On The Conflict Over The Meaning And Cultural Influence of Political Secularism

In this post I just want to jot down some thoughts about a knotty issue. I probably will not make much progress in untangling all its strands but hopefully will stimulate a discussion that straightens things out at least a bit.

Is political secularism inherently neutral or antagonistic to religiosity? There are a couple of ways to answer this question. The establishment clause of the 1st Amendment aims to prevent the government from either favoring or disfavoring religion. Not only is the government not allowed to establish a specific religion but, contrary to the desires of many fundamentalist, politically right-wing Christians, the government should not even take an interest in encouraging people to private religiosity. It should be entirely neutral on the question as to whether people are religious or not.

Contemporary right-wing fundamentalist Christian seem generally okay with the prospect of the government not establishing a specific religion (or at least not a specific sect of Christianity!) as a national religion. But they want the government to actively promote private spirituality. They want the government exhorting people to prayer and they want not only prayers at government events but even are perfectly happy to hear clearly sectarian prayers which invoke a specific conception of God (or, even, Jesus himself) in these prayers.

In the most egregious and highest profile instance of this attitude, Rick Warren displayed an obnoxious disrespect to non-Christian Americans across the land, by responding to vocal concerns he would give a non-inclusive, sectarian prayer at Obama’s inauguration, by saying during the prayer itself that he made all his supplications to the divine “in the name of the One who changed my life—Yeshua, Esa, Jesus, Jesus”. Knowing that many fervently desired he omit all sectarian reference to the specifically Christian God, he defiantly insisted on saying the name four ways in order to stress unambiguously and selfishly that this prayer was made in the name of that God.

This was clearly an allusion to the Christian idea that prayers can only be made to God through Jesus who is the priest and intercessor before God. The Christian idea is that we cannot approach God directly but only through an intercessor. In the pre-Christian, Jewish era, this intercessor was a Levitical priest and after the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, this intercessor is Jesus. Apparently Rick Warren is convinced that America cannot come before God except through Jesus either. Not that I think that a secular country like America should as a collective “go before God” in the first place. But if we are going to do so ceremonially, the message sent should not be that we do so through the mediation of a particular religion’s intercessory agent as though he is a necessary and exclusive means of accessing the divine. This does not represent the full American public.

In contrast to this desire both to have the country explicitly encourage both religion in general and a specific religion in particular, the 1st Amendment is set up to prevent the government from either actively encouraging or discouraging religion at all. This is to be left entirely to private individuals and groups. In this way, the 1st Amendment mandates neutrality about religion. The irreligious, the religious, and the religious of all denominations are all alike free to adhere to their respective consciences without the government taking sides.

But despite this neutrality, the principle of secular government inherently favors secularism specifically insofar as it is definitionally an opposition to religious government and in principle an insistence that secular standards of reason, evidence, and value be the only decisive factors in governing. Specifically religious considerations are not to be given weight in decision making. Religious values may influence legislators’ minds but they can only validly influence legislation if they can also find legitimate secular expression and support.

The notion of “secularity” itself is a term of opposition to religiosity. The word “secular” evolved precisely to mean the “worldly” in contrast to the “non-worldly” church. In the New Testament the “world” is a hostile Other to the Church. Christians are not to be “of the world”. So, the secular has never been merely a comfortable alternative sphere to the church but always a realm which competed for power over the mind and the heart of the Christian. Christians enjoy the freedom of conscience that comes with the government not forcing them to accept any specific theological doctrines.

But there have always been Christians hostile to the means of protecting their own freedom of conscience taking the form of an outright secularism that not only permits autonomy to the irreligious mind but that actively excludes Christian from any explicit authority in lawmaking. Implicitly these Christians recognize that this represents an actual preference in the most important and most influential public decisions for thinking that is indifferent to Christianity at best and suspicious of its potential influence at worst. They recognize that this is a tacit legitimation of the ultimate independence and superiority of secular reason, standards of justice, and value priorities over explicitly religious ones.

Of course, on one level, they can understand the political secularism as not saying religious reasons and values are outright inferior but as ill fit for the specific context of government. And it is true that many a secular American legislator since the founding has assumed that the Church is an authority in matters of spirituality and private morality and that these powers over conscience in the most intimate and personal matters are no consolation prizes for religion.

But, nonetheless, over time political secularism has functioned as more than a principle of neutrality between the denominations which privately dominate the hearts and minds of the populace. Political secularism has made a robustly secular culture possible and cultural secularism has steadily undermined and eroded the power of religion in the culture. Politically secular values have increasingly become culturally secular values which have called loosened people’s abilities to unquestioningly defer to religious authorities in private matters any more than they have been accustomed to do so in public matters.

The more religion has effectively been denied legislative authority the more accustomed people are to compartmentalizing religion’s influence and to treating it as not an absolute authority. This makes relativizing and limiting its influence in personal matters much more natural over time. And fundamentalists recognize this effect the strongest. That’s why they want the government to recognize the dominion of their God. They realize that the consciousness of being under God’s command is undermined when people think that God does not control the weightiest matters of law. To impress people with the (illusory) sense that God is absolutely and inescapably sovereign over the universe and over their very souls, it really helps if you can at least make them first feel like he has authority over how the country is run.

Now, I am deeply intellectually and passionately emotionally committed to the value of secular culture. I think it is vital for the flourishing of science, art, technology, conscience, equality, justice, rational ethics, sexual positivity, and numerous other values that faith and regressive (or merely stagnating) religious traditions threaten to hamper or outright squelch.

And I not only want the implicitly dominantly secular culture that we presently have but I want an explicitly, self-consciously, proudly secular culture. I want people to own, identify, and explicitly value their secular natures and their secular value priorities rather than politically and implicitly culturally thrive precisely due to their secularity and then turn around and give undue credit to morally backward religions for being the glue holding society or their personal values together.

Most of Americans’ best values are not distinctively religious (at least in justification or application, regardless of any historical roots in religions) and the most creditable thing about the ways Americans form their values when they do so well is that they are willing to reject everything awful in their holy books and to only accept those religious values which are also provable on secular grounds. Precisely where people choose religious value judgments over or against secular judgment is where they make morally disastrous judgments.

So, I want my fellow Americans to give their secular consciences, secular practices, and secular reason the credit it deserves for creating one of the most prosperous and progressive cultures in world history. And I want us to recognize the ways that our European cousins have progressed even further than us in tandem with their further secularizations and rejections of undue religious influences.

But, here’s the catch. Much of political secularism’s power to secularize the American culture and conscience has been under the guise of neutrality about religion. As long as political secularism presents itself as just a moderator between a private sphere which is informally understood to be the dominion of religions to divvy among themselves, it has the legitimacy of neutrality. It is not taking any sides. When we self-conscious cultural secularists arise and actively question the dogmatic assumption that private spiritual and moral matters properly belong subjugated to religious authorities, we then give secularism itself a dog in the race for cultural power. In that context, political secularism looks more like favoritism for one philosophy of the good (the explicitly secular) against others (the varieties of religious ones).

Political secularism has always functionally been a delimitation and constraint of the power of religion and the opening for the autonomy of religiously-indifferent reason and conscience. It has always been an implicit recognition of the superior value of thought that is carried out unsuffocated by religion’s grip. But under the guise of only protecting religious conscience against the threat of state religion, and of only influencing matters of public governing and of not attacking religion’s morality or spirituality themselves, it has denied it has any further cultural ambitions.

But political secularism’s value priorities really have a power and influence as cultural value judgments too. And when they become embraced as cultural value judgments it is hard not to recognize that political secularism inherently tips in the favor of those cultural value judgments and against religious ones. When a judge acknowledges the limits of religion’s power to influence through the government under the principle of political secularism, it implicitly recognizes a truth advanced by cultural secularists: that religious authority is not the ultimate moral arbiter. When God is not allowed to be sovereign over the nation, the cultural secularist is affirmed in her insistence that God is not sovereign over everything as the fundamentalist is desperate to insist.

The existence of cultural secularism makes the hostility to religion’s legitimacy that is implicit in political secularism clearer. When contemplating political secularism’s values, their parallels (and, in some cases, their identicalness) to cultural secularism’s values becomes obvious and those who feel threatened by cultural secularism start to recognize the ways that political secularism is ultimately the source and moral legitimizer of cultural secularism.

While historically many religious people in the West have been able to be both politically secular and privately religious, when cultural secularism threatens the hegemony of religion in the private sphere, the fundamentalist reaction is to attack political secularism as cultural secularism’s powerful arm.

But even though cultural secularism reveals the ultimate implications of political secularism and threatens to stoke fundamentalist backlash against the political secularism itself, I think that we should nonetheless continue to advance self-conscious cultural secularism and not abandon it as counter-productive.

The reason is that the growth of implicit cultural secularism was already enough to inspire a fundamentalist backlash against political secularism. To stem the tide of cultural secularization the fundamentalists have for several decades been pushing the policies of religion promotion. They have advanced symbolic gestures, legislation, and an ideology that insists that personal religious devotion and deference to religious guidance are moral prerequisites for just governance.

They are able to do this when people assume that political secularism only requires that the government not explicitly curb religious power and that it is nonetheless capable of both acknowledging and outright encouraging religion’s private authority over the moral and spiritual conscience. When the assumption is allowed to stand that essentially everyone (or at least everyone moral) must derive their moral and spiritual values from religious sources, then the government acknowledging religious authority over the conscience is just the government acknowledging a universal moral fact. If religious practice is universal, then the government is not favoring anyone when it is promoting general religiosity.

So, this is why self-conscious cultural secularism is vital to the preservation of a robust political secularism. When the explicitly irreligious make it loud and clear that there really are people who deny the lie that morality is inherently religious, it becomes clear that there really is an existing group of people who fall outside the sphere of religious authority over conscience and that the universal conscience that governmental decisions must justify themselves to is not a specifically religious one.

The government is not neutral enough when it respects all religions equally but only when it respects disbelief as much as belief and does not prejudice itself towards the promotion of either belief or disbelief. Unless there is a visible community of self-conscious secularists the lie that the authority of faith traditions is an indisputably recognized and secularly promotable good is undermined.

The existence of self-conscious secularists is necessary to put a face on the unfairness and prejudice of the government promoting religious conceptions of the good at the expense of irreligious ones, rather than being truly politically secular and allowing the only basis for legislation to be public, religiously-neutral reason and public, religiously-indifferent conscience.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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