How Did Christianity Become Secularized?

The title here, which remains an unanswered question, might make a lot of people uncomfortable. Some Christians might shun the idea of their religion being secular, and others, particularly non-Christians, might scoff at the idea — Christianity in the US is anything but secular! they might say. I’m not suggesting either of these ideas. Instead, I’m putting modern Christianity into context with Christian history. It seems most modern Christians, for example, feel that the genocide or forced conversions of non-Christians are deeply un-Christ-like. However, this was not always the case, and the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned this very doctrine no fewer than three times (many, many more times, depending on our definitions).

I tumbled on this question — or, rather, I was forced to ask it — because a common criticism of Christianity is that it promotes rape, genocide, human sacrifice, etc. But modern Christians have every right to reject this criticism because — for the most part — their religions in no way still support human rights abuses. Still is the operational word here.

Somewhere, some time ago, Christianity lost its monopoly on violence, and within that void emerged a softer, more PR-friendly religion (relatively speaking, of course). I’m not entirely sure where and when this happened. Some have argued that heavy-hitting philosopher Thomas Hobbes played some role in this. Hobbes, it’s been argued, saw Christianity as the greatest threat to civil peace. Using his clout he helped weave peace into society by arguing for Christianity’s liberalization. On the other hand, my readers might recall my oft-cited study by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, which suggests the liberalization of religion is a natural result of society’s increase in existential security. Whatever the cause, I think it’s a worthy investigation because it affects very broad fields and phenomena.

But I’m not merely talking about human rights abuses. In just the last century Christianity in the US has lost its position on women’s rights, interracial marriage, and, most recently, same-sex marriage. While the bulk of Christianity has not yet accepted same-sex marriage, we can argue that it will have to accept it in order to survive. What I mean is, Christianity was forced to adapt to changing social norms in order to survive. It now completely, without hesitation, rejects slavery, despite the New Testament’s seemingly full embrace of owning human beings — even children — against their will. It seems in order to adapt and survive, Christianity had to reject some of its teachings.

So what are the mechanisms that bring this about? How is it that a secular society can gain enough strength to change Church doctrine? This is something I’m very interested in. I’ve been in contact with Prof. Bart D. Ehrman of UNC at Chapel Hill, and, while he personally couldn’t answer the question, he aimed me in a direction where I may find some answers. If no answers are to be found, this could be a very fun research project.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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8 Responses to How Did Christianity Become Secularized?

  1. peace25maker says:

    Hay. I personally believe that the Bible itself answers this question of how Christianity became secularised. You should remember that you are dealing with human beings. And I am sure that you have used the saying that all humans makes mistakes. If you would look at Christianity with no preconceived ideas you would probably realize that the Bible as a whole is a lot different than what you would allow it to be at the moment. You condemn the new testament about the fact that it didn’t speak out against slavery yet it was a Christian that had a great impact on the way the world looked at the so called ‘slave’. The Bible in its totality is against a lot of things that we as modern Christians allow. I would like to take this opportunity to ask your forgiveness when it comes to the fact the Christians have not lived up to the standard the we claim to have. We too are guity of violence ect. But the Bible says in Jeremiah 17:9 ( my paraphrase) The heart of man is deceitful and desperately sick who can understand it.
    It is not Christianity that is broken but the people who claim to be Christians. So to answer your question plainly I would say that Christian became less interested in what they should give to God and more interested in what they could gain from God and through this they grew away from what they should be. I honestly hope that I have answered your question.

  2. Here is a study where you’re going to need to make sure your methods receive accurate responses. Just yesterday, a Christian blogger admitted, “However I do not believe it is immoral for someone[] to be another person’s property, and neither does a Biblical worldview point.”

    I live and talk with people who will quite publicly denounce the things they say in private, who have partitioned public speaking from private closely held beliefs. At least it might be good cause to look into self-identification of secularized Christianity. If I was to place a wager on the results, I’d say that people who identify as “Fundamentalist” or “Evangelical” will be more likely to privately embrace older, more violent tenets of the Bible.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      I don’t think I’d be comfortable running an analysis using public polling data — not merely for the reasons you state, but, even though I’ve cited several studies that use them in the past — I’m skeptical of them. They can yield fairly impressive statistics, but I always fear my sample would be inadequate or flawed. For this kind of research I could go about it in two different ways. Future or current researchers take note.

      First, I could conduct a standard literature review where I hit the history books and seek patterns in the evolution of religions. This is the easy method. Second, I could collect data on societies, such as kGDP, female representation, and GINI coefficients and compare that with the populations of citizens belonging to more liberal branches of Christianity, such as some Episcopal churches. We might find correlations that support Norris and Inglehart’s theory. For example, a moderately wealthy country with fairly equal distribution of resources and with proportionate female representation might correlate with more liberal forms of Christianity, where previous church stances have been reformed by secular ideas. This wouldn’t necessarily show us a cause, but such a finding would help us better explain this phenomenon.

  3. peace25maker says:

    I personally am against slavery! It is inhumane. And my view is formed from a book in the new testament that in a way speaks out against slavery. In the book of Philemon Paul a very enthusiastic Jewish scholar and previously a murderer aks a slave owener to welcome back a run away slave as a brother in the community. In that time runaway slaves was to be branded and in some cases even killed. This seems like a huge shout out against slavery to me.

  4. Barry says:

    Don’t forget that some Christian/religious groups have been at the forefront of campaigning against, slavery, and for women’s rights, LGBT rights, prison reform, and many other social advances. Religion per se, isn’t a barrier to leading in social reform.

    However, I will concede that that a not insignificant number of such groups fight tooth and nail not just to keep the status quo, but to turn the clock backwards.

    With regards to more “gentle” nations developing more liberal forms of religion: if you look at northern European countries and places such as NZ, that would appear to be the case. I don’t think I would class the USA as being “gentle”. But whether a gentler society led to the development of more liberal theologies, or the whether the development of more liberal theologies led to less belligerence, I’m not sure. Perhaps both need to develop hand in hand?

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Sorry for taking so long to reply. Somehow I missed this. Yes, you are correct. Especially from my vantage point in the US, the Christian churches often stand at the forefront of liberal social movements. The Catholic Worker is a great example. I even sometimes volunteer for them. I’m not denying this at all. Rather, my question regards how the church evolves from, for example, ‘Kill all murderers’ to ‘Every life, even murderers’ lives, is sacred.’ How does this happen in the psychological context?

      • Barry says:

        My thoughts are that society moulds religion as much as religion moulds society. At times one gets ahead of the other. Sometimes they are in sync, sometimes they are not. I also see a lot of evidence to support the maxim “all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. That applies to religious structures as much as to civil structures.

        As to how beliefs change, I only need to look how two modern English speaking societies, originating from a predominantly British, background have diverged in their view of guns. The predominant view in the US is that everyone has the right to bear arms, whereas in NZ the predominant view is that carrying weapons for the purpose of self defence is indefensible. The changes occur across generations, not so much within individuals.

  5. mtiffany8523 says:

    Perhaps this is part of the answer: First, there has always been Protestantism, people who protested the Catholic church. Catholicism is much different from christianity as a whole. With that said, christianity, in most denominations, is not dependant on a race of people all believing the same thing but grows from converts who vary in ages and backgrounds with different perspectives. Because of this Christianity, in part, will always reflect the mindset of the generation.

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