The Religion of Secularism (3)
“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’” Luke 12.19
A shape-shifting deity
Those who are committed an “under the sun” approach to life congratulate themselves on having outgrown the confining garments of religion.
In fact, they have done nothing of the sort. They have merely exchanged one form of religious garb for another. Because all people are made in the image of God, they will, if they deny the Creator Who appeals to them daily, establish some other ultimate notion of goodness, truth, or desirability to which they will devote themselves in every area of their lives (Rom. 1.18-23).
For the secularist, the god of self or will is the ultimate deity, who must be identified, pursued, realized, actualized, satisfied, and made secure. The notion of self, as of something inherently true though unseen, and precious though the product of mere chance, is common to all who embrace the secular worldview. The particular nature of the god of self, and the means to his satisfaction, varies from individual to individual, though the rough outlines remain the same in every case.
The adoration of self, which is the defining characteristic of our secular and narcissistic age, depends for its satisfaction on another deity, equally important, but harder to identify. In fact, like many pre-Christian Celtic gods, this second deity is a shape-shifter. He can be known only by his effects, by the impact he has on the self. Yet he appears in many guises and is attended by a troika of lesser deities, all indispensable for him to be able to fulfill his uniquely personal task.
I refer, of course, to the god of happiness.
The term happiness carries with it the sense of random circumstances (hap, happenstance), favorably combined in a manner agreeable to the god of self. Self imposes order on a chance-determined world as it arranges conditions to achieve the happiness it seeks. One man’s happiness may not excite his neighbor, but with the god of happiness, it’s not the particular form in which it appears that matters, but the degree to which it brings pleasure to the god of self.
The god of happiness, therefore, exists on terms dictated by the god of self. The god of self is alone able to describe the conditions of maximum satisfaction, enjoyment, pleasure, security, and ease. And the god of self will decide what form the god of happiness shall take in order to achieve that optimal state.
Put more simply, “I want what I want, and when I get what I want, I’ll be happy.” I, me, mine; lookin’ out for number 1, getting what you want. The self directs the pursuit of happiness, and the realization of happiness satisfies the self.
For some, happiness may be nothing more than a condition of material comfort, free from the cares and wants of normal life.
For others, the pleasing of self may require different conditions and, as a result, a different form of the god of happiness. Some take pleasure in oppressing others, subjecting random strangers to sudden violence, or numbing mind and body with barbiturates and alcohol. Others gain maximum pleasure in simply winning, no matter what the game or what’s at stake. In every case, while the satisfaction of the god of self remains the primary mission, the form the god of happiness will take must necessarily be different.
In our secular and relativist age, moreover, where self reigns supreme, no single standard of happiness can define the legitimate bounds of its experience or pursuit. Civil society, of course, attempts to put certain strictures on what one may pursue in the name of happiness. However, like the disorder of narcissism, many of those boundaries, as they have become more widely violated, have fallen by the wayside, and either are no longer enforced, or have been abandoned. One need only reflect on recent dramatic changes in human sexual practice, the proliferation of gambling, the definition of marriage and the terms of divorce, and the widespread availability of pornography, as indications of society’s retreat from boundaries staunchly defended by previous generations, but transmogrified over time in the service of self to merely another form of the god of happiness.
We can only speculate on the forms the pursuit of happiness might take in the generations to come. Surely some of those will entail the unhappiness of many, but that is neither here nor there.
Happiness is not just a shape-shifting deity; he is also a throw-away god, like much else in our disposable generation. If at any time he fails to satisfy in his existing state, he can be traded in, reshaped, or replaced by the latest and hottest model of whatever might be passing for happiness; and the previous form of the deity has no say as to what his successor might be. Self alone determines the true nature of happiness. The goal of secular religion is the happiness of the self. The god of self demands his pleasure; and the god of happiness exists to provide it, whatever self may require.
The confidence with which practitioners of the religion of secularism take to their calling each day is bolstered by the seemingly unlimited forms happiness can take. The fewer the boundaries defining the nature of happiness, the more adventuresome and determined the practitioners of secularism become in their quest to satisfy the god of self. Should one form proved to be a disappointment, more stand at the ready.
The god of self seeks happiness; happiness realized brings satisfaction to the self. Together, these constitute the driving force of secular religion.
1. How do people define happiness? What is happiness, and on what does it depend?
2. How can you see that the worship of self and the pursuit of happiness have eroded standards of decency in our society?
3. What’s the difference between happiness and joy? Is it possible that those who are driven by the pursuit of happiness may actually be seeking joy instead? Explain.
Next steps – Preparation: What makes secular people happy? The pursuit of happiness is a basic right of all Americans, but what forms does it take? Ask a few of your secular friends what the pursuit of happiness means to them.
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.