Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 109, Issue 2, pp 203–208

The Sacred/Secular Divide and the Christian Worldview


    • University of Central Arkansas
  • David McCalman
    • University of Central Arkansas
  • Dan Fisher
    • University of Central Arkansas

DOI: 10.1007/s10551-011-1119-z

Cite this article as:
Kim, D., McCalman, D. & Fisher, D. J Bus Ethics (2012) 109: 203. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-1119-z


Many employees with strong religious convictions find themselves living in two separate worlds: the sacred private world of family and church where they can express their faith freely and the secular public world where religious expression is strongly discouraged. We examine the origins of sacred/secular divide, and show how this division is an outcome of modernism replacing Christianity as the dominant worldview in western society. Next, we make the case that guiding assumptions (or faith) is inherent in every worldview, system of thought, or religion and also show that scientific reason can never be a comprehensive or totalizing meaning system, particularly in the realm of ethics. The underlying assumptions of the sacred/secular divide are seriously questioned which has implications for employees who desire to integrate faith and career. Finally, we offer possibilities for individuals and corporate entities to integrate the personal and sacred with the institutional and secular.




Many employees with strong religious convictions find themselves living in two separate worlds: the private world of family and church where they can express their faith freely and the public world where religious expression is strongly discouraged. The commonly held viewpoint is that the sacred and secular worlds are separate and distinct. Worship is for Sundays, but on other days one’s thinking and behavior is set to conform to the secular world. We make a distinction between someone who is “religious” as opposed to one who is “non-religious” (Fort 1996; Pearcey 2004).

Those with deeply held convictions desire work/career to mean something more than earning a paycheck or impressing colleagues. They want to pursue life where the concerns of career and everyday life are interwoven through morality. But instead of leading whole and integrated lives, they find they must put aside their beliefs at work and instead put on a “secular” mindset. They have been taught that faith is strictly personal and that it has no place in the public arena. Furthermore, the purpose and meaning of career is defined in secular terms. It is all about climbing the corporate ladder, seeking prestige that comes with the job title, and making decisions solely on highest salary or compensation. Sometimes, it is doing what is best for the company even if it goes against one’s deeply held beliefs (Chase 2004; Pearcey 2004).

This division and conflict involving sacred life versus secular life is not new. Sermons exhort people to live out their faith in the secular marketplace. Numerous works offer insights of the roles and expectations of Christian employees, with particular attention paid to how they might serve God in the workplace (e.g., Mattox 1978; Nash 1994; Peabody 1974). Researchers have addressed Christian perspectives in business ethics (e.g., Calkins 2000; Kim et al. 2009; Rossouw 1994), while others have explored the meaning and significance of work in light of the Protestant work ethic (e.g., Ryken 1986). In 2004, an entire issue of Business & Professional Ethics Journal was devoted to highlighting the distinction between Christian and corporate ethics and ways to bridge the gap between them (see Chase 2004).

This distinction is based on the sacred/secular division in modern society that, in theory, clearly separates these two modes of existence. In practice, however, things can get messy. Is it possible to so precisely divide these two worlds in a person? Is suppression of one’s deeper ideas, attitudes, and beliefs—more often than not, grounded in religion—possible or even completely desirable in secular institutions? While businesses frequently espouse how ethics are important and valued, many adhere to a strict policy of not admitting any personal moral viewpoints into the workplace. Is this a good, realistic practice, from a business ethics, human resource, and profitability perspective?

Serious questioning and rethinking of the sacred/secular divide is occurring not only from the sacred side of the divide, but from the secular side as well. In his recent book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion the renowned scientist Stuart Kaufmann (2010) works through the cutting edge of science to propose a deep connection between the natural world and religion. His work proposes a new partnership between science and religious values and shows how the division that existed between them is based on too simplistic and reductionist of an understanding. The champion of modernist thinking in the social sciences, Jurgen Habermas (2010) writes in An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-secular Age about the crucial global need for an open dialog between “Reason” and “Religions.” He contends that the secular and the religious have their roles but should more fully recognize their limitations. This would have the effect of admitting that these need to work together to help solve some of our biggest, most stubborn problems caused by religious and ideological fundamentalism, of which he sees secularization as its own type of inflexible fundamentalism.

In light of all this, we trace the origins and development of the sacred/secular division and show how this was deftly constructed to legitimize and prioritize the secular over the sacred. We note especially how secular dominance was an outcome of modernism replacing Christianity as the dominant worldview in western society. Next, we make the case that guiding assumptions (or faith) is inherent in all worldviews, philosophies, or religions. This allows us to deconstruct and destabilize the sacred/secular grid by showing that scientific reason can never be a comprehensive or totalizing meaning system, particularly in the realm of ethics. The underlying assumptions of the sacred/secular divide are seriously questioned which has implications for employees who desire to integrate faith and career. Finally, we offer possibilities for individuals and corporate entities to integrate the personal and sacred with the institutional and secular.

The Sacred/Secular Division

We accept the commonly held notion that life is divided between a sacred realm, limited to things like worship and personal morality, and a secular realm that includes science, politics, economics, and the rest of the public arena. Schaeffer (1982) suggests that the concept of truth itself has been divided as exemplified by a picture of a two storey building. The lower floor is the secular realm. Science and reason, which are considered public truth binding on everyone, reside in the lower floor. Above it is an upper floor of noncognitive experience which is the domain of personal meaning. This is the sacred realm of private truth where we state that truth and morality are strictly personal. The two storey building can be drawn as follows:

The significance of understanding this division cannot be stressed enough. This division effectively delegitimizes biblical and all religious perspectives in the public arena. Instead of questioning the veracity of Christian doctrine or religious claims, we simply consign religion to the sphere of private truth (upper floor), which takes it out of the realm of true and false altogether. We say we respect one’s religion, but also deny that it has any relevance to objectivity and universally accepted truths (Pearcey 2004).

Berger (1977) describes a public/private dichotomy which is a division between the large institutions of the public sphere such as the state, academia, and corporations and the private sphere of family, church, and personal relationships. The large public institutions house scientific (value-free) and genuine knowledge whereas the private sphere is all about personal values, personal choices, and beliefs. The private sacred realm includes different religious views including Christianity, Jewish, Muslim, New Age, and so forth. But the public secular realm is where everyone has access to neutral (value-free) knowledge. It is knowledge that is objective and free of any religion or ideology. An illustration of the public/private divide is found in the political-religious literature which discusses whether a public figure may rely on his religious beliefs in proposing policy or deciding cases (Fort 1996). On a broader scale, because Christianity is simply a religion, it has no relation with objective truth to which we submit. Christianity is simply a chosen belief, or mere wish fulfillment (Pearcey 2004). The following captures another way of examining the sacred/secular division.

How We Got Here: Modernism and the Sacred/Secular Divide

Our worldview forms the context within which we base our understanding of reality, knowledge, morality, and life’s meaning and purpose (Sire 1997; Walsh and Middleton 1984). Our worldview has a profound impact on how we decide what is real versus unreal, what is right versus wrong, and what is important versus unimportant. It shapes our culture and expresses itself in all institutions including the arts, religion, education, media, and business. Modernism, and increasingly post-modernism is the dominant worldview of our culture.

We can trace the origins of the sacred/secular division to modernism, or the post-enlightenment philosophy of empiricism and human reason. The modern worldview rejects any notion of a supernatural or transcendent dimension that provides meaning, purpose and coherence beyond the physical events that we observe. Stated differently, modernism rejects all non-empirical ways of knowing or the possibility that there is more to the world than what we can directly access with our senses (Daniels et al. 2000; Yaman 2003).

As modernism gradually replaced Christianity as the dominant worldview in the western world, it essentially eliminated God from the public arena. Modernists believed the growth of newly discovered facts based on human reasoning and the scientific method would yield a unified answer for all knowledge and life. Such thinking was not surprising given the rapid and impressive growth of modern science during the 1700s. Tremendous advancements in knowledge in fields like medicine, biology, anatomy, mechanics, and astronomy were the result of applying logic, observation, and experimentation as well as building on the works of other scientists and scholars (Hunt 1991; Kim et al. 2009). The potential power of human reason and science seemed limitless. The success of the scientific revolution generated confidence that scientific reason could provide the path to authentic knowledge and truth. Christianity was no longer compatible with truth or answers for all knowledge and life (Pearcey 2004).

This thinking, however, also effectively altered views about life’s meaning and purpose, and morality. Over time, human reason essentially replaced God in determining moral laws. For instance, under utilitarianism moral issues were no longer based on God’s Word, or transcendent truth but on practicality. Stealing was wrong not because it was against Scripture, but because it adversely affected the economic system (Dewey 1922; James 1907; Veith 1994).

Darwin’s case that we can explain creation without God changed our view about human life and further reinforced the notion that scientific reason could explain everything. If we have evolved from earlier life forms, then there is nothing inherent and original about our nature, and therefore religion and morality are no longer transcendent truths but instead are products of human subjectivity. We create our own morality and meaning through choices. This line of thinking has contributed to the value versus fact dichotomy that underlies public education. By the time students enter college, they believe in objective truth presented in science, and sometimes in history, but rarely in ethics or morality. Science is all about facts whereas morality is about values (Bloom 1987; Pearcey 2004).

Continuing with the sacred/secular framework, we present a Values/Facts division. Values are personal and subjective. It is relative to the individual, culture, or time in history. Morality and ethics, religion, personal meaning and so forth are placed on this floor. The “Values” floor is separated from the secular floor of “Facts” representing knowledge based on scientific reason.

The Values/Fact division may also help explain today’s moral relativism where ethical standards are set according to a particular culture, individual, or time in history. We assume that morality is culturally relative, that ideas and beliefs emerge historically by cultural forces, and are not right or wrong in any final sense. In our culture, behavior once considered immoral is now tolerated, or has become the new norm. Tolerance is viewed as the highest ethic. However, tolerance often implies that all values, beliefs, claims to truth, and lifestyles are equal and therefore no one can claim that one person’s ethics are any better than another (Cotton 1996; Pearcey 2004).

The effect of moral relativism in business has been the inability to establish standards of right versus wrong, even though it is necessary to enforce ethical conduct. Instead, the normative foundation for business ethics at best is based on values common across different religions (Brammer et al. 2007), or on the context (historical, cultural, situational, or individual) that influences ethical behavior (Ferrell and Gresham 1985). Forsyth (1992) discusses the futility of determining what is ethical versus unethical given that we should respect the moral philosophies of each individual.

In sum, modernism and the resulting sacred/secular divide simply changed our views regarding knowledge, truth, and morality. Although scientific reason held the promise of being able to explain everything, it could not resolve moral issues nor address fundamental existential questions (Starke and Finke 2000; Swatos and Christiano 1999). Today, many accept this framework at face-value, but a closer examination reveals flaws and limitations of such thinking.

The Sacred/Secular Division: A Closer Examination

As shown earlier, a worldview represents the framework from which we base our understanding of reality as well as life’s meaning and purpose. Every worldview or system of thought, philosophy, or religion begins with some ultimate principle or premise. This premise shapes everything that follows. If we were to take any set of ideas back far enough, we will eventually reach some starting point. This starting point has to be taken as self-existent—the ultimate reality and source of everything else. There is no reason for it to exist; it just “is.” It can be God or some dimension of our universe—the material, the spiritual, the biological, the empirical, or whatever. This starting assumption or ultimate premise has to be accepted by faith, not by prior reasoning. Otherwise, it is really not the starting point for all reasoning, something else is (Sire 1997; Pearcey 2004; Walsh and Middleton 1984).

With modernism, the ultimate reference point is human reason. But reason means more than our ability to think rationally. It is accepted, by faith, as an infallible and autonomous source of truth, independent of any religion or philosophy. However, because reason is a function of the human mind, it cannot produce perfect objectivity and certainty and therefore cannot be an autonomous source of truth (Ariely 2010; Kant 1871/2008; Kuhn 1996; LaTour 1993). The mistake lies in thinking that reason is unbiased or neutral, unaffected by anyone else’s point of view, and that it produces perfect objectivity. Because the foundational presuppositions of modernism are ultimately unprovable we can actually begin to question and scrutinize its assumptions including the notion that the sacred and secular worlds must be separated, that you are either “religious” or “non-religious,” and that objective truth resides only in the secular realm.

Accepting the presuppositions of modernism with its sacred/secular division requires faith, much like a religion. In this sense, every worldview or system of thought including post-modernism, atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and so forth is a type of religion. It is not as though Christians have faith, while the non-religious base their convictions purely on facts and reason. We all interpret facts in light of some system of thought. Whether we believe we are part of God’s creation, or the product of evolutionary processes, or both, or that supernatural events are possible versus impossible, we will always apply reason in service to that ultimate belief which shapes our worldview (Pearcey 2004).

Examining modernism as a worldview allows us to reconsider what is real versus unreal, important versus unimportant, and right versus wrong. Worldview thinking allows us to assess our culture as it is expressed through the media, business, education, politics, and the arts. For the Christian employee, it provides the guidance to breaking the sacred/secular grid and thus integrating faith with work.

Breaking the Sacred/Secular Divide: The Christian Worldview

The sacred/secular framework sheds light on those whose lives are divided: one is the private life of church, family, and personal devotion and the other is the public secular life of the workplace, or anywhere outside of home. For many Christian employees, this division is seen in the conflict between personal beliefs (sacred) and corporate morality (secular). Numerous writings and sermons call on Christians to glorify God at home and at work (Peabody 1974). And yet people of faith continue to live in two different worlds where the lessons on Sunday worship have little resemblance to the thoughts and conduct exhibited at work.

This can be attributed to believers accepting the sacred/secular thinking at face-value. They have come to believe that the biblical perspective, like all religions, is biased. They believe that being truly objective means keeping their faith to themselves and thinking like non-believers at work. In some cases, it means doing what is in the best interest of the company even if it goes against one’s deeply held beliefs. Corporate life can be completely separate from their personal walk with the Lord. But no Christian, in any line of work, can be satisfied when torn in two different directions.

For the Christian or anyone with deeply held convictions to break free from the sacred/secular grid requires that he clearly understand Christianity as a worldview as opposed to a religion. It means that Christianity can no longer be placed in the upper floor of the sacred domain. It must be accepted as a worldview that addresses all of life and reality, not just the religious aspect.

As stated before, every worldview is founded on some ultimate principle (e.g., God or some aspect of our universe) which must be accepted by faith. In this sense, modernism with its sacred/secular division and the assumptions behind them can be considered a religion. It is vitally important for Christians to know that their faith is grounded in truth that can be thoroughly examined both rationally and historically.

Historic Christianity teaches that spiritual truths are firmly rooted in historical events and is open to verification and discussion (Schaeffer 1982). The apostle Paul argues that if Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection had not happened in real history, then our faith would be worthless. He also points out that about five hundred people were eyewitnesses to the fact that Christ was alive after His crucifixion to further authenticate the Gospel message to verification (see 1 Corinthians 15).

Scripture has much to say about human nature and behavior that is consistent with what we observe in ourselves and others. Christian ethics founded on Scripture gives moral standards or a common platform that allow us to judge between right and wrong. For everyday vocational life, it teaches the value of practicing good stewardship of money and resources. God’s word does not make a distinction between sacred versus secular work. It is not as though serving God requires full-time ministry, and that employment outside of church is worldly as some mistakenly assume. Instead, all lines of work should integrate spiritual and sacred aspects of work as illustrated by the Protestant work ethic and its concern for the common good, altruism and self-sacrifice (Calkins 2000; Colson and Pearcey 1999).

For the Christian employee, a job is more than running a business or making a living. The New Testament encourages the believer to walk in the Spirit (see Galatians 5: 16) which requires relying upon the Holy Spirit in discerning God’s personal calling. This will manifest itself in many ways such as the commitment to developing high quality products for consumer benefit, giving honest service, keeping one’s word, and caring about the welfare of employees (Rossouw 1994). This can also mean that the believer will stand up for what is right against injustice and make decisions that limits career success like recognition, advancement and pay. However, job achievement is never the ultimate goal of the believer’s life. Instead, it is one where faith and work are interwoven through morality, where hour after hour, day after day, good work is evident to all (Peabody 1974).


Our worldview affects all aspects of life, especially decisions related to job and career. Many continue to process their thoughts through the sacred/secular prism as it is deeply etched in their worldview. It is not uncommon to find many well-meaning Christians who faithfully attend church but who have absorbed a worldview that makes it easy for them to ignore their Christian principles when it comes to do the practical business of work and daily living. Their sincerely held beliefs are held in one mental category (sacred) and practical decision-making is in another (secular).

For believers, breaking free from the sacred/secular grid requires re-thinking what Christianity entails and understanding that it is more than a “religion.” Christianity touches on all areas including social issues, history, politics, science and anthropology, morality and especially one’s career and personal life. Any worldview, or system of thought whether it is Christianity, modernism, post-modernism, Judaism, New Age, or whatever requires faith in an ultimate principle as a source of truth, knowledge, and morality. This ultimate principle can be God, scientific reason, or any religion or philosophy. When Christianity is seen in the larger context of worldviews, where the ultimate premise is founded on faith, it allows the believer to see the artificiality of the sacred/secular grid and to break free from it.

On a broader scale, if we can agree that the secular/sacred divide is no longer as solid as we once thought, we will find new opportunities to interrogate and integrate all aspects of private and public lives. One possible outcome might be an engaged and active dialog that questions behaviors and decisions from a range of perspectives, with the result of a more studied reflection applied to the world around us.

Relativism is commonly seen as making ethics problematic because an ultimate standard of right and wrong cannot be achieved. Tolerance in today’s secular realm teaches us not to question or engage, but merely accept what people do. This translates all too often to non-involvement. Active dialog between worldviews such as reason and religion, on the other hand, continually highlights the ethical aspects of nearly every decision we make. The difference is that we would make choices in full light of our guiding assumptions (faith) and be more apt to reflect on, discuss, and even critique and modify these. The ethical nature of our daily actions would be brought to and kept at the forefront rather than disappear into the background of lives, which the current model of cloistering the religious-based moral viewpoints often does.

We may see ethics as an ever-evolving negotiation between our beliefs and all our life experiences, where each can influence and change each other. This may enable ethics as we now commonly conceive it a chance to evolve and strengthen through deeper questioning and active experimentation. Finally, this dialog might encourage more people to question or affirm the foundations of their faith, be it scientific or religious. Because many of today’s issues are complex, this open dialog can lead to more engaged and involved decision-making. It requires that we remain vigilant and faithful to questioning, especially as many more novel contexts and situations arise. Our questioning can be improved and spurred on by more communication between these perspectives helping to insure a more thoughtful, if sometimes heated, debate within ourselves and with other people.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011