648: SECULARISATION FOR DUMMIES by Peter Turner

Summary: “Meteorology, medicine and agriculture are 3 areas where medieval beliefs in divine control and intervention have largely been abandoned. Science can explain so much that the only place left for God is in the ever shrinking gaps in human knowledge.”

Secularisation was one of the handful of key concepts that young  Christians in British Universities found useful in the 1960s. Spoiler alert – I  haven’t read anything on it since, so those educated theologians and philosophers in the know may consider today’s polemic ante-diluvian, even juvenile. Fair enough. I still find it a useful way of looking at the  history of religion; so take it or leave it!

In the best selling theology book in British publishing history, Honest to God, John Robinson referred to the ‘God of the gaps’. God had slowly been replaced by scientific knowledge. Take astronomy for instance: by the 17th century it could be shown that our earth was not flat and that the sun didn’t revolve around it. There was no need for a god hypothesis to explain anything in the heavens. There was  no ‘gap’ left in the sky for him to reside in. Just molecules of gas, and planetary bodies whose motions were controlled by mathematical laws. The heavens were secular, and most other aspects of human life in Europe were getting secularised too.

 

Meteorology: try and find a weather-man or -woman who thinks that God controls the weather. They don’t need to resort to that hypothesis because they know better. Their scientific instruments enable then to predict storms and to warn people of any hazards ahead. Back in the middle ages people often saw bad weather as punishment from God for sins committed. If a farmer’s crop was flattened by heavy rain, he had no-one but himself to blame. He had obviously offended God in some way, and was simply getting his just deserts. Jesus probably believed that God controlled the weather too, after all he was a ‘child of his time’ and grew up in a society where everyone had this false belief. Whether he believed it or not, it was still a false belief. People who hold medieval beliefs today are generally not fully aware of the facts of the case, or they are just comfortable with their views and not in the mood for a paradigm shift today, thank you very much.

Medicine: Hippocrates showed convincingly that all disease had natural causes, yet 300 years later the Bible describes Jesus exorcising and performing miracles. In a kind of reversion to pre-Hippocratic times, we see him ‘casting out demons’ in a way that is embarrassing and incomprehensible to educated Christians today. Now that we know about germs and the spread of infection, about chemical imbalance and mental illness etc., we have precious few gaps in our knowledge for demons to lurk in. Possibly the phenomenon of death is the largest area in our lives where we may seek for God to comfort us in our bereavement and to show us a way  forward. Some falsely consider prayer a blessing. Any positive outcome is due to the placebo effect, as research into effects of prayer has repeatedly shown. There is no supernatural world ‘up there’ from whence Jesus or God will emerge to heal the sick by their divine intervention. Faith healing is a con trick!

Agriculture: As in the areas above, the church is centuries behind. As a kid, I attended Rogation Day services in the C. of E. where the congregation prayed for a good harvest on the farms. Any farmer chancing by could have told us how hard he had to work, to avoid bovine mastitis, to spray against wheat rust, or to remove Wild Oats from his corn fields. He/she was probably too busy to even give God a thought. I don’t know if they still do this  one too – I don’t go to church any more – but Harvest Festival was a prime example of ecclesiastical medievalism. My favourite hymn (called irreverently “The Golfers’ National Anthem” by the church organist) was
“We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground,
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand….”
neatly combining non-secularised agriculture and meteorology in one act of worship. Well, when the fields were left to God, yields were much lower!

 

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