Keller argues that even secular values are religious


I’m leading our new young adult Sunday school class in Tim Keller’s small group curriculum based on his book The Reason for God. The main component of the curriculum is a DVD-based series of discussions that Keller has with a panel of young-ish urban professional non-Christians. I assume they represent the kind of demographic that Keller and his Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan have had great success in reaching with the gospel.

Each session deals with the most popular objections that nonbelievers, at least in America and the West, have about Christianity. To Keller’s credit, while the panelists are polite and respectful, they don’t pull their punches. One week’s session dealt with the question, “Why does Christianity have so many rules?” When Keller asked his panelists if they had any questions, the first one asked, “What does the Bible teach about homosexuality?” O.K., then, let’s not beat around the bush.

Regardless, Keller’s manner of dealing with difficult questions is irenic and deeply humble.

During the session about religious pluralism and Christianity’s claim that salvation is found only in Christ, Keller offers a helpful insight from Yale law professor Stephen Carter. Carter argues that even the so-called “secular” values usually reflected in American public discourse are, in fact, religious in nature. Our secular culture offers a version of salvation, alongside religion, which relates to the notion of human flourishing. Like any Christian, secularism’s adherents take the truth of their beliefs on faith. Keller says:

Stephen Carter, who teaches law at Yale, has written a whole slew of books that essentially says the same thing. He says everybody is bringing religious values into the public square because all values are based on a view of human flourishing—you know, right and wrong, what people need in order to flourish and do well. And it’s never based on any kind empirical scientific fact. Never.

For example, if you’re more individualistic, you feel that people need to have the freedom to decide right or wrong for him or her. Carter would say that’s essentially a religious idea. In plenty of other countries, that idea is crazy. It’s looked at as crazy. That’s not what human beings need.
So he was saying on the one hand you could say every religious believer comes in and has to follow his values. Well, everyone’s doing that—absolutely everyone, including the most liberal secular person—is bringing a view of human flourishing not based on empirical science but based on a view of human nature and life. And so, may the best person win. Go to it. And instead of saying there’s a problem with religious people bringing their values into the public square, he said, “Everybody’s doing it anyway so just let it go.”

2 thoughts on “Keller argues that even secular values are religious”

  1. there are no comments!! anyway in talking with a coworker one day we decided that people are religious, even the secular among us, in all arenas: political, societal and so on, and that very nearly all wars are religion based. not necessarily spiritual or mystical religions but religious nonetheless. the phrase “our American way of life” is bandied about just as religiously. i wonder if it goes back to rhetoric justifying our civil war. just asking is all.

    1. Thanks. Keller’s point (by way of Stephen Carter) seems so obvious I’m not sure why I haven’t thought of it in the past. We all have a set of values that are religious in that they’re not based on empirical evidence, and we all think we’re right and those who disagree with us are wrong.

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