C.S. Lewis and the Unknown Idols of ‘Secularism’ in the Twenty-first Century


C.S. Lewis, as one of this century’s two greatest popular apologists (the other being G. K. Chesterton), had many wonderful insights which have had a considerable influence on many Christians. His ability to make clear and convincing arguments in support of Christian claims, his affirmation of the place of reason and the virtues in the Christian life and his wonderful gift for creative writing have enhanced the lives of many. In this paper I shall examine an area of Lewis’ thought that has had little attention: idolatry and its relationship to faith and secularism.

The central distinction of our age is not between the secular and the religious, but between true religion and idolatry. Idolatry can take many shapes and there is almost no limit to the kinds of things (self, job, another person, material goods etc.) one can put in the place of God. If we define “religion” too narrowly, we risk excluding idolatry from the picture. If we create a language that removes the idea of idolatry from religion in incorrect ways, we will do damage to religion. If we endorse a notion of the “secular” that suggests an area where God is not, we err.

In what follows I argue that our use of the term “secular” suggests a “neutral sphere” or a “middle ground” between proper faith and idolatry: “middle ground” that is erroneous and against a proper understanding of the Christian faith. More controversially, I examine whether and how C.S. Lewis made (or failed to make) this distinction in his writings.

“Secular” and “Secularism”

The term “secular” meant “belonging to the world and its affairs as distinct from the church and religion; civil, lay, temporal.” “Secularism” meant “the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state.” 1

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church informs us that the term “secularism” is a recent term (c.1850) that:

…denotes a system which seeks to interpret and order life on principles taken solely from this world, without recourse to belief in God and a future life…The term is now widely used in a more general sense for the modern tendency to ignore, if not to deny, the principles of supernatural religion in the interpretation of the world and existence.2

In the Modern Catholic Dictionary, John Hardon S.J. adds to this definition of secularism: “it is a closed system that affirms that human existence and destiny are fully explainable in terms of this world without reference to eternity.” 3

Secularism and “Idolatry”:

It is important to consider the definition of “secularism” together with the concept of “idolatry.” Interestingly, the author gives the contemporary idea of secularism as a form of modern idolatry:

The early Christians were martyred for refusing to worship idols, even externally, but practical idolatry is a perennial threat to the worship of the one true God. Modern secularism is a form of practical idolatry, which claims to give man freedom to be an end unto himself, the sole artisan and creator of his own history4

Many modern Christians, like the non-Christians around them, speak of the secular as a sphere of existence in which God is absent. In this they are similar to those who say “I am not religious,” thinking that their refusal to accept particular dogmatic propositions removes them from the categories of “religion.” But is a “non-believer” non-religious if we assume a wider definition of faith than that indicated by attendance at places of worship or formal practices of a particular religion (such as prayer)? If we define “religion” as that set of principles concerning ultimate purpose and meaning, and “gods” those things a person puts in their lives where religious worship would be if they acknowledged religion, then is anyone, in this sense, non-religious?

If modern secularism is a form of practical idolatry, Christians should be skeptical of endorsing the idea of the “secular.”

If we accept this wider definition of religion, which I argue is closer to the Scriptural understanding of the matter, many Christians unthinkingly support an error by using the term “secular” to mean “a non-religious area.” I seek to examine whether, within the Christian understanding, there is any warrant for this use of the “secular” as a prop for a world-view that splits existence into areas where God is and God is not.

The “Unknown Gods” and “Materialism”

Paul, on the Areopagus in Athens, spoke to the pagan Greeks through the gods they acknowledged, including the “unknown god.”5 Our task today is somewhat more difficult. We must attempt to speak to modern people, many of whom believe that they do not believe anything “religious” and who do not know anything about “idolatry.”

They believe that their “secularism” is devoid of anything like “faith.” But this view is in error, for everyone today functions with natural faith and with idols of whatever sort.

The contemporary mistake is to assume that the only worship we have around us is what goes on in churches or is expressed in some manifestly religious “new-age” or neo-pagan religious language that speaks of gods or goddesses. But is not contemporary materialism just as much a “faith” commitment in its idolatry of the material? In the “unknown God” passage in Acts, Paul notes that the God he wanted to proclaim was the one the Athenians already worshipped “without knowing it.” Such is the position of the contemporary idolatry of the material.

The first two commandments are not directed towards atheism but to idolatry–which is worship of the wrong thing in the place of God.6 The rise of the New Age movement in which literally everything goes amounts to variants of worshipping “the inner light” or viewing everything as sacred – – a kind of religion with only a subjective and personal dogma. The fact that where people’s treasure is is where their hearts will be, leads us to conclude that, in fact, every person “worships” something – – even if it is just that he or she is making a god of him or herself. Consider the new cult of the body. In this cult is not the fitness-gym a kind of temple, attended regularly, where jogging or a stair-master require commitment and discipline (“no pain no gain”), spiritual direction replaced by a personal trainer and a work-out followed by a shower or fruit-juice with friends as a replacement “service” and “fellowship?”

And consider the language used with reference to work and the fact that vocation (the call to holiness) has shrunk to occupation (one’s job). Fewer and fewer Christians distinguish in their thought between the notion of vocation and the notion of occupation. Without such a distinction, one is in danger of seeing one’s “calling” as if it refers to what one does as a job, rather than the holiness that applies wherever one works. Where this confusion is rampant, it should not surprise us that religious terms such as “sacrifice,” “commitment” and “dedication” are applied to the attitude to work. The application of religious terms to other aspects of life shed an interesting light on the question of whether by “secular”, we mean something that is non-religious or something that actually tends towards idolatry.

Scripture nowhere suggests that the pursuit of Mammon is not a type of worship. If we read for Mammon, materialism, in which our “god” is money or material acquisition, does the exclusive pursuit of that end amount to anything less than the placing of something (or someone) else in the place that ought to be reserved for God Himself? If so, then with materialism we are dealing with a kind of idolatry in which the idols may be unknown but are idols just the same.

C.S. Lewis’ Writings

What do Lewis’ writings have to say to these questions in our time?

In the BBC broadcasts from the 1940’s that eventually became Mere Christianity (1952), Lewis begins the second section of that book “What Christians Believe” by stating that humanity can be divided into two big divisions. This first division is, “…the majority, who believe in some kind of God or gods, and the minority who do not.” 7 In the penultimate chapter of the book Lewis comments on the error of seeing the world as “neatly divided into two camps–Christian and non-Christian…” In this passage Lewis qualifies his original sharp distinction between those who believe and those who do not:

The world does not consist of 100 per cent. Christians and 100 per cent. non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled together. Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass….If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time.8

Is Lewis correct when he distinguishes between those who “believe in some kind of God or gods and those who do not” if even a Buddhist (who does not believe in God or gods) can “belong to Christ without knowing it?” Recall the following well-known passage from the final volume of the Narnia tales, The Last Battle. There, Emeth, the young Calormene soldier, who has served his god Tash since he was a boy, and to whom the name of Aslan was hateful, is nonetheless welcomed by Aslan:

But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then, by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which though hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Doust thou understand, child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.9

According to Lewis’ reasoning, the good in a thing, if pursued for the correct reasons, will eventually be honoured. If this is so for an overtly “religious” Calormene in The Last Battle, why would it not also apply to the contemporary “secularist” who thinks himself “non-religious” but pursues goodness with all his best efforts? In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge University (1955), Lewis said that “Christians and pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.”10

While there is a certain truth that those who are aware that they worship may have a common bond not available to those who are not so aware, is Lewis correct to suggest that there is anyone who does not “worship” in the widest sense? Or is Lewis in danger of failing to identify the essentially “religious” dimension of idolatry? In an article written later in the 1950’s Lewis seems to make the same observation–that only those who “worship” have gods. He writes:

Men who have gods worship those gods; it is the spectators who describe this as ‘religion’….the moment a man seriously accepts a deity his interest in ‘religion’ is at an end….the ease with which we can now get an audience for a discussion of religion does not prove that more people are becoming religious. What it really proves is the existence of a large `floating vote’. Every conversion will reduce this potential audience.11

Note that Lewis assumes that only express religious commitment is religious and it is “men who have gods who worship those gods…” He does not acknowledge a category of idolatry in which men do not acknowledge their gods but “worship” them nonetheless. Is Lewis consistent in this? Does he ever support the idea that people may worship the wrong things or view religion as something that may be seen in terms of what people put in the place of the ultimate? After all, the Scriptures remind us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also and that one cannot serve (or be a slave to) both God and Mammon.12

By focusing on pagan worship or putting too much emphasis on “unbelief” rather than noting “unknown gods” or “unknown idols”, Lewis risks missing both “unknown gods” and idolatry as well as the apologetic advantages such a recognition provides.

Certainly there is still a difference between one who knows one is engaged in the pursuit or worship of God or gods and one who does not, but to say, from a Christian perspective, that only conscious idolatry or worship are idolatry or worship is clearly wrong. Lewis realized that the Pagan and the Christian have more in common than the unconscious idolater with either a consciously worshipping pagan or Christian, but he did not develop the idolatry of the modern person and tended to obscure it by accepting too readily the category of “non-belief.”

Lewis did have some notion of the “post-Christian” and once observed that: “a post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.” 13 Lewis realized the open-ness to religious articulation that exists between pagans and Christians but failed to note the religious–or idolatrous aspects of secularism. G.K. Chesterton did not miss this point and in numerous places showed that worship of the “inner light”, for example, was “worship” of a sort and should be viewed as such. Recall the following passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and en thusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.14

Lewis recognized that it is important to “learn the language of our audience” in apologetics.15 Yet despite his observation “that you must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular”16 neither of the key words ìsecularî or idolatry appear in a list of words he prepared to assist those working to make a case for the Christian faith and he did not devote the attention he dealt to other notions to the concept of idolatry.

Lewis was aware that a mark of the fact that we are made for heaven is our desire for it and that our desires may not be “yet attached to the true object” and may even “appear as a rival of that object”17 but, curiously, he does not get beneath the surface of the notion of “secularism” with this observation. In the current climate, for example, it is necessary to point out how idolatrous many aspects of contemporary life have become. Similarly, Lewis notes that:

Religions buzz around us like bees. A serious sex worship–quite different from the cheery lechery endemic in our species–is one of them. Traces of embryonic religions occur in science-fiction. Meanwhile, as always, the Christian way too is followed. But nowadays, when it is not followed, it need not be feigned. That fact covers a good deal of what is called the decay of religion. 18

Here Lewis notes both the prevalence of competing religions and what he calls “serious sex worship.” But leaving aside how partial such a “religion” would be, is this not “worship” of whatever sort and the “decay of religion” a movement towards forms of idolatry of many sorts? Again, in answer to the question “which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness?” Lewis answered: “While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is best.” 19

How can these fleeting references to religion in the widest sense be squared with Lewis’ other comments that seem to divide people between those who worship and those who do not? Commenting on the “minimal religion” that waters down Christianity, Lewis says that it will leave us what we were doing before. Such a religion would “…leave Buddhists still Buddhists, and Nazis still Nazis….[and us] as Western, mechanised, democratic, secularised men – – exactly where we were.”20 Herein lies the problem.

Did Lewis Recognize Idolatry?

Lewis in his writing recognises that there can be “worship of the self” and that there is around us a plethora of “religions” and “religious attitudes” (such as “sex worship”) but tends to use the term “secular” which to contemporary audiences means “non-religious” as if a move to idolatry is somehow, not “religious.”

By failing to identify “secularism” as its own kind of religion, Lewis, uncharacteristically, missed an important apologetic opportunity that we ought to pick up on today and perhaps contributed, however slightly, to a dangerous contemporary dualism in which the “secular” is viewed as non-religious and non-sacramental.

In an interesting comment in one of his lesser known pieces of writing, Lewis wrote that: “faith perfects nature but faith lost corrupts nature. Therefore many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light but also the natural light which pagans possessed.” 21

Note again the validity and the danger in what Lewis writes. Lewis is correct to point out that the loss of the categories of natural theology is a diminution, but incorrect when he assumes that when “faith” is lost what is left is non-religious or non-idolatrous. The Christian unbeliever is not a non-believer in religious terms; whatever is placed in a position of ultimacy is that person’s god or idol. There is no middle ground between faith and idolatry and the person who moves away from true faith has moved towards idolatry of whatever sort.

The key question to ask is: “in what (or who) does one have faith?” In his brilliant analysis of various approaches to Christianity Lewis seems to assume too readily that the non-Christian believer is not “religious.” Thus, in his rejection of “liberal” Christianity (defined as “minimal religion”) he concludes that rather than the “obscenities and cruelties of paganism” one is “perhaps better to starve in a wholly secularised and meaningless universe…”22 But for a Christian there is simply no such thing as a ìsecularised universeî except as a category of error for those who do not accept religion or idolatry.

Lewis recognized that the loss of “pagan virtue” was catastrophic for society because it marked a turning in to the self as the standard for valuative judgment and had a corresponding fragmenting effect on society itself. He saw that it would presage great problems in subsequently teaching modern people about truth at all–including the truths of the Gospel. This point is extremely important and overlooked by many contemporary Christians who seem to think that Christian concepts can be placed on top of deep ethical relativism and unconscious idolatry. Lewis knew that paganism and the Christian faith had important aspects in common against relativism:

For my part I believe we ought to work not only at spreading the Gospel (that certainly) but also at a certain preparation for the Gospel. It is necessary to recall many to the law of nature before we talk about God. For Christ promises forgiveness of sins: but what is that to those who, since they do not know thelaw of nature, do not know that they have sinned? Who will take medicine unless he knows he is in the grip of disease? Moral relativity is the enemy we have to overcome before we tackle Atheism. I would almost dare to say “First let us make the younger generation good pagans and afterwards let us make them Christians”. 23

Terms such as “secular” or “values” that now occupy key places in contemporary life call for clear Christian analysis. The fact that these key terms are used everywhere and are recent seems not to be widely recognized. Lewis did not himself address either term. Those who seek to follow and develop the same tradition as Lewis, will need to be careful of both these terms and come to recognise them .24

If relativism is the enemy that must be attacked before atheism, then how much more must it be attacked when it is within the faith itself. If the moral language of Christians has itself become corrupt and if Christians fail to see idolatry in part because of Christianity’s acceptance of a “non-religious secularism”, then a task of clarification and re-education amongst Christians will be an important aspect of any deep evangelism in our times. The theological virtue of hope was one Lewis possessed; he never thought that effort in opposition to error was wasted. He knew that education is important to society, but that the Christian faith would not be passed on in the schools of a society that is not predominantly Christian. Given the importance Lewis placed on reason 25 and his clear sense of the objective moral order, it appears that Christian teaching itself is in need of thorough re-working in our day.

Many people in our society are largely unaware of their own moral and ethical premises. Misuse of key terms such as “secular” or “secularism”, the virtual disappearance of any functional notion of “idolatry,” and the loss of any systematic teaching of “virtues” (and the corresponding rise of the ambiguous or relativistic subjective language of “values”) all combine to make it difficult for our generation to speak with confidence about objective truth or to properly engage the “unknown gods” of our own day.

Everyone worships something whether or not they realize it. The question then becomes: what are our gods and which notion of God has the greatest explanatory power? By granting the secular a “non-religious” stature we make express worship a second-best or “private” option for a supposedly neutral and non-religious secular society. Once we allow a mutated “separation doctrine” that applies not, as it should, to the roles of organized religion versus the state apparatus but separates the spiritual from the so-called “secular” we find all the important aspects of the state (law and education to name two) inside the walls of supposed “neutrality” and the spiritual relegated merely to the private sphere. A widespread recognition of the sacred aspects of life–all life and endeavour–ought to lead to a recovery of a proper relation between the sacred and the mundane, the Church and the State.

© IAIN T. BENSON, E-mail:

Iain Benson is a lawyer, writer and lecturer who lives on Bowen Island BC, Canada, with his wife Eleanor and their seven children. He is the Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Renewal in Public Policy, Ottawa, a charitable, non-partisan, independent public-policy institute focused on the question of the complex connections between public policy, culture, moral discourse and religious conviction. He lectures widely on topics related to law, religion and culture and is on the advisory committee of the Institute for Bioethics and Medical Ethics, Bratislava, Slovak Republic. Recent publications include entries on “rights” “values” and “virtues” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity ed. Banks and Stevens (I.V.P. 1997) and “G.K. Chesterton” “Roman Catholicism” and “Truth” in C.S. Lewis: A Reader’s Encyclopoedia ed. Schultz (Zondervan, 1998).

* The Author would like to thank Rev. Robert Brow, Susan Munro, Eleanor Benson, Richard Osler and Rev. Herbert O’Driscoll for their comments on earlier drafts.



1Secular, Secularism, Shorter Oxford English Dictionary ed. C. T. Onions, 3rd ed. (Oxford: O.U.P., 1973), II, p. 1926.

2 Secularism, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church ed. F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, 2nd ed. (Oxford: O.U.P. 1974) p.p. 1255 – 1256.

3 John A. Hardon S.J. Modern Catholic Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1980) ìsecularismî p. 496.

4 ibid. idolatry, p.264, emphasis added.

5 Acts 17: 23. 6 Deut 5: 7 – 8.

7 Mere Christianity (London: Bles, 1952) p. 29.

8 ibid. pp. 164 – 165.

9 The Last Battle (London: The Bodley Head, 1956) p. 149.

10 “De Descriptione Temporum,” Selected Literary Essays ,ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1969), p.5.

11 “Revival or Decay?” God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) p. 250.

12 Mat 6: 21,24; Luke 16:13.

13 Above, note #10, p.10, emphasis added.

14 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton Collected Works Vol. 1, ed. David Dooley (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986) p. 279. In Sidelights On New London and Newer York (London: Sheed and Ward, 1932) Chesterton notes that the American gods are worshipped by Americans “with half their hearts” in a kind of “half-hearted idolatry” and, with his characteristic generosity, notes that “…for often, while gods are of brass, the hearts are of gold” (p.91).

15 “Christian Apologetics” see above note #11 p. 89 at p. 96.

16 ibid. p. 98, the list of words is found at pp. 96 – 98.

17 “The Weight of Glory” in They Asked for a Paper (London: Bles, 1962) p. 197 at p. 199.

18 “Revival or Decay?” see note #11, p. 250 at p. 253.

19 ibid. “Answers to Questions on Christianity” p.48 at p.58. 20 ibid. “Religion Without Dogma” p. 129 at p. 141 emphasis added.

21 Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis to Don Giovanni Calabria, ed. Martin Moynihan (London: Collins, 1989) at pp. 89 – 90. 22 “Religion Without Dogma?” note #11 above, p. 129 at p. 143.

23 Above, note #21, at pp. 90 – 91 (emphasis in original, underlining added).

24 The writings of the Canadian philosopher George Grant (1918 – 1988) are illuminating in many areas including the rise of the “language of values.” During his DPhil. studies at Oxford in the 1940’s Grant, with his future wife Sheila Allen, used to attend the Socratic Club meetings presided over by Lewis. Of his first such experience at a Socratic Club meeting Grant wrote: “Here was exactly what I had come back to Oxford for, clear, immensely articulate, un-touched by rhetorical foolishness, sensible and above all sane talk about Xianity. Just the real, right thing.” (Letter from George Grant to Iain Benson, March 4, 1988, unpublished). For a “Grantean” approach to the dangers of “values language” see: Iain T. Benson, “Values,” and “Virtues,” The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity ed. Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens (Downer’s Grove: I.V.P. 1997), pp. 1064 – 1066 and pp. 1069 – 1072.

25 “The Poison of Subjectivism”,Christian Reflections ed. Walter Hooper (London: Bles, 1967) p.72 at p.79. Lewis notes that: “A theology which goes about to represent our practical reason as radically unsound is heading for disaster. If we once admit that what God means by ‘goodness’ is sheerly different from what we judge to be good, there is no difference left between pure religion and devil worship.”