Secular Supremacy

Why do we react differently to warnings about secularism and warnings about other sins?

This is not an essay about race, racism, or white supremacy. This essay is about how we come to think about important things—including race, racism and white supremacy. There is a lot more going on in the background of our beliefs than we might think. We like to think that our beliefs about important things are completely based on reason, but there is a wealth of research that suggests that our beliefs depend a great deal on how we understand ourselves within our surrounding culture.

In my academic work, I research secularity, religiosity and how people become more or less religious. So, when I hear people talk about “white supremacy,” I tend to understand it the same way I understand something like “secularism.” A culture becoming more secular does not necessarily mean that more people in that culture identify as secular or non-religious. Instead, a secularizing culture is a culture in which more and more people live within a secular worldview—that is, they make sense of their day-to-day experiences and base their decisions on essentially secular assumptions rather than religious ones. In a secular culture, even people who believe in God, go to church, pray and read their Bibles will act as though the world is self-contained and operates on principles that are fundamentally knowable and controllable. In a secularized culture, that logic has become the default.

Similarly, “white supremacy” does not necessarily mean that every person overtly believes that white people are inherently more moral or more valuable than other people. And it doesn’t mean that our laws are written to explicitly and overtly relegate non-white people to a lower social status. A “culture of white supremacy” would be one where most people measure the world around them against white experiences and white social norms. A white supremacist culture would be one where “whiteness” is assumed to be the default. Even an individual who believes that no one is more or less valuable based on the color of their skin would still find themselves reacting less favorably to modes of speaking, acting and enjoying the world that aren’t the “white” way of behaving.

This disconnect—the difference between a society’s overt rules and its implicit logic—is the difference between a creed and a worldview. And confusing creeds for worldviews is one reason that confronting secularity or white supremacy is a constant struggle instead of a one-time fix.

HOW WORLDVIEWS FORM

In order to confront a culture’s worldviews, we need to understand how they form. Social scientists generally point to three primary, interconnected factors that help construct worldviews: Social structures, social status, and metaphysical beliefs.

When it comes to race, we tend to focus mainly on the last one. That is, the only thing we are comfortable calling “racism” is when someone believes that a person’s worth is based on the color of their skin. But metaphysical beliefs are only sustainable when they are supported by social structures and social statuses. It is very difficult to hold metaphysical beliefs that contradict our social structures and social status.

Social structures are the vast and complicated networks, routine activities and interactions that we carry out and are constantly carried out around us. They are the important influences that we tend to check our thoughts and behaviors against without really thinking about it. Thinking about the roles that others play in our life can help reveal how social structures operate: Certain people—such as parents, siblings, spouses, or friends—can have significant influence on our attitudes and behaviors.

However, all of the social mechanisms in our lives have different levels of force, and they exert different levels of influence over how we act and think. That level of influence is determined, for the most part, by what social scientists call social statuses. And social status can vary according to time and context. For example, a pastor may have a high social status when he is at church or other church-related functions, but a lower social status in more secular settings.

When it comes to building, maintaining, or dismantling worldviews, someone’s impact will depend a great deal upon their social status. This is not just because we take the opinions and actions of a low-status person less seriously, but also because our understanding of ourselves is bound up in our social statuses within our social structures. Changing our minds about an important issue can cost us a lot of social status. (Of course, sometimes there are incentives for changing our mind—times when changing our mind can elevate our status.)

The tricky thing is that we don’t usually even realize we are considering these costs and risks. It all happens below the surface. Our social forces and our metaphysical beliefs are almost always in a give-and-take relationship: We interpret our social structures according to our metaphysical beliefs, and our social structures give shape to our metaphysical beliefs and help us articulate them in ways that will preserve our social status. This relationship is what helps provide stability between our beliefs, our world, and our place in it.

Tension between what we deeply believe about the world and our social structures or statuses can be uncomfortable and disorienting. We call this “culture shock.” Avoiding “culture shock” is why we tend to seek out knowledge and social networks that support our existing views.

Discipleship of Anti-Secularism

Rational arguments are ineffective for changing culture—and they become even less effective when the arguments are about urgent metaphysical beliefs. When we argue, we aren’t only trying to change someone’s thoughts on an issue, we are attempting to change someone’s understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

People do not become more secular through rational discourse. According to a lot of different survey data, people become secular through “disruptive narrative.” Most people walk away from their faith not because an atheist made a good argument but because they had experiences that don’t support their faith.

Most of us have heard sermons about the dangers secular culture poses to our faith. These sermons are usually filled with examples of how even those of us who are Christian still operate in a secularized fashion. And when we hear these sermons pointing out how we fall short, we don’t usually reject them. We accept that we as Christians can be faithful believers who still struggle with living in line with a secular culture.

It might be helpful for us to think about white supremacy in a similar light. Faithful Christians who denounce racism and bigotry can still live in line with the cultural assumptions of white supremacy, just as we can proclaim Christ yet still navigate our day-to-day lives in a secular manner.

It is easy to see how being a part of a faithful community can help fight against secularization, but if we are going to be serious about combating a culture of white supremacy, we need to be just as dynamic. We need to disrupt our social structures and rearrange our social statuses. (Think about Jesus’ own commands that those with cultural cache in the church start acting like the servants of those who don’t, or his reminder that the least among us now are going to be the greatest among us in the Kingdom.)

White Christians not only need to be in community with more non-white Christians, but we also need to practice being invested in social structures where the “high-status” positions aren’t all occupied by the same types of people who have high status in the surrounding culture.

REFLECT AND PRAY

Think about the people who tend to rise up to leadership positions in your workplace, your local government, and other clubs, teams or informal groups of friends you might belong to.

Now consider the people who hold high status in your spiritual life—the people you go to for counsel and prayer; the people who lead your church as staff, pastors, elders and deacons; the people who lead small groups and other ministries.

Is there a big difference between what it takes to be “first” in your professional life and what it takes to be “first” in your spiritual life? Ask God to show you how you can deliberately practice letting “the first be last and the last be first” in your spiritual life.

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  • Jeff is a Residential Minister at Georgetown University. He teaches philosophy and religious studies at Prince George’s Community College and the Catholic University of America, where he is also a Ph.D. student in the Religion and Culture program.

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