Secular Society Is Worshiping Something, and It’s Not Christ

By Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley 

Scott Hahn is the author or editor of over forty popular and academic books. His works include best-selling titles Rome Sweet HomeThe Lamb’s Supper, and The First Society. His most recent book is It Is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion

Brandon McGinley is a Catholic writer and speaker based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. McGinley’s work has appeared in the Washington PostFirst Things, the Catholic HeraldPlough, and The Lamp, among other venues. He is the author of The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception.

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Photo Credit: Dorian Mongel

Everything that is true of so-called secular societies is true of so-called secular individuals. To refuse to submit oneself to the living God—to refuse to acknowledge, adore, and serve Him as justice demands—is not a neutral choice. It does not preserve one’s objectivity or intellectual freedom; it does not liberate the soul.  

One of the most destructive pieces of catechesis taught by modern secular liberalism is that believers must not be “too religious”—especially in public. To believe in religious duties within the confines of one’s own head, home, or church is acceptable and more or less respectable. But to let these convictions influence one’s participation in the “secular” sphere—that is, everything outside those spaces reserved for private devotion—is considered too far.  

Consider the apoplexy with which the decision of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2019 to ban Catholic youth sports events on Sundays has been met. Barely concealed beneath the surface of the largely logistical complaints was the unspoken assumption that “religious” notions, like the Third Commandment, had no place in a secular endeavor, like athletics. To allow concerns about God to invade an officially godless sphere, either as a community or even in one’s own moral– social calculations, is considered to be an act of aggression, even a kind of reverse defilement—the sacralization of what is supposed to be profane.  

Moments like these pull back the curtain on secularism to reveal just how subjective and sectarian it really is: It requires strict enforcement of a public-private divide that makes no sense in the logic of Christ. This is strictly anti-religious— not just in the sense that it discriminates against religious belief and practice but in the sense that it rules out the authentic virtue of religion. While our religious duties in justice to the King of kings are certainly in some sense relative to our circumstances, to be “neutral” with respect to Christ in certain times and places is necessarily to elevate other goods above Him. Social idolatry, therefore, both emerges from and, in turn, enforces personal idolatry.  

The soul, like the society, that strives to be secular finds itself not liberated but subjected to new gods. If Jesus Christ is not at the top of the soul’s hierarchy of goods, something or someone else will be. What that is will depend on the person: The devil knows our weaknesses and will present us with the idols that are most compelling to our preferences and that feel the most like liberation—and therefore that feel the least like what they actually are. Christ conquers our soul through reason and love; His competitors always use coercion and deceit. Christ is a benevolent King; His competitors are venal dictators.  

This is what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism,” and its forerunner is secular liberalism. We are taught by this regime that we can and must be at least intermittently secular, but that only means that we must be intermittently idolaters. And idols are by definition jealous gods, soon demanding more than we were originally willing to give: more sacrifice of the virtue of religion to achieve more wealth, more autonomy, more pleasure, more success, more prestige. They eventually accept nothing less than the worship, sacrifice, and adoration reserved only for Jesus. There is no non-religious alternative to true religion. The choice isn’t between Christ and a genteel secular neutrality but between Christ and His antagonists. 

We live in strange times in many ways. One of the most pervasive, but also most abstracted and least obvious, is the tension between our material circumstances and our perceived stability.  

From the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the fields of Nebraska, from boardrooms in London to cottages in Poland, there is an inchoate sense that the social order as we know it is on the knife-edge. And yet Western civilization is in the midst of a generations-long run of prosperity and political stability. Since the end of the Second World War, there have been blips—the transatlantic chaos of 1968, the difficult reintegration of the Soviet Bloc, the lingering effects of the recession of 2008—but in the scope of world history, the past seventy years have been marked by unprecedented security and material flourishing. (The long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic will not be known for many years; while it may be that future historians will regard this as the beginning of the end of our era of prosperity and stability, at the moment this seems unlikely.) 

 We see this also in personal psychology: individuals and families whose sensation of precariousness is wholly out of keeping with their actual material circumstances. So many people feel like everything they have doesn’t matter, like everything’s about to fall apart, unless they can have something else: a bigger house, another relationship, a lucrative promotion. 

This is only a paradox if we take on the materialist view of reality, which assumes that only what we can see, touch, and taste matters. But it makes all the sense in the world if reality is much more complicated—if we have souls, and if those souls are made to conform to a divine and unchanging order, and if genuine harmony of mind, body, and community can only come from that order. Then we can see all these inferior goods, such as prosperity and pleasure and autonomy, not as balms that bring contentment but as idols that bring disorder. 

Learn More

Is religion a right given to us by the state? Is it an opium for the masses? Is it private opinion with no role in the public sphere?

In It Is Right and Just, bestselling author Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley challenge our idea of religion and its role in societyHahn and McGinley argue that to answer questions over religious liberty, justice, and peace, we must first reject the insidious lie perpetuated by secular-liberal culture: that religion is a private matter.