The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (Smith)

“How can you believe in something you can’t see?”

disenchantment of secular discourse

My atheist friend whispered this question to me during homeroom announcements when I was 16.

So bothered was I by the one sentence interrogation that I read all of Francis Schaeffer’s works by the time I was out of high school.  From then on, apologetics (“defense of The Faith”) would always be wedded to real life for me.  Schaeffer’s argument swung on two hinges: The Personal Eternal Triune Creator Is and He has spoken.  All of life depends on proper opening of this door.  The ultimate questions of life (e.g., Who am I? Where did I come from? What is right and wrong? What happens when I die?) come through that door.  And ever since high school football practice, or English class, or talking with friends over lunch, my concern in conversation has been to persuade others that our deepest inside questions have to have an outside answer.

So it was a great thrill to read that theological thought would be allowed a voice in Steven D. Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. If the title does not tell the tale, consider some opening quotations.  People act on “comprehensive doctrines—that is, their deepest convictions about what is really true” (15).  Human-centered discussions have no ultimate basis, no standard for discovering Truth unless there is “smuggling” of “purposive cosmos . . . providential design” (26).  “Smuggling arguably allows modern discourse to function” (34).  Conversations in a separate secular arena “could not proceed very far without smuggling” because “secular vocabulary . . . is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments (emphasis his, 38-39).  Smith’s concern for years has been that no one in strictly secular circles has admitted they use other-world ideas for physical world arguments.

Smith’s chapters claim it makes no sense—indeed it’s impossible—to divorce theology from reality.  Chapter two engages the contentious “right to die” issue insisting our moral musings fit existing moral frameworks (58).  “Do no harm” in medical arenas seems obvious until chapter three reminds us of deeply rooted, external commitments apart from which we cannot operate (105).  Arbitrary fault-lines separating church-state discussions cannot be validated according to chapter four, leaving “freedom of conscience” in an earthquake zone.  So called “universal values” in chapter five are valueless unless extra-human standards are allowed (185).  And the jolting paragraphs which open chapter six introduce the reader to Joseph Vining’s The Song Sparrow and the Child leaving anti-theists left to answer “can you really live with what you say you believe” (208)?  Only conscientious, open, respectful, restrained (224-25) acknowledgment of beliefs will allow for constructive, beneficial dialogue.

Considering the number of exclamation points and statements of “wow” that appear on my review copy, one might conclude this to be the end of the review.  Not so fast.  I can imagine various atheist, agnostic, humanist, and secular readers might wonder what problems a Christian might have over Smith’s arguments.  Early on Smith exhibits a dislocation of definition.  Even if one defines a term such as “equality” (29-31) the person is still left without the essence of the thing; its history and origin is missing, untraceable within human discourse.  So while Smith wants to say outside voices should be heard, human definition is still limited because it is human-centered.  Defining “equality,” for instance, without a notion that humans were created with worth, value, and dignity is foundationless.  Comparison of important ideas—reason and truth (12, 32)—with horoscopes and school tests also seem incongruent.  So when Smith goes looking for “a trusty vehicle” suitable to carry the language of conversation, we are still left bereft of an idea’s essence or a word’s origin.  In short, “the trusty vehicle” still needs a driver (68-69).  Perhaps Smith did not see his way clear to personally commit to his own argument.

For instance, Smith wants secular discussion to include religious ideas.  The historic backdrop to “separation” of powers is properly connected to Reformational history.  The right of conscience is established—pun intended—by The Church.  Smith calls secularists to account, to acknowledge the very term which carries so much weight (“conscience”) was birthed by Churchmen.  Yet, when given the opportunity in the “separation of church and state” argument he allows the division to stand (149).  Smith’s contention for “smuggling” in religious ideas slips a gear, now refusing to ride the bike that brought him to this point.  One wishes that Smith would have added to his exhaustive 50 pages of endnotes the original intent from The Framers in The Federalist Papers: the First Amendment keeps the state from imposing religion rather than keeping religion from influencing the state.  There is also a desire at the end of chapter six for Smith to come out and declare “Can you honestly live with what you say you believe?!”  Perhaps the problem of discontinuity is an attempt not to alienate his audience.  One wonders, however, if the revelation that these chapters have been culled from journal articles, now shaped into a book, might not be the answer (279-80).

But don’t get me wrong.  Smith’s work is important for every believer invested in apologetic concerns.  All honest intellectuals ought to acknowledge and engage the debate surrounding ultimate issues.  Everyone must admit they believe something.  In so doing, everyone must admit these commitments impact them in conscious as well as invisible ways (222-23).  We are committed to “should” (an outside belief) whether we like it or not.  The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse is necessary for all doctors, lawyers, professors, scientists, theologians, rhetoricians, philosophers, ethicists, and politicians.  Anyone interested in life would be benefited!  But it is the interplay between now and then, temporal and eternal, earth and heaven that each must give the reader pause.  My atheist friend in high school made me search for answers to deep questions.  Much to his credit, Steven D. Smith wants to make sure that all the answers can be heard.

This review appeared at on 23 July 2010 for Englewood Review of Books (Vol 3, #27).  Mark teaches for Capital Seminary & Graduate School, Greenbelt, MD.  He lives in Indianapolis, IN.

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  1. I have not read the book, so I can only go on what you say in the review. “God-centered” and “human-centered” discussions are interesting because it seems like all discussions had by humans would, at least in some way or sense, have to be centered around themselves. Even a thorough rationalist or post modern skeptic would have to admit to at least he human-centeredness of every conversation. Alternately, would a humanist, atheist, or any other “ist” argue that ideas about creation, life, and life after death doesn’t affect every discussion. From the pro baseball team one follows to the schools to which one chooses to send their children, all flow from a world life view that supports (or ignores/doesn’t accept) other-worldliness. It seems like there is a bit of a straw man getting pummeled here. I must admit; I do not spend much time discussing these subjects with anyone, much less a cross section of people. In the social sciences, especially in higher realms of research and inquiry, a person’s background is there on full display. If pressed, most thinkers/social scientists are quick to admit their beliefs and how it may/did affect their work. Maybe I’ve missed the broad swath of people denying their views on god/God/gods, but I don’t see, when pressed, anyone denying core beliefs affect their positions on everything.

  2. Thanks for your good comments Kevin. I would concur with your general idea that all human communication is communication from humans. I would also agree that people do act based on what they say they believe. The point that Smith makes in his book is that the general scope of conversation in a secular environment tends to automatically eliminate any “religious” ideas without acknowledging that ideas such as human worth, value, and dignity, for example, must have an external source. There is no straw in the argument, simply taking a person’s words at face value. I would have to disagree with the idea that social scientists are ready and willing to admit their own presuppositions. In public discourse over many years I have encountered examples on both ends of the spectrum: those who are honest (as you suggest) and those who allow pride of position or perspective to automatically dismiss anyone with whom they disagree. I think you would find the book interesting if you get a chance to read it. As for people denying their core beliefs, your phrase “when pressed” is perhaps key. Like all of us, when placed in a position to see the end result of our beliefs, we may not like what we see. Thanks so much for taking the time to interact!

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