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Are we really secular or pagan?

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Secularism is an ideology that tells us that there exists a neutral and rational sphere of knowledge by which communities may be ruled to the exclusion of any religious knowledge. While religious ideas are tolerated, they are relegated to the realm of the private. Thus political actors are expected to place their religious understanding to one side and to collaborate within the neutrality of secularism.

The first thing to be said about this is that there is no such neutral sphere. The error of secularism is that it limits what it understands as being religion to identified belief systems and fails to see that religious thought and practice does not have to be named as "religious" to hold humanity in its power. It is a common observation that anti-religious regimes in the past such as the French and Russian revolutions, nazism and fascism all exhibit religious aspects. These include the attachment to ideology, personality cults, ritual practices and mass man mentality.

In order to understand the absence of a neutral sphere we must understand more deeply the essence of religion. Religion is that which, after the Latin, binds. Thus religion cannot be restricted to the known and recognised religions but exists as the common human desire to trust in something and to be bound by that something. Indeed, it is impossible to live without unsupported assumptions and the belief that is derived from them. We are all believers of some kind.


This analysis reveals that secularism is not neutral and never can be because there is no sphere of human existence that is free from deep investment in something. We can name such secular idols as the market, life style, health, prestige, power, influence, progress, self-esteem, consumption etc. All of these can be idols; things that determine human hope, desire and action may be found within a supposedly non-religious sphere. As Luther observed: the heart is a factory for idols.

The deceptive thing about idols is that anything, even the most basic impulses and foundations of our lives can become idolised. The family, for example, exists as the place of nurture and love for all of us. However, the family can become idolatrous as in the Mafia. Idols do not exist without human investment. It is that investment that robs us of our freedom and installs idols of the heart.

It follows that there is no such thing as a neutral sphere from which government can operate that is free of idolatry. We might think that we can govern under the auspices of reason alone but this is to misunderstand how reason works. Reason always brings with it presuppositions that cannot be derived by reason alone. A brief course in European philosophy will hammer this fact home. There have, been attempts to find foundations for reason that do not presume anything and thus do not rely on some kind of belief. In the seventeenth century it was thought that mathematics could be such a foundation. However, the results have been stunted and obviously fail to address the simplest questions such as "who am I, and what should I do?"

Secularists have used reason as a weapon against religious thought from the beginning even in spite of two thousand years of theological research that held reason as its guiding light. The priests of secularism have driven a wedge between faith and reason that may make sense at the level of simplistic belief but is wide of the mark when it comes to the theology of the Church. When one reads Augustine, or Aquinas, or Calvin we find reason at work on the key questions that face humanity of identity, meaning and purpose. Reason is a tool that is used to understand and extend traditions of thought about what it means to be human.

I read recently that it is inaccurate to describe Australia or indeed any country as being secular. Rather, a more accurate description would be that Australia is in the grip of paganism. Paganism is multiple idolatry: the worship of many things that are not God. The idea that the secular sphere is free of such idolatry is easily confuted as theologically naïve. It is the nature of the human heart to manufacture idols and the ideology of secularism has no power to stem the flow. Indeed, it seems that in the absence of the iconoclasm of the Church, which is one of its central functions, idolatry increases on every front.

Secularism is paganism in disguise. It assumes that because no identifiable traditional religion can be identified that religious assumptions and practices are absent. In our quest to free ourselves from religion we have fallen into the very pit of religious thought in the same way that the quest for freedom in the French and Russian revolution led to the Terror and the worst tyranny of all.


A key function of the Church is iconoclasm, the destruction of idols. It is also true that the Church, in faintheartedness and in fear for its own life, has betrayed us in this task. The Church does not seem to see that it presides over the destruction of "religion" in order to bear witness to the one icon of God, the image that replaces all idols, the crucified Jesus.

Part of our problem is that we have assumed that all religions vary in details but are much of a muchness. But Christianity differs from the world religions in that it contains a critique of religion itself. It was because of this critique that Jesus was framed and murdered, such was the fear of the religious authorities of the time.

So there is a paradox here, Christianity looks like a religion quacks like a religion and so must be a religion. However, it also bears witness to the end of all religion and the beginning of faith. In the shadow of the cross religion is faithlessness. It is in the passion of Christ that religion is judged because it was religion that hammered in the nails.

Christianity is the critique of all religion including the secular kind that declares that it is not a religion. In the final analysis, secularism does not really exist.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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