The Death of American Secularism

Since the virtual death of the Center for Inquiry and the inability of the so-called father of American secularism to find a compass, this critique from Jacques Berlinerblau repinted from New Humanist  Weep, O Not Jersualem; Weep ye sons and daughters of Zion (Not)

Illustration by Otto

Lest he be misunderstood, recently withdrawn Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum wanted to make it perfectly clear that he did, in fact, want to vomit upon reading a famous 1960 address by John F Kennedy. “Because the first line, the first substantive line in the speech,” a revving Santorum explained to journalist George Stephanopoulos in February, “says I believe in America where separation of church and state is absolute.” Santorum then disgorged: “To say people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up!”

Needless to say, not one syllable of JFK’s famed oration suggested that believing Americans have no role in the public square. The first substantive line in the speech (pace Santorum) was that “war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.” The young senator, soon to be president, proceeded to envisage a country “where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all … where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice.”

Sentiments such as these outrage the current, outrage-prone iteration of the GOP and its base. This is a base, incidentally, that has made quite a name for itself throughout the election season’s many raucous debates: it lustily booed the Golden Rule, wildly cheered the death penalty, and did not bat an eye when governor Rick Perry of Texas proposed that the United States re-invade Iraq.

The present Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney, already canvassed the Church/State beat during his first presidential run four years ago. He too invoked Kennedy, albeit respectfully and without reference to bodily fluids, as he lamented the establishment of a “religion of secularism”. That alleged faith sought “to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God”. Candidate Newt Gingrich, mired in the second division but seemingly enjoying himself nonetheless, routinely decries “Obama’s secular-socialist machine” on the campaign trail.

Which seems to be a baseless accusation since the president, like so many other Democrats, has given secularism the old heave-ho. How else to explain his supersizing of George W Bush’s much-maligned Office of Faith-based Initiatives? How else to make sense of the quasi-Christological disquisitions he delivers on occasions like the National Prayer Breakfast and Easter Prayer Breakfast? It was, after all, junior senator Obama who once cautioned his party against equating “tolerance with secularism” in The Audacity of Hope – a warning heeded by disconsolate Democrats who watched Bush flutter to a narrow victory in 2004 on the wings of Conservative Christian “values voters”.

When, how, and why did secularism become such a problematic and controversial idea in America? Why have both of the nation’s major political parties and three branches of federal government turned their backs on it? Why has jacking-up (as the American footballers like to say) an already woozy secularism become such a lucrative sport for political and religious demagogues alike?

The sheer volume of persuasive answers to these questions testifies to the current malaise of the secular idea in the United States. One failsafe explanation, however, is the 40-year ascent of religious conservatives in the United States. An almost direct correlation exists between their rise and the fall of those seemingly unobjectionable principles espoused by a figure like Kennedy. What happened to secularism? The Christian Right happened to secularism.

From humble beginnings in the post-Roe v. Wade maelstrom of the ’70s, this movement has grown into an immense, diverse, well-funded, political and cultural juggernaut. Its activists are everywhere, from local PTA Boards to statehouse to Washington DC. Its worldview is articulated and defended by a formidable cohort of pundits and intellectuals. Its ideological concerns (e.g., abortion, opposition to gay marriage or gay anything) dictate many of the policies of the Republican Party. And its convictions about America being a “nation under God” and/or a “Christian nation” do not lack for sympathisers on the United States Supreme Court.

That a traditionalist Catholic and anti-secularist such as Santorum could garner so much primary support in the South among White Evangelical Protestants – interestingly, his co-religionists can’t seem to stomach him – is significant. His success in Dixie casts light on the unprecedented and reactionary voter formations that began to coalesce in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Those would be the decades, not coincidentally, where a doctrine that scholars refer to as “legal secularism” achieved a position of prominence. If American secularism ever had a Golden Age it may have been triggered by Justice Hugo Black’s famous phrase in the 1947 Everson case: “That wall [of separation] must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” For the ensuing three decades – a period that overlapped with the anything-goes 1960s – religious traditionalists in the South and elsewhere observed the fruits of secularism with horror. Their return to the public square was meant to thwart the progress of what they saw as godlessness run amok.

Aside from conservative religious reaction, there is a second explanation for secularism’s crack-up: a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders.

Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund. As I demonstrate in my forthcoming book it is exceedingly difficult to figure out exactly who was steering the good ship secularism while the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons and Ralph Reeds of the nation suited up and took to the pitch. My own research indicates that in the waning decades of the past century, there was little in the way of effective direction and guidance provided to the secular base.

Then again, who was the base? And with that we arrive at one of the most debilitating ironies afflicting American secularism, if not secularism itself. If one looks at the history of this movement it is exceedingly difficult to gain clarity as to what precisely it stands for and what types of people it represents.

As best we can tell, the term “secularism” was coined somewhere around 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake. The intrepid English freethinker had taken a well-known and theologically freighted word, “secular,” and slapped an “ism” on its back. It is not widely realised how much definitional chaos and confusion accompanied its christening. My reading of Holyoake’s most comprehensive statement on the subject, his 1871 The Principles of Secularism, yields no fewer than a dozen descriptions of the term. These include: 1) utilitarianism, 2) freethought, 3) service for others, 4) positivism, 5) naturalism, 6) an emphasis on science, 7) this-worldliness, 8) sincerity, 9) materialism, 10) a form of religiousness, 11) the free search for truth, and 12) free speech, among others.

Of course there is a 13th definition, if you will – one that Holyoake championed for more than half a century. This would be his insistence that secularism was something other than theism or atheism. Such an approach baffled many Victorian infidels. None was more flummoxed than MP Charles Bradlaugh, who debated Holyoake for two nights in 1870 on this very question. There the relentless anti-theism of Bradlaugh – a sort of proto New Atheist – collided with Holyoake’s non-atheistic (and non-theistic) system of ethics. Their argument about the essence of this new “ism” was unresolved and remains so until this day.

A little ambiguity is always a good thing and social movements most likely benefit from a touch of ideological sprawl. All the better to pitch a big tent! But my contention is that secularism’s endemic inability to define itself, to reconcile whopping incongruities in its ideological platform, has contributed to the difficulties it experiences abroad and in the United States. Is it atheism? Is it a type of worldly ethics espoused by Holyoake? Is it separationism? Is it humanism, rationalism, secular humanism, anti-theism, naturalism, freethought, liberalism? What is it?

The potential secular base in America is currently rent by these divisions. Consider that secularists in the Golden Age were mostly religious people who advocated on behalf of separationism (as opposed to, let’s say, naturalism or humanism). Foremost among these were religious minorities. These included liberal Catholics like Kennedy and nearly every Jewish person in the country. There were also larger groups, such as certain Baptists, with deep theological roots in a tradition of religious liberty. Compare these secularists of faith to the current spate of American atheist groups, many of them virulently anti-religious, who increasingly speak in secularism’s name.

Culture Warriors love a void. With secularists perennially incapable of articulating and agreeing upon what they stand for, their opponents are more than happy to do it for them. Caspar Melville memorably quipped in The Guardian: “Secularism is the handy one-word distillation for all that is wrong in the modern world. Consumerism, divorce, drugs, Harry Potter, prostitution, Twitter, relativism, Big Brother, lack of moral compass, lack of community cohesion, lack of moral values, vajazzling.” A quarter-century ago things were scarcely different. In 1985 a New York Times writer joked that Secular Humanism stood for “everything they [the Religious Right] are opposed to, from atheism to the United Nations, from sex education to the theory of evolution to the writings of Hemingway and Hawthorne.”

The time has arrived for some sort of open, frank, melanomas-and-all discussion of what secularism does (and does not) entail. This conversation would benefit from a dash of critical distance and objectivity. In the academy, the subject of secularism lies pincered between two of the most ideologically rigid detractors imaginable. On the one side, a postmodernist and postcolonial Left has argued – in academic jargon of impressive incomprehensibility – that secularism is something called a “discursive formation” and a sinister policy henchman of “Enlightenment Reason” (a very odious thing in such quarters). On the other, the religious Right imagines it as an enemy of religious freedom and close personal friend of Nazism, Communism, Jihadism, what have you.

Until secularism starts to know and define itself, Kennedy’s principled opposition “to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion” runs the risk of being expunged, Santorum style, from the nation’s political body.

Jacques Berlinerblau’s How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedomis published in September by Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt

19 thoughts on “The Death of American Secularism

  1. Secularity and secularism were ridiculous ideas from the start. The religious minorities used it to ensure their own potential place in the public sphere, to not be outdone by majority religions. Atheists (I’m not going to touch Humanism with a 10-ft pole, because that’s the most confused ism of them all) hopped on the secularist bandwagon in complete ignorance of one simple human reality, SECULARITY CAN NOT EXIST. If a person is a faither, their faith will, knowingly or more likely unknowingly, guide their every decision in life. Therefore, secularity is but a weak mask meant to camouflage the presence of religion in the public sphere. Most newly converted atheists cling steadfastly to their religious morals, and think that one can remain “Christian in nature” but not in name, and without god… that is simply ridiculous. You are or you aren’t, and until atheists throw away religious values entirely, and stop trying to pretend these ‘values’ and ‘rules’ are “innate” this will be an ongoing barrier to the diminishing of the power of illusion and lies in our societies.
    In order to become a true atheist, one must rid him/herself of all religious morals, and reconsider all of human existence and life on earth through the eyes of science, not arbitrary moralities.
    I have little hope that this will change any time soon.

    • And it’s this very point that can never truly exist. If we really look it in the face, there is no such thing as religion being a ‘private matter’. Religions need to be disappeared, not privatised.

      • One’s philosophical position on God or whatever, can and is and has been, a purely private matter in many parts of the world for centuries. It came about through religion being a matter of the State and people holding religious beliefs privately other than those of the State. Religions don’t ‘need to be disappeared’. Ideas and beliefs evolve and matters of government can be distinct and operate as an umbrella for all varieties of people, as they do in England down through to the Antipodes. People should be free to have ideas. Our ideas don’t ‘need to be disappeared’.

      • “..a purely private matter in many parts of the world for centuries.”

        Of course, more common sense than anything. In polarized societies like the US, though, the sturm is after the drang relentlessly.

        Nothing would disappoint the Jerry Foulmouths or their PZ antagonists of this world more than to be asked to quietly shut up, grow up, and be polite.

      • To Stephanie and Dwight, even when religious people PRETEND to be secular, their religious convictions DO affect all the decisions they take. In that sense, we kid ourselves that religion is only private. It’s only ever superficially private. Most religions are inseparable from the state. Religions were in the past 3000 years viewed not even considered a category, belief in supernatural was completely integrated in every experienced minute of the day. It is only recently, since the French revolution, that people have pretended to practice religion privately. In France there was an attempt to disappear faith, but the powers that were were able to keep religion underground long enough for it to resurface, just like in Russia.
        As for Dwight’s funny/odd comment, I have no calling other than living in reality, not the supernatural. I have never experienced blind faith and have absolutely no desire to do so.

      • When atheists/secular people “PRETEND” to know what religious people think, religious people laugh. Hahahahaha. Modern, educated religious people do not hold beliefs which contradict the evidence of science. Modern, educated religious people often prefer to live in an inclusive society with the government an umbrella for all philosophical ideas. Muslims immigrating to New Zealand confirm this and tell the truth. Similarly, educated Muslims I have spoken to while in the UK, have moved here for the same reason – a better and fairer life for all people under an inclusive government. They are also free to be honest about how little or how much they believe of their religion. You believe alot of things without evidence, by the way.

      • To tnt666.
        Interesting allusions in your identity of the supernatural which modern religious people don’t believe.

      • To Steph… You cite NZ, I’ll cite Canada, we are in a phase of history where masses of religious people from poorer countries are coming to here to find freedom… to pursue whatever faith they like, making Canada MORE religious instead of less religious. Canada is loosing its secularity through this trend, and we in here have no constitutional protection. In our Constitution, gods DO rule Canada. Are we going forwards with this secular thing? no, we’re going backwards.
        As for my ID, there are no gods therefore no devils, my ID serves as a bait for faithers.

    • So gods do rule, but there are no gods. Would you like the whole world to become atheist? Then we could disappear all the gods. Shame about the devils.

  2. Ah, ambiguities, semantics, the ever-changing color of language. James Joyce’s “Interpretations of interpretations interpreted.” Orwell’s “Newspeak.” Shaw’s admonition that “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” All this and more are the fodder of philosophers, poets, politicians, prachers, and pontificators; not to mention blogers, not to mention them.

    Here we have a small word – secular – with a simple meaning – stuff that’s not religious. Then somebody comes along and sticks a damn “ism” on the end of it. It seems all words that end with “ism” are trouble. Make a word into some kind of doctrine and the intelligencia has a protracted and noisy come-apart. Specific meanings are assigned and staked out. Books are written, heated discussions are had. Everyone’s definition is the right one and those who disagree just don’t get it.

    The typical dictionary defines ism as “a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory.” There are a gazillion words with ism glued to the tail end. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But that discussion is for another time. In the present instance however, I argue, that the ism is a dangling, uh, let’s say a wannabe doctrine, cause or theory. Ergo, secularism would mean (1) a doctrine of something that’s not religious, or (2) the cause of things that are free of religion, and/or (3) a theory of anything other than religion. In other words, the word secularism is essentially meaningless and about as uselfull as an ashtray on a motorcycle.

    So, IMHO, anybody who uses this worthless term should be locked in a quiet room and required to read Joyce’s “Ulysses” from dusk to dawn until either they go insane or swears on one of their favorite family member’s grave that they will never, ever use the word secular again.

    • Herb sed: “Specific meanings are assigned and staked out. Books are written, heated discussions are had. Everyone’s definition is the right one and those who disagree just don’t get it.”

      We are blind men fondling the elephant. But useful in the end, like learning how a setting sun sets up photos of things. So too does omnidirectional examination produce some resolution fo the concept. Secular is a clean word admired like Venus.

      That said, when you come to the part in the movie where the Virgin Mary actually handled the Shroud – if you feel something – you are shorn of atheism.

  3. If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.

    Margaret Mead: Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)

    • The odds against winning the genetic lottery and finding oneself alive are so high, that “each diverse human gift” is indeed a champion, and it is incumbent on each of us to celebrate – perhaps perpetuate – each other’s presence on the podium.

      • That’s true Dwight – and I think you capture the essence of her wisdom as I understand her. A celebration of the cultural spirit and individual diversity and achievements through history. Margaret Mead is one of our treasured and outstanding scholars who advanced knowledge so much that we still hold her in the highest esteem.

      • If the odds were so bad, there wouldn’t be a looming 8 billion of us in the near future.
        Seeing each human as a gift is akin to seeing each cancer cell as a gift. Cancers may be part of nature, but Homo sapiens sapiens is the ultimate cancer, we grow and grow with no end in sight, we destroy everything in our path.

    • Margaret Mead. So 1930’s. Mead takes the classical individualism and Lockian liberalism (more ism’s to deal with) philosophies to imagine a world of altruists where everybody greets everybody else with a big Kumbaya and a high five.

      But here in the 2010’s, we’re are not as naive. We know now that it’s not just about genes. It’s about genes and memes. It’s the ever-present tension between the individual and the group. It’s the understanding that personal freedom is limited by the responsibility to others; that the id must be tempered by the superego. It’s the “duel inheritance theory,” which is all the rage now among sociologists and psychologists.

      Books are now being written about this duality. Most recently, “The Social Conquest of Earth” by E. O. Wilson. (Yes, the ant guy, late of Harvard.)

      • Mead may have said “Love each other as equals”, and this platitude was taken at face value for two generations (of liberals). Today we might say “Respect each other as individuals.” The latter is the more practical approach.

        E.O.Wilson has recanted his Sociobiology (gene sacrificing) in favour of cultural adaptations; itself a more plausible process. The elephant begins to take shape.

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