image-bearers. Secular culture cannot account for this.

3. It doesn't understand religious motivation

We are all baffled at how someone can attack children in the way that happened in Manchester. But many in our culture can’t believe that genuine religious conviction could possibly lead to such an atrocity. Many can’t even imagine why someone would ever die for their religion, let alone kill for it.

This is secularism’s misunderstanding of the nature of religion. Secularism argues for a sort of safe space in society where everyone drops their religious reasoning and motivation, in order to build a society where we can all get along.

It sounds like a very appealing and reasonable idea until you realise all that it simply isn’t compatible with many belief systems. Islam makes specific claims about how society should be formed. Jesus Christ claims to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords – a political claim. Such beliefs do not fit into the secular model of religious neutrality in public life.

Secularism doesn’t understand this. And as its influence has grown in the UK, there has been a diminishing understanding of centrality of religion in believer’s lives. Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience make no sense to secularism, because secularism believes that religion is an optional extra that can be tacked onto the side of an otherwise secular life.

Christianity (and religion as a whole), to secularism, is a hobby, like going to the gym or playing bridge. It’s inconceivable to secularist culture, that someone would have such belief in their religion that it would affect every area of their life. That holds true for genuine Christians, who are punished for being consistently Christian in the workplace, as well as for Islamists, who believe that violent Jihad, including suicide bombings, is a legitimate means to advance the Caliphate.

Every conceivable motivation has been suggested for such attacks: grievances with foreign policy, trouble finding a romantic partner, getting high on marijuana, famelust – even climate change. For a lot of commentators and politicians, the idea that allegiance to God (or, in reality, false gods) could be the predominant motivating factor is inconceivable. Again, secularist assumptions are stopping people from naming the problem, which means they will also give the wrong answers.

Secular culture can’t account for these realities. As these sorts of attacks inevitably continue, people will grow increasingly tired of secularism’s answers. I hope and pray that they will turn to the Christian answer – which is both true and beautiful.

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