A culture of limitless self-regard

Responding to our secular culture

In 2018, Dr David Mackereth was dismissed from his role as a health and disabilities assessor at the Department for Work and Pensions. The reason? He believes that a man is a man, even if he ‘identifies’ as a woman. The judges who dealt with his case ruled that: ‘belief in Genesis 1:27, lack of belief in transgenderism and conscientious objection to transgenderism in our judgment are incompatible with human dignity…’

Note the irony.

The only inviolable reason to respect the rights and liberties of all human beings (regardless of sex, class, race, ability or age), is the conviction that every human is created ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27-28). But these judges, on behalf of the state, claimed that belief in Genesis 1:27 is ‘incompatible with human dignity’.

Many assume that a neutral secular state is tolerant of all faiths and beliefs. But here it was decided that expression of belief in Genesis 1:27 is not permissible in the public square. How did we get here?

The rise of secularisation theory

By the 1950s and 1960s, many sociologists had adopted ‘secularisation theory’. Following in the tradition of some (so-called) Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century, they assumed that as societies modernised, religious belief would drop away. Such thinkers claimed Christianity had hindered scientific progress, and people would only flourish once they were freed from external authorities such as biblical absolutes. They put their confidence in human reason and virtue, mocked the idea of original sin, and assumed that within a few decades, belief in God would be viewed as one of the embarrassments of history.

In reality, the rise of science had rested on religious foundations. The pioneers of the scientific method believed we live in a universe created and ordered by God and that we are called on as image bearers to study and manage that universe on his behalf.

The murderous outworking of the French Revolution exposed the lie of innate human goodness. Self-confident philosophers had fiercely denied human depravity; now it was on full display. The widespread religious revivals of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries confounded the ‘death of God’ that the Enlightenment thinkers had predicted.

But even as those revivals transformed whole communities, new challenges to Christianity arose. Liberal theology and the claims of Darwinian evolution undermined confidence in the reliability of Scripture. The Romantic Movement served to erode confidence in absolute morals. By the mid-twentieth century, radical feminists claimed that the married family was the seedbed of ‘patriarchal’ oppression and that sexual freedom was essential to human flourishing. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, ‘queer theory’ had challenged the gender binary itself, which is why those judges ruled that belief in Genesis 1:27 was incompatible with human dignity.

Once a culture denies the reality of the Creator God, rejection of his laws follows swiftly. In Britain, the 1960s witnessed a frenzy of legislation that effectively de-Christianised and liberalised British law and society. In 1966, the American news magazine Time was issued with a plain black front cover and just three words of bold red text: Is God Dead? 

Yet at the same time, champions of secularisation theory were admitting defeat. They had assumed that as societies modernised, religion would disappear, but in most parts of the world, people were as religious as ever! Evangelical Pentecostalism and Islam were growing rapidly. Some academics began to speak of ‘post-secularisation’ or even ‘de-secularisation’.

There were two major exceptions to the global upsurge in religion. First, among global academic and media ‘elites’, religious ‘fundamentalism’ was widely viewed with undisguised hostility. Second, religious observance had collapsed across Western Europe. Yet apart from those anomalies, religion was not going away. We don’t live in a secularised world, in the sense of a world empty of religion.

But in Western societies, we do live in a secular world, in that a wedge has been driven between the public and private, where values are matters of personal choice and opinion and must stay private. This is used to undermine Christian ethical arguments. For example, we may argue the case to protect unborn human life, but the ‘fact/value’ divide is used to weaken the objective force of our position.

And we do live in a pluralist world. In Western societies, it is assumed that everyone can choose their own belief and lifestyle, and there is no single overarching sacred canopy under which all members of the community unite and where God makes the rules. Instead, there is an overarching secular orthodoxy, where each of us makes our own rules (and, increasingly, each demands that others affirm our choices).

The new orthodoxy: the culture of limitless self-regard

Once we deny there is a God whose character and decree defines what is right, then we deny there are moral laws that are true for everyone. The remaining moral absolute is to be faithful to yourself, to find your own ‘authentic’ identity. This expressive individualism has seeped into many sections of the church. If the Bible contradicts what I sincerely and deeply feel, all too often feelings win.

Theological liberals in the past placed human reason above Scripture. Their descendants now place human experience above Scripture. Affirmations of absolute moral truth are viewed as harsh and intolerant. Calls to repentance and a holy life are seen as abusive. Evangelism is softened. Preaching hell and judgement is almost unknown. The Gospel becomes a message of finding fulfilment, achieving freedom from anxiety, or discovering the authentic meaning of life. The significance of God is that he can bring meaning and hope to me. Self, not God takes centre stage.

In this culture of limitless self-regard, failure to celebrate someone’s lifestyle, or refusal to endorse their claims about identity are viewed as equally hateful.

How should we respond?

As Christian citizens, we should not be intimidated into pulling out of the public square. We are called on to love our neighbours. That means working for God’s glory faithfully in whatever sphere to which we’ve been called. We live in a democracy, and should take an active interest in policies that affect our fellow citizens. The Christian Institute provides clear, up-to-date resources to inform and equip Christians as we do that.

The inevitable result of unlimited sexual freedom has been greatly increased family breakdown and growing numbers of people whose lives are troubled and confused. We need to respond with Christlike compassion. Genuine compassion is based on truth, and we need to be willing to risk unpopularity by proclaiming the need to repent and believe the gospel. God’s truth has been plainly revealed in the conscience of everyone made in his image (Romans 1:19-322:15). He will judge us according to that standard. The gospel only makes sense in the context of sin and judgement.

We shouldn’t be surprised that proclaiming these eternal realities causes offence. God’s truth has been hated in every age. But we don’t have to fear, and we can be confident. Throughout history, powerful empires have opposed the Living God. Each has crumbled, while God’s Kingdom is expanding to fill the whole earth and will itself endure forever (Daniel 2: 3544).