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.